The “War on Terror:” Future Directions

  • 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

One prediction about the “War on Terror” can be made with great confidence: It is not going to end any time soon, or even dramatically subside. There are several possible ways, though, in which it could evolve. Four possible scenarios concerning its future direction will be examined here: the best case (from the viewpoint of America and many of its allies), the worst case, a plausibly optimistic case and a plausibly pessimistic case.

Best Case: Holding the Jihadists at Bay

From the American viewpoint, the best-case scenario is for radical Islamists to make no further significant political gains despite the impending withdrawal of American forces from Iraq and Afghanistan and despite American foreign policy remaining basically the same as it has been up to now. That is, the United States would continue to support Israel as well as numerous authoritarian governments in the Muslim world. For even if jihadists cannot be eliminated or prevented from launching terrorist attacks on civilian targets in the West as well as the Muslim world, just preventing them from overthrowing governments allied to the United States or significantly weakening them would be an important accomplishment. If they could be held at bay for long enough, the jihadists’ aura of success — as well as support for them — might be greatly diminished. The jihadists might then be successfully (even if slowly) dealt with through a combination of (1) intelligent police work, taking advantage of internal rifts among them to co-opt some, and (2) economic and perhaps even political reforms that provide better opportunities than the jihadists can for ordinary people to achieve their aspirations.

This is not an unattractive scenario. It does not, however, appear to be a realistic one. So long as authoritarian governments generate internal opposition (which they usually do), and so long as American support for these regimes generates resentment against the United States (which it often does), the opponents of these regimes draw two reasonable conclusions. First, that the United States is hypocritical by supporting democracy in the West, but not in the Muslim world. Second, that they should actively or passively support anti-American opposition movements, since eliminating U.S. influence from their country is likely to be seen as a necessary condition for removing the unpopular authoritarian regime that Washington supports.

Not all authoritarian regimes in the Muslim world, of course, are destined to be overthrown by radical Islamist movements like the U.S.-backed shah of Iran was in 1979. Indeed, authoritarian regimes in the Muslim world, whether backed by the United States or not, have been remarkably good at staying in power since the 1970s and even earlier. But is it reasonable to expect that no other pro-Western, or even anti-Western but secular authoritarian, regime in the Muslim world — of which there are many — will be replaced by a radical Islamist one? Such an expectation does not seem reasonable. It should be remembered that revolution does not occur just via a slow-moving insurgency that might be stopped, but also via a rapid, unexpected coup d’état, where key components of the security services have been converted (sometimes clandestinely) to a revolutionary ideology such as radical Islamism.

It seems far more reasonable, then, to expect that more Islamic revolutionary regimes are going to arise as the “War on Terror” continues.

Worst Case: The Rise of the Caliphate

Believing that it was primarily the resistance effort of the mujahedeen that not only brought about the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan but also the collapse of communism and the downfall of the Soviet Union, Osama bin Laden optimistically predicted prior to 9/11 that the jihadists could also force the United States out of the Muslim world. Indeed, he suggested that defeating the United States would be easier than defeating the USSR since Americans were far more averse to casualties. Bin Laden cited the withdrawal of American forces from Lebanon in 1982 and from Somalia in 1992 after spectacular attacks against them as proof of this proposition. Once the United States had withdrawn from the Muslim world, the governments it supported there would fall, and the caliphate uniting the entire Muslim world would arise.

Bin Laden may have anticipated that the 9/11 attacks on targets in the United States itself would result in the American withdrawal from the Muslim world that he had predicted and hoped for. But if this was his expectation, he clearly miscalculated. Far from leaving the Muslim world, the Bush administration launched military interventions, first in Afghanistan, which forced Bin Laden into hiding across the border in Pakistan, and then in Iraq. This increased American involvement in these two Muslim countries, added to the greater American presence in the Muslim world generally following 9/11, meant that the second and third parts of Bin Laden’s prediction did not come true either.

The United States, however, is in the process of withdrawing from Iraq and will soon begin withdrawing from Afghanistan. Nor does it seem likely that Washington will be willing to engage in any other major military intervention in the Muslim world any time soon. Does this mean that Bin Laden’s prediction now has a greater chance of realization? Was he just a decade off in its timing? For if the U.S. withdrawal leads to the downfall of some U.S.-backed governments in the Muslim world (much as the U.S. withdrawal from Indochina in 1973 was followed by the downfall of U.S.-allied governments South Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia in 1975), and if the new radical Islamist governments united into a “caliphate” that threatened to absorb even more countries, this certainly would be the worst case for the United States.

But, just as the best-case scenario outlined here appears unrealistic, this worst case does too, for three reasons. First, American withdrawals from Iraq and Afghanistan are not likely to lead to a U.S. departure from the Muslim world as a whole. While American domestic politics in the wake of the long, frustrating conflicts in these two countries may well result in a U.S. unwillingness to directly intervene elsewhere, this does not mean that it will not supply arms and other assistance to regional governments fighting against radical Islamist forces.

