Are We Already Fighting World War III?
Joseph V. Micallef is a best-selling military history and world affairs author, and keynote speaker. Follow him on Twitter @JosephVMicallef
Claims that World War III has already started reverberate relentlessly across the media landscape. It's become a persistent drumbeat that is steadily gaining momentum. From Pope Francis's declaration that "we must not be afraid to tell the truth, the world is at war" to Russian claims that NATO's Operation Anaconda in 2016 was a precursor to an invasion of Russia and all-out war with the West.
The symbolism of German tanks traveling across Poland toward the Russian frontier for the first time since 1941 was not lost on Vladimir Putin who declared, "you people do not feel a sense of the impending danger…that the world is being pulled in an irreversible direction." Critics of Donald Trump have already warned that given the 45th President's penchant for unpredictability, a twitter storm could inadvertently precipitate a confrontation that would quickly escalate into a military clash.
Certainly, the intent of the new administration to challenge the status quo, from trade policy with China to the value of NATO, the disarray of the European Union, the relentless spread of jihadist terror and its consequences into every aspect of life in Europe and North America, the spread of violence around the world underscored by never-ending wars in Afghanistan, Syria, Libya and Yemen; all underscore the sense that the world is untethered, that international institutions are increasingly impotent, that the global order is coming apart as it descends into ever greater chaos and disorder.
At the height of the Cold War the possibility of a Third World War was a real and frightening possibility. Pentagon strategists gamed possible conflict scenarios and how they might evolve, think tanks opined on optimal nuclear force structures, strategic deployments and response strategies. Novelists and screen writers mined the topic for countless thrillers. Professional historians wrote "contra-factual histories" of how the war had started, played out and its ultimate consequences.
With the end of the Cold War the prospect of a Third World War seemed to recede from the playbook of potential conflicts. Armchair strategists speculated about possible U.S.-China conflicts or even a limited U.S.-Russian clash over Eastern Europe and the former Soviet states. The novelist Tom Clancy even postulated a Sino-Russian war that would see the U.S. intervene on behalf of Russia, Moscow joining NATO, and culminating in a rogue nuclear missile attack launched by Beijing against the United States. A bit farfetched given the current state of American relations with Russia. I guess that's why they call it fiction.
It was always assumed, however, that a Third World War would be fought between the United States and the Soviet Union, and that it would represent a heating up of the Cold War that would ultimately lead to a military clash over Western Europe. Conflict would breakout all over the world, hence the designation "Third World War," but it would be in Europe that the main confrontation would be played out.
The Soviet Union is no more. Although Russia still retains a significant military force and the largest nuclear arsenal in the world (7,000 Russian warheads versus 6,800 for the United States), it lacks the breadth and depth of forces to engage the United States and its NATO allies on a worldwide basis. The current impression of Russian ascendency and the restoration of a bipolar world is owed more to clever Russian diplomacy than it does to a restoration of Russian military power.
In the meantime, there is another very real war that is being fought worldwide. The United States, supported by various NATO members and assorted Arab governments, has fought two wars in the Gulf, one to expel Iraqi forces from Kuwait and one to create a regime change in Baghdad, and another war in Afghanistan. It has been engaged in a long running conflict with various jihadist groups, most notably al-Qaida and, in the last several years, Islamic State. Over the last two decades, U.S. forces intervene directly and indirectly in a broad stretch of Muslim countries from Mali to Pakistan and, in particular, in civil wars in Syria and Libya and, to a lesser extent, in Yemen as well. In addition, the U.S. finds itself increasingly confronted by Iran and its Shia proxies throughout the Middle East.
At the same time, both al-Qaida and Islamic State have spread their operations around the world, collectively creating more than 75 "franchises" in various countries in the Muslim world and setting up cells throughout Europe, North America and Australasia. In the process, they have demonstrated a capacity to radicalize "lone wolf jihadists" and spur them to stage low level, terrorist attacks throughout Europe and North America.
