Where will we fight our next war? This question was posed recently in a conversation with my sister-in-law about living in the war state. My first thought was that the next war might pop up somewhere on the African continent. After all, the U.S. Africa Command has been expanding as the administration’s chase after al Qaeda affiliates has migrated south. My second thought, though, was about the assumption, embedded in the question, that America’s contemporary wars start and finish—one war is over before the next war begins—rather than war just continues, shifting from venue to venue. The global war on terror is a nonstop affair. It does not end, but it does possess a certain rhythm, an ebb and flow of featured enemies.
So, on second thought, the question should be rephrased: Who will be our next enemy? Enemy making is an ongoing project. The current candidate, at this writing, is a fellow named Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the self-proclaimed leader of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). He has been recently decreed the world’s most powerful jihadist leader (Patrick Cockburn, The Independent, 11 June 2014). Indeed, he may be Osama bin Laden’s true heir, according to David Ignatius (Washington Post, 10 June 2014)—violent, virulent, anti-American.
Iraq is back in the news with the loss of the city of Mosul to Baghdadi’s ISIS insurgents. And the war is widening into Syria with the decision to use CIA-trained guerrilla forces to fight Baghdadi and to deploy U.S. special operations forces to train a Free Syrian Army in opposition to Syrian President Bashar al-Asad. It is an extension and continuation of the long, almost seamless global war against al Qaeda extremists. Symbolically, Asad now is to al Qaeda what Saddam Hussein was before to al Qaeda.
Moreover, Baghdadi symbolizes the lessons to be learned from the mistakes of the past in fighting the war on terrorism. He, as the most powerful jihadist leader, is living proof that splinter groups—what the administration calls al Qaeda affiliates and extremists—are now more of a worry than al Qaeda itself. We have to learn how to fight the war better. The war itself is not the mistake. The war did not Baghdadi make. Nor did it make previous or future jihadists. The U.S. was just slow to learn the right war-fighting lessons.
Baghdadi’s candidacy for the position of enemy number one teaches us once again that the war must go on, that “radical offshoots of al-Qaeda are expanding their ambitions and directly threatening American national security interests,” that Syria and Iraq are an “interchangeable battlefield” (Anne Gearan and Dan Lamothe, Washington Post, 10 June 2014), and that chaos and extremism in the Middle East is “resurgent” (Ignatius).
New faces of the enemy ritualistically renew a war uninterrupted even momentarily by peace. The rhythm of enemy making keeps the public and its leaders synchronized in mutual resignation to the war state.