In addition, even in the unlikely case that America withdrew from the Muslim world, Bin Laden’s assumption that the governments it had been supporting would then fall is highly questionable. These regimes, many of which have lasted for decades, are rather adept at crushing their opponents and remaining in power. They may well be able to continue doing so either with assistance from other countries (such as Russia, China or India), or with their own resources. While it is unrealistic to expect that no existing government in the Muslim world will be overthrown by radical Islamist forces following the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan, it is also unrealistic to expect that all — or even many — of them will be. As was the case of Tunisia in January 2011, long ruling-authoritarian leaders may be overthrown, not by radical Islamists, but by a democratic revolution (or at least an aspiring one).

Finally, even if some radical Islamist regimes came to power, it is highly unlikely that they would merge into a larger, single state, or remain merged for long, in the unlikely event that some of them did. Someone possessing the skill, determination, ruthlessness and overweening self-confidence that it takes to overthrow an existing regime and set up his own is simply not the type of person who would then surrender power to someone similar in another country for ideological reasons. Such a person would be far more likely to want to retain control over what he went to such effort to seize, and to find or invent the ideological justification necessary to do so. Such a person would also be far more likely to convince himself that he should be acknowledged as the leader of the transnational Islamist revolutionary movement and that nobody else is as deserving. Like the Marxist-Leninist and Arab-nationalist revolutionary waves, the spread of the radical Islamic revolutionary wave to more countries is less likely to lead to unity among them than to rifts and rivalries.

Plausible Optimistic Case: Withdrawal Goes Well

It is widely anticipated that after the United States withdraws from Iraq and Afghanistan, things will go very badly in these two countries. Iraq may descend into civil war or fall under Iranian influence. The Taliban may return to power in Afghanistan. The enormous sacrifices of America and its allies will have been made for nothing.

These predictions are partially based on what happened after America and other countries ended long, unsuccessful counterinsurgency efforts. After fighting there for nearly a decade without being able to defeat the Marxist insurgencies there, American forces withdrew from Indochina in early 1973, and the communists took over in South Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia in 1975. Similarly, following the withdrawal of Soviet forces from Afghanistan in 1989, after fighting there for nearly a decade without being able to defeat them, the Marxist regime that Moscow had been defending fell to mujahedeen forces in 1992. Many other similar examples could be mentioned.

But this is not always what happens. Although Yemen is usually not thought of as a successful example of anything, the end of Egypt’s long, drawn-out counterinsurgency effort in North Yemen in the 1960s was quite different from the outcome America experienced in Indochina or the Soviet Union experienced in Afghanistan. Nasser sent thousands of Egyptian troops to bolster the fledgling Yemen Arab Republic declared on September 26, 1962, when the newly installed monarch was overthrown. The king, however, was able to flee the capital, rally the northern tribes, and obtain aid from Saudi Arabia. Instead of winning the simple victory that he hoped for, Nasser found himself bogged down in a protracted war in which Egypt (which had far more troops in the country than the North Yemeni republic they were defending) was unable to defeat the Saudi-backed royalists. After the humiliating defeat at the hands of Israel that Egypt, Jordan and Syria suffered in the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, Nasser sought improved relations with Saudi Arabia and agreed to withdraw all Egyptian forces from North Yemen forthwith. It was widely believed at the time that the North Yemeni republic would soon fall, especially when royalists completely surrounded the capital, Sanaa. The Yemen Arab Republic, though, did not fall. Benefiting from a brief but vital Soviet airlift of supplies as well as dissension within the ranks of the royalists, the republic survived. The war finally came to an end in 1970 with the help of a Saudi-mediated settlement allowing the royalists (minus the royal family) to become integrated into the republic.

Nor is North Yemen the only such example. At the end of the Cold War, Cuban forces withdrew from Angola, where they had been aiding the Marxist regime against a white South African-backed insurgency. Vietnamese forces withdrew from Cambodia, where they had been aiding the pro-Hanoi regime they had installed in 1978 to fight against the Chinese- and Thai-backed Khmer Rouge seeking to return to power. In both cases, the beleaguered government survived and remained in power (albeit after years of more fighting in Angola and UN intervention in Cambodia).

Could something like this happen in either Iraq or Afghanistan? While it is not flattering to the American and other Coalition forces defending them, their withdrawal may actually serve to enhance the legitimacy of these governments as well as give them the opportunity to deal with their opponents in their own manner, instead of being constantly second-guessed and micro-managed by Washington. Further, just as their opponents have been able to make use of the large American presence to label the Iraqi and Afghan governments as acting on behalf of the United States, the absence of American forces might well afford these governments the opportunity to label their opponents as acting on behalf of Pakistan in the case of Afghanistan, and on behalf of Iran or its other neighbors in the case of Iraq.

Furthermore, it is just possible that these two countries might actually become prosperous. In a Wall Street Journal op-ed piece published December 21, 2010, Bartle Bull (the founder of an Iraq-focused investment bank) predicted that Iraq will surpass Saudi Arabia as the world’s largest oil exporter and may experience “one of the largest economic reconstruction and development booms in history.” The enormous mineral wealth possessed by Afghanistan — which came to light as a result of the American presence there — gives that country the potential for its own development boom. Forecasts such as these, of course, will appear naively optimistic to many—including many in these two countries. But predictions in 1975 that both China and Vietnam would experience strong economic growth, would have strong trade relations with the West, and would still be ruled by their authoritarian communist parties would also have appeared naively optimistic.