Since 9/11, there have been 48 separate attacks of jihadist violence in the United States that have claimed the lives of 139 Americans. There have been scores of planned terrorist attacks, some admittedly bordering on the comical, that have been thwarted by law enforcement authorities. The FBI has identified and opened active investigations on more than 1,000 would-be American jihadists, spanning all 50 states.
According to the website thereligonofpeace.com, worldwide, there have been a total of 30,000 incidents of jihadist inspired violence since the attack on September 11, 2001. In December 2016 alone, there were a total of 1,378 deaths and 1,737 injured from 188 incidents of jihadist terror in 27 countries. Another study by the BBC and the International Center for the Study of Radicalization and Political Violence at the University of London suggested the numbers were even higher. To put these statistics in perspective, in a typical year there are 9,000-gun related homicides in the United States.
Just in 2016, Europe experienced three major terrorist attacks and scores of additional jihadist incidents. Between the Brussels suicide bombings, the Nice truck attack and the Berlin Christmas market attack, there were a total of 134 people killed and 830 injured. Since 2015, there have been a total 35 terrorist attacks and an additional 25 planned attacks that were thwarted across Europe. What is more troublesome, is that Interpol estimates that around 10,000 EU passport holders have trained and fought with jihadist organizations throughout the Middle East. Many of these have already returned.
One of the ironies of Europe's war against jihadist terror occurred after the Paris attacks of 13-14 November 2015. Following the attacks, which killed 130 people and injured another 368, French police, supported by national police forces in Belgium, Holland and Germany, launched a massive manhunt to identify the ringleaders of the Paris attacks. The mastermind, Abdelhamid Abaaoud, was finally cornered in an apartment in the Paris suburb of St. Denis. He was subsequently killed following a shootout with French police.
Western reporters correctly identified St. Denis as a predominantly Muslim neighborhood and dutifully quoted French police admonitions that the neighborhood was prone to crime and unsafe at night. They missed, however, a most sublime irony. The neighborhood of St. Denis is home to the Basilica of St. Denis, an imposing medieval abbey church that dates to the 12th century, which was the final resting place for all but three of France's kings and queens.
Buried there also, in a modest grave, is Charles Martel. Charles the Hammer was never crowned a king of France but his exploits, at the Battle of Tours in 732, in defeating the Moorish armies that crossed the Pyrenees intent on expanding the Muslim empire into Western Europe, laid the foundation of the Carolingian dynasty and its reassertion of European power under his grandson Charlemagne. It is a supreme irony that one of the men considered most responsible for defending the remnants of Christian Europe from the Muslim onslaught of the 8th century would today find his grave located in a Muslim neighborhood. Who said that history's muse doesn't have a sense of humor?
The historical analogies can, however, be overplayed. It is tempting to see the current conflict between Islamic jihadists and the Western world as little more than the next round in a clash of civilizations that have been at war with each other for the better part of a millennium. It is a struggle that has waxed and waned across Europe and the Mediterranean world since the 8th century, a struggle that has twice seen Muslim armies on the verge of overrunning Europe and that has seen Europe respond in-kind.
From the 18th century on, especially after the battle of Navarino in 1827, the Muslim world and the Ottoman Empire, which was its leading edge, had been on the defensive gradually seceding territory to Europe's powers until World War I finally broke the Ottoman Empire and the Sykes-Picot treaty divided its remaining lands among the European victors.
Jihadist iconography with its references to avenging the Christian crusades as well as past Muslim defeats, from the sieges of Vienna and Malta to the Battle of Lepanto; its repudiation of the Sykes-Picot boundaries; its incorporation of the mythology of epic Islamic victories at Qadisiyyah or Yarmouk; and its declarations that jihadists will reconquer the lost lands of the historic Muslim empires of the 9th to the 12th centuries, further reinforce this impression–so does the jihadist practice of singling out Christians, especially clergy, among its prisoners for immediate execution.
