As in Afghanistan, Ending Our Endless Wars Will Not Be Painless

At the end of a quiet, dusty street in an industrial suburb outside the Jordanian capital of Amman sits the house of one of the most infamous radical Islamic clerics in the world. Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi has spent a lifetime promoting a militant religious ideology that has helped inspire armed movements around the world. A former carpet salesman, his activism has brought him years in prison and made him an internationally notorious figure. Now aged 60, the lanky Palestinian-Jordanian was described in a 2006 West Point Combating Terrorism Center study as “the key contemporary ideologue in the jihadi intellectual universe” and “the most influential living jihadi theorist.”

In the summer of 2017, I found myself sitting on one of the flower-printed couches in Maqdisi’s living room. At that time the militant group Islamic State was still expanding its so-called caliphate with a campaign of horrific violence that had set the entire region on edge. Maqdisi opposed the group. But he had also played an indirect role in its creation. During a prison stretch years ago, Maqdisi had been the mentor to a former street thug who was locked up with him. That man would one day become known worldwide as Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the bloodthirsty founder of Al Qaeda in Iraq. The two men later fell out over Al Qaeda’s massacres of Shia civilians during the Iraq War. Zarqawi himself was killed in a 2006 U.S. airstrike on his rural safehouse. But the terrorist group that he created survived, mutating over time into the abomination that now called itself the Islamic State.

Maqdisi had agreed to meet with me and a British colleague for a story about his imprisoned brother-in-law, an American citizen named Shawki Omar. Judging by his home, Maqdisi seemed to live up to his ascetic and scholarly public image. The brown, sand-colored stone walls of his living room were empty, save for some wooden bookcases stuffed with leather-bound volumes on history and religion. A few pieces of his prison artwork were perched on the shelves, including an ornate wooden sailboat that he had built out of popsicle sticks. A fuzzy, green rug lay across the ground between the couches.

Abu-Muhammad-al-Maqdisi-1-1583534668

Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi at his home in a suburb of Amman, Jordan, in July of 2017.

Photo: Murtaza Hussain/The Intercept

After a few somewhat tense minutes of waiting, Maqdisi came in to receive us. Tall and lanky with a scraggly, wolf-like brown beard, he was dressed in a long blue thobe and skullcap. At least in terms of his personal demeanor, he was less fearsome than his fiery public statements and reputation suggested. Like any other leader — whether of a basketball team, a right-wing militia, or a religious extremist movement — Maqdisi is conventionally charismatic. In conversation he is easygoing and even funny, climbing onto the floor at one point to demonstrate for us how his brother-in-law had kicked the door of his cell to gain the attention of his guards while in solitary confinement. I mention these details not to soften any judgement of the man and his extremist worldview, which I find genuinely chilling, but to explain how ordinary people could come under the influence of such a person.

Maqdisi had agreed to answer our questions about his jailed relative, whose American wife and children also lived in Amman. But there were some other things I wanted to ask him about as well. At the time of our meeting, the entire world seemed to be coming apart with nerves because of terrorist attacks carried out by militant Islamists. It was true that Maqdisi was opposed to the Islamic State, not least because of their attacks against other militant groups like Al Qaeda. But he still remained part of a broader extremist movement that was effectively at war with the governments of the region, and by extension their supporters in the West.

“Nothing will stop as long as the issues that drive people to join this movement still exist. Even if you terminate one jihadist group, another one will rise in its place.”

This was a long conflict and the battle with the Islamic State seemed to be only the latest chapter. It was when I asked him what it would take to end this war that he dropped the easygoing manner he had held for most of our conversation.

“This movement will not end because people are still looking for solutions to the problems of the dictatorial regimes and the conflict with Israel,” he said. His voice had turned steady and serious, as though he was reading the text of a communique that he had issued many times before. “Leftist, socialist, and Muslim Brotherhood groups have all tried and failed to address these problems. But the youth are still looking for new models to create change.”

Maqdisi was a revolutionary and believed that he had found an ideology that could not be defeated by force of arms. The problem with the United States, he said, was that it was still fixated on the idea that if it simply killed all its enemies its own problems would go away. This was a strategy that would never result in victory but would guarantee a war that never ended.

“They believe that if they kill all the leaders the fighting will just stop,” Maqdisi continued. His tone and manner had become distant, but he held his eye contact, I suspect to gauge my reaction to his words. “But nothing will stop as long as the issues that drive people to join this movement still exist. Even if you terminate one jihadist group, another one will rise in its place.”

I was reminded of that meeting with Maqdisi years ago while considering a piece of news that many people, including myself, had once considered impossible. After almost 19 years at war in Afghanistan, the United States had signed a peace agreement with the Afghan Taliban. Last week Donald Trump reportedly spoke on the phone with the Taliban’s leadership to seal the deal, the first time an American president had communicated directly with the group. On social media a photo even emerged of Mike Pompeo clasping hands with a senior Taliban negotiator.

Nearly two decades after the September 11 attacks, a war-weary public in the United States has finally begun demanding a conclusion to the “endless wars” that began under the George W. Bush administration. Outside of the most extremist corners of the D.C. blob, there seems to be a broad consensus that the wars should end. The question of how to actually accomplish that is a thornier one. In some cases, the U.S. has attempted to withdraw from places like Iraq, only to be sucked back in by the carnage that leaving a vacuum created.

