Regional and Local Conflicts in the War on Terror

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

Mark N. Katz

Senior Fellow

At the end of the ninth article in this series, I argued, “The emergence of…local opposition to Islamic radicals, intolerant behavior on the part of Islamic radicals believing themselves victorious, and divisions among Islamic radicals could provide the United States and its allies with ample opportunity to work with others against radical Islamic forces.”  In the three subsequent articles, I sought to demonstrate that these opportunities were highly likely to arise.  Some may object, though, that the analysis presented here assumes that radical Islamic forces are going to become stronger than they are now, and that the U.S. “opportunities” that this will lead to are not exactly ones that Washington is looking forward to.  Surely it would be better to prevent Islamic radical forces from becoming so powerful that the United States is reduced to exploiting the opportunities that will arise as their strength increases.

It would, of course, clearly be better to prevent radical Islamic forces from growing stronger.  The withdrawal of American forces from Iraq and Afghanistan, though, is certainly not going to result in their getting weaker.  But whether or not American forces remain in Afghanistan or even Iraq, radical Islamic forces have plenty of other opportunities to grow stronger in other countries (as well as in Afghanistan in particular).  This is due to the nature of the “War on Terror” as was described in the second article in this series:  “[W]hile the U.S. government on the one hand and al-Qaeda and many of its affiliates on the other see themselves as engaged in an all-pervasive worldwide struggle, the ‘War on Terror’ era includes many other conflicts in which the United States vs. al-Qaeda element is present, but which also have their own distinct issues and causes. These include the Israeli-Palestinian, Iraqi, Afghan, Yemeni, Somali, Indian-Pakistani and many other conflicts.”

One way for the United States and its allies to not only prevent the growth of Islamic radicalism, but actually reduce its strength, would be to bring about a resolution to the various local and regional conflicts that are linked to the overall War on Terror.  The resolution of any particular conflict would reduce the motivation to join or support radical Islamic groups of those for whom that conflict is the most salient.  If, for example, the Kashmir dispute could be resolved, a few Pakistani radicals might then take up arms for the Palestinian, Chechen or some other cause — but probably not the majority for whom Kashmir was their primary grievance.  Similarly, most Palestinian radicals are primarily concerned about the Israel/Palestine issue; most Chechens are primarily concerned about the Chechen issue, etc.  Resolving the component conflicts in the overall War on Terror would reduce the recruitment base for groups like al-Qaeda, who want this “war” to be a global conflict.

Further, resolving any one conflict could have a positive impact on other conflicts.  An Israeli-Palestinian peace settlement, for example, would not only benefit the local parties; it could also help the United States improve its relations with the Muslim world as a whole.  Radical Islamists who reject an agreement accepted by the Palestinians themselves and moderate Muslims elsewhere could well find themselves marginalized. Similarly, peacefully resolving the India-Pakistani conflict over Kashmir would not only end Pakistani assistance to radical Muslim groups targeting India (indeed, this would have to happen in order to resolve this conflict), but could also end Pakistani support for the Taliban, thus facilitating a resolution to the conflict in Afghanistan.  Genuine peaceful reconciliation in Iraq would reduce the incentive for Sunni Arabs there to ally with al-Qaeda in Iraq and for Shia Arabs to depend on Iran.  Resolving the Yemeni government’s differences with the Houthi rebels in the north and the secessionists in the south would result in more resources being available to combat al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (whose strength in Yemen is partially due to the Yemeni government’s preoccupation with other domestic threats).  The list could go on, but the point should already be clear:  resolving the individual conflicts that are linked to the “War on Terror” could reduce the incentive for those primarily concerned with any particular one that gets resolved to join or support radical Islamic movements, and to marginalize such movements through providing peaceful alternatives for dissatisfied groups to redress their grievances and achieve their aspirations.

Yet while resolving the local and regional conflicts linked to it would undoubtedly be the best way to defuse the War on Terror, this approach has so far proven to be exceptionally difficult — even futile — in some cases.  If resolving all — or, indeed, any — of the individual conflicts linked to the War on Terror were simple, this would already have been accomplished.  And if this could have been accomplished in enough cases, what has become the all-consuming War on Terror might either have been a much smaller-scale affair or might not have occurred at all.