It is by no means preordained that things will go as well in Iraq and Afghanistan following American withdrawals as has been outlined here. But as the experience of other countries suggests, the withdrawal of the foreign forces that had been defending them does not necessarily lead to the downfall of those regimes. Similarly, countries impoverished by war and revolution can still go on to become prosperous.

Plausible Pessimistic Case: A Multitude of Conflicts

There is, of course, no guarantee that things will go well in Iraq and Afghanistan after American troops depart. Even if they do go well in one or both of these countries, there is no guarantee that things will go well everywhere else in the Muslim world. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine that more authoritarian regimes in the Muslim world — including some currently allied to the United States — will not be overthrown and replaced by highly anti-American radical Islamist regimes. But if, as discussed earlier, more radical Islamist regimes do appear on the world stage, leadership differences alone make it highly unlikely that they will unite into a single state, become allied or remain so for long.

A number of other negative consequences, though, are likely to emerge along with these new radical Islamist regimes. First, and most obvious: since many predominantly Muslim states also happen to be major petroleum producers, radical Islamic revolutions that occur in these or neighboring states will lead to disruptions in petroleum supplies to the world market, or to fears that this will occur. Either one of these can lead to spikes in petroleum prices that negatively affect importing countries.

Further, as Stephen M. Walt observed in Revolution and War (1996), revolution in one country very often leads to war between it and others. Even when war does not result from revolution, tensions between new revolutionary regimes and neighboring states tend to increase rather than decrease. The more Islamic revolutionary regimes come into being, the more wars and tensions between them and neighboring states are also likely to occur. And states that suddenly find themselves to be the neighbors of these new, unwelcome revolutionary regimes are likely to call upon America and others for protection. The new revolutionary regimes may call upon others for protection too. If this unfolds alongside a heightened competition among existing and aspiring great powers worldwide, these rivalries may become enmeshed in the local rivalries between revolutionary and non-revolutionary states.

The most important consequence of additional radical Islamist regimes coming to power, though, may be the intensification and increase in internal conflicts in countries where they do. As the sixth article in this series pointed out, a significant obstacle to President George W. Bush’s ambitious plans for the democratization of the greater Middle East is the legacy of history: the rule of ethnic or sectarian minorities in many states and/or the desire of ethnically and distinct regions within them to secede. This legacy of history, however, poses difficulties not only for democratization, but also for radical Islamist regimes. One of the aspirations of Islamist ideology is that it can overcome a predominantly Muslim country’s existing ethnic (if not sectarian) conflicts by establishing a common Islamic identity as the primary one. The problem, though, with authoritarian Islamist (as well as other) regimes is that they tend not to be inclusive, but rather to be (or become) dominated by a specific group. The Islamic Republic of Iran, for example, is ruled mainly by Shia Persians and not by non-Persians, especially not by non-Shias. The Islamist regime that has ruled Sudan since 1989 has been dominated by Sunni Arabs, not by non-Muslims (such as those in the South) or non-Arab Muslims (such as those in Darfur). The Taliban in Afghanistan is a predominantly Pushtun movement that holds little appeal for non-Pushtuns.

Should radical Islamist regimes come to power elsewhere, it is doubtful that they will rule in a less intolerant and authoritarian manner than the Iranian, Sudanese or Afghan Taliban regimes have done. If so, while they may come to power hoping to spread their revolution to other countries, their more lasting impact may be the initiation or intensification of internal conflicts within their own country that either threaten or bring about its breakup. Sudan is a case in point. The radical Islamic regime that came to power there in 1989 earnestly set about attempting to export its brand of revolution to neighboring countries. Not only did it fail at this, but its efforts to impose strict Islamic rule on non-Muslim southern Sudan resulted in a fierce war that has resulted in the imminent independence of South Sudan, and to a secessionist movement in Darfur. This may also be the fate of other countries where radical Islamist regimes come to power.

While the worst case of a united radical Islamist caliphate emerging is highly implausible, the pessimistic scenario of more Islamic revolutions leading to more conflicts within and between states seems all too plausible. Many conflicts involving small countries will not pose the same existential threat to the rest of the world that a hostile caliphate stretching from Morocco to Indonesia would. On the other hand, managing the many conflicts that this plausible pessimistic scenario envisages will not be easy. Even worse: the resolution of any one conflict may have little impact on the many others not linked to it.


It is not yet clear which of the cases outlined here most accurately predicts the future of the “War on Terror,” or whether it will take a direction that was not envisaged here. Indeed, the actual path it takes may be a mixed one: going well (from the Western and moderate Muslim viewpoint) in some places, not so well in others, and horrifically in others still. What does seem certain, though, is that the “War on Terror” will continue for years or even decades to come.

Will it ever end? I will turn my attention next to how this might occur.

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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