The Trump administration’s agreement with the Afghan Taliban is in some sense an unsavory one. It does little to settle differences among Afghans, including other extremist factions and a corrupt Afghan central government that has been propped up with U.S. support. The Taliban is also not a noble resistance group. It is a brutal fundamentalist movement with the blood of many innocent Afghans on its hands. Negotiating with them is a hard pill to swallow for Americans, whose foreign policy mission theoretically includes spreading liberal values abroad. But if we are serious about ending endless war, making bitter compromises with our enemies will be a necessary component of that. In that sense then, the agreement with the Taliban might even be a model.

Islamists across the region like Maqdisi long ago took note of how successful the United States had been at crushing secular nationalist and leftist movements in their countries. As a result they’ve girded themselves for much more suffering and a much longer fight. ”We are not liberals like Allende and Mossadegh, whom the C.I.A. can snuff out,” Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei once said about the clerical-led Islamic Republic he leads. After four decades, there’s reason to consider that he might be right.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, right, greets attendees in Doha, Qatar, ahead of a signing ceremony for a peace agreement between the United States and the Afghan Taliban on Feb. 29, 2020.

Photo: Fatih Aktas/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

There are two options then for American foreign policy going forward. The U.S. can keep waging wars that inflict suffering on entire societies without changing their politics for the better. Or we could negotiate dignified and strategic withdrawals that preserve America’s clear national security concerns in the Middle East: the security of global energy supplies and the prevention of terrorist attacks that target American interests.

The raging civil wars in the greater Middle East may take generations to sort out. But they are neither ancient nor inevitable. At some point, local actors will arrive at a stable new equilibrium. For the time being American involvement is making things worse while exhausting our own limited resources.

The easiest path for the U.S. would be to stop involving itself in the wars of the region, while fostering trade ties, encouraging diplomatic resolutions to conflict and speaking out in favor of human rights. There is no reason to prop up hated dictators, nor to try and depose them and create dangerous vacuums. The U.S. can draw down its forces and reinvest those resources in health and infrastructure spending for the American people. It can also help spread liberal values by being the best example of them at home ­­— something that gets harder to do as war naturally erodes our culture and breeds racism and authoritarianism.

Leaving the Middle East may indeed mean more violence, rather than less, in the short-term. It may also mean that organizations like the Afghan Taliban wind up holding power in their own countries, rather than the liberals that Americans would prefer. But if one is serious about ending endless war, these are the trade-offs, sometimes painful ones, that have to be taken into consideration.

In Maqdisi’s ground-floor living room, the sounds of the call to prayer from a nearby mosque periodically wafted in from the windows, rising above the din of the traffic outside. Our meeting at his home was in part due to a lucky overlap of interests. Maqdisi had been issuing statements online denouncing the Islamic State on religious grounds for their excesses in Iraq and Syria. Local supporters of the group in the rough suburbs of Amman had been threatening to kill him in retaliation. His house had recently been set up with some security measures in response to these threats.

The Jordanian intelligence services appeared to be glad to let Maqdisi and some other local radicals opposed to Islamic State live freely and fight it out with the group. That was as far as their sympathies with him went. An unreformed extremist, at heart Maqdisi was no friend of the Jordanian government or any of the autocracies of the region. There are others like him, waging the many wars in the Middle East today between secular dictatorships and Islamist movements, liberals and conservatives, impoverished peripheries and wealthy metropoles.

If we are serious about ending endless war, leaving the region and the people to solve their political disputes on their own will necessarily play some part in that.

Before we left, I asked Maqdisi what he thought about the bombing and shooting attacks then wreaking havoc on Western cities. His response, coming from a man who has few sympathies for the West, emphasized to me the extent to which the U.S. has gotten itself involved in conflicts that are primarily local. Maqdisi was against the attacks. Like almost everyone else his concerns ultimately remain close to home. But as long as the U.S. continues pointlessly acting as an enforcer for the wealthy Gulf monarchies and Israel, both of which boast powerful lobbies that steer U.S. foreign policy for their own purposes, it will remain trapped in wars with men like him, both secular and religious, that do not come closer to ending no matter how many people are killed.

Standing down from these conflicts will be a bitter medicine. I personally wouldn’t relish making such a difficult decision. But if we are serious about ending endless war, leaving the region and its people to solve their political disputes on their own, as we are doing in Afghanistan, will necessarily play some part in that. It might in fact be the only way for the U.S. to ever get out of these conflicts.

“The Western authorities choose to support dictators in this region, people like Sisi in Egypt,” Maqdisi told me before I left, referring to President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, the brutal Egyptian strongman. “Even parties like the Muslim Brotherhood were liquidated simply because it was believed by America that in the long-term they would not uphold the peace treaty with Israel. But I say to ISIS: Why are you causing these problems in Europe and America? You can fight the near enemy in Iraq and Syria, so why are you attacking these places?”

Maqdisi’s family was part of the great wave of Palestinian refugees created as a result of the founding of the state of Israel. Spending some time with him in the bleak suburb built upon scrub desert that he and many other refugees now inhabited, I got a sense of why war seemed endless for this region. So many people have been born into situations that seem utterly devoid of hope. For them, there is no question of simply walking away: This is their life.

Whatever Americans ultimately choose to do with their wars, they should count themselves lucky that they at least have the option to step back from conflicts that are so painful and intractable. Those who are truly trapped in them live on promising ground for extremists, whether ideologues like Maqdisi or the young men that he influences.

“I tell Al Qaeda that these attacks will achieve the opposite of what you want,” Maqdisi went on, explaining his opposition to attacks in Western countries, while emphasizing that the West was still no friend. “According to our belief, Islam says that you must attack the enemy that is close, not the far enemy. When I tell them this, they respond by saying, ‘OK, but the close enemy is taking support from the far enemy.’”

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