The intractability of local and regional conflicts at present, though, is not something new.  There were also many such conflicts during the Cold War.  Back then, the pervasiveness of the Soviet-American dimension in virtually all of the world’s conflicts was so great that their local roots and causes were often overlooked.  Thus, when Soviet-American relations dramatically improved at the very end of the Cold War, hope emerged that many of the Third World’s hitherto intractable conflicts could finally be resolved.  Needless to say, many of them were not.

A personal anecdote illustrates just how intractable some of these conflicts have proven to be.  The United States Institute of Peace commissioned me to organize a series of seminars during the 1989-90 academic year on the opportunities and obstacles to Soviet-American conflict resolution in the Third World.  In 1991, the papers for this project were published in a book that I edited entitled, Soviet-American Conflict Resolution in the Third World.  The chapters discussed several conflicts (or conflict-prone situations):  security in Asia and the Pacific, an Arab-Israeli peace settlement, Afghanistan, Southern Africa, the Horn of Africa and Cambodia.  In the Introduction, I noted that, while the authors did not share common views on several issues, there was “general agreement among them on two points:  (1) Soviet-American agreement that regional conflicts should be resolved is not sufficient to bring about resolution; and (2) because each regional conflict is unique, successful methods for fully or partially resolving one conflict will not necessarily work for others” (p. 7).

What is salient about this volume at present, though, is not what either I or any of the other contributors wrote in it some 20 years ago, but what became of the six cases that we studied.  Four of these cases are still not resolved.  With North Korea issuing nuclear threats and China having grown more assertive, tension in the Asia Pacific region has only increased.  An overall Arab-Israeli peace settlement still has not been achieved and does not appear likely to be any time soon.  Afghanistan is still in the midst of a seemingly unending war.  And the Horn of Africa is wracked by chronic conflict.  By contrast, conflict resolution did occur in Southern Africa, but fighting in Angola continued from the end of the Cold War until 2002.  In addition, conflict resolution in Cambodia was reasonably successful, though implementation of the 1991 Paris Peace Accords required direct UN administration of that country in 1992-93.

Comparing the status of these six cases at the end of the Cold War with their status now shows that there is no guarantee that regional and local conflicts can be resolved even after going on for decades.  On the other hand, it is not impossible to resolve them either, though this can take a very long time. Longstanding local and regional conflicts linked to the War on Terror include the Israeli-Palestinian, Iraqi, Afghan, Yemeni, Somali, Sudanese, Indian-Pakistani, Chechen, Uighur and Moro ones.  Others still may erupt.  Past experience suggests that while it may be possible — with great effort — to resolve some of them, resolving all or even most of them is highly unlikely any time soon.  And those that are not resolved will continue to provide the best opportunities for al-Qaeda and other radical Islamist movements to gain influence.

In policy terms, then, the United States and its allies should earnestly work toward resolving regional and local conflicts in order to undercut the appeal of radical Islamic forces in various parts of the Muslim World.  But given the extreme difficulty of resolving regional and local conflicts as well as the low likelihood that many — or even any — of them can be resolved in the foreseeable future, the United States and its allies must be prepared for the appeal of radical Islamist ideology to remain strong — or perhaps grow even stronger — where these conflicts are not resolved.  Thus, it will be necessary to pursue strategies, such as those discussed here, designed to counter Islamic revolutionary movements and regimes that remain strong or are growing stronger in those parts of the Muslim World where regional and local conflicts persist.

In order to successfully reduce the intensity and scope of the overall War on Terror, the U.S. and its allies (both Muslim and non-Muslim) will need to deal with the many problems that compose it.  Resolving or otherwise successfully dealing with any one problem will not end the War on Terror, but will serve to reduce its intensity and scope wherever this can be done.  But how can each of the component problems that make up the War on Terror be resolved, ameliorated, or contained?  What my colleagues and I in the U.S. Institute of Peace project observed two decades ago is still true today:  because “each regional conflict is unique, successful methods for fully or partially resolving one conflict will not necessarily work for others.”  Each of the individual problems that comprise the War on Terror will have to be dealt with individually; there is no one magic formula that will resolve them all.

I cannot address how each and every one of its component problems could or should be addressed in order to reduce the scope and intensity of the overall War on Terror.  What I will do, though, is to examine in turn how four of its most important component problems — Israel/Palestine, Iran, Pakistan, and Yemen — relate to the overall War on Terror, and what the opportunities and obstacles exist for de-linking each of them from it.

Mark N. Katz is a Visiting Senior Fellow at the Middle East Policy Council and a Professor of Government at George Mason University. Links to many of his publications can be found on his website:

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  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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