Nonetheless it would be incorrect to see the current jihadist violence as simply a continuation of the Christian-Muslim struggle of the past Millennium. For one thing, Europe today is largely a secular society. The targets of jihadist violence have, to a large degree, been secular symbols of Western society–a free press, tourism sites, music halls, etc. There have not been many attacks against symbols of Christian culture in Europe, such as churches, even though such locations are undefended and would represent very soft targets of attack. At least not yet, although it's hard to believe that there isn't some jihadist group intent on attacking St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican. In the Middle East, however, Christian churches and landmarks have often been singled out for attacks.
There are probably around 50,000 to 100,000 active jihadists in the world today, of which around 10,000 to 20,000 represent a core leadership group. There could be as many as 100,000 to possibly 200,000 additional militants that have had some training or some battlefield experience, that are committed jihadists, but are not necessarily active. This latter group is a sort of a strategic reserve that can be called upon, on a regional basis, when needed, and that are available to whichever jihadist group will pay to hire them. Truthfully, intelligence agencies are not certain how many jihadists there are in the world, how many are simply active sympathizers or wannabes, and how many actually pose a lethal threat.
Intelligence agencies estimate that there are probably 10,000 to 20,000 jihadists and committed supporters in Europe, of which around 5,000 to 10,000 are in France and Belgium. There is probably half that number in the United Kingdom. In the United States that number is believed to be between 1,000 and 2,000 militants.
In addition, there is a significant pool of sympathizers who identify with the jihadist movement, will support it financially, and are generally in agreement with their aims, even though they themselves will not actively participate in jihadist violence and may even condemn the more brutal examples of jihadist terror. This is perhaps the hardest group to identify. Several recent surveys suggest that this last group may amount to between five percent, to as much as twenty percent, of the world's Muslim population.
It's hard to be entirely sure because it's impossible to know to what extent respondents game pollsters by giving politically correct answers depending on who they perceive the questioner to be. Assuming that the five percent to twenty percent figure is reliable, then these sympathizers represent a pool of supporters of between 75 million to 300 million people. It's possible that the number of sympathizers is greater, but it's unlikely that the number is smaller.
So where does that leave us? The conflict with jihadist organizations is certainly a worldwide struggle. Jihadist inspired violence has occurred on every continent in the world. The only exception being Antarctica. A significant portion of the worldwide response to jihadist violence has been in the form of military operations carried out by national military forces. A struggle against a quasi-military force numbering between 100,000 and 300,000 combatants that are in turn supported by between 75 million and 300 million non-combatants certainly feels like a war.
On the other hand, conventional military operations against the Islamic State and other jihadist organizations notwithstanding, the vast majority of jihadist incidents in the West are handled by national police forces, even if sometimes these involve paramilitary police or elite police units, and the vast majority of jihadist violence has been against civilian noncombatants. In that regard, jihadist violence seems less like a military conflict than it does a criminal conspiracy, albeit a worldwide one with an overtly political agenda.
Moreover, while we can reject the characterization of jihadist violence as a Christian-Muslim struggle, much less a continuation of the historic Christian-Muslim enmity that lasted from the 8th century through the 19th century, the fact remains that these jihadists are explicitly targeting and see their opponent as Western culture and civilization in both its Christian and secular forms. What they are advocating is a replacement of Western culture by an explicitly Islamic alternative and in this endeavor, that they have the sympathy and varying degrees of support of literally millions of the world's Muslims.
The struggle with jihadism is in fact a world war; one with multiple front lines scattered across the world's major cities. That conclusion is inescapable. It is not the Third World War, because it has little in common with the first two, and while conventional military forces will play a role, this conflict will involve national police forces to an unprecedented extent. It is therefore possible to say that this is the first "World War" fought by asymmetric forces simultaneously across the globe that involves both civil and military forces.
There have been other conflicts fought by asymmetric forces. Indeed there is nothing new about such wars. The conflict between the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and Great Britain or that between the United States and the Vietcong are examples of such clashes. What is different about the jihadist conflict is that it is being fought on a worldwide basis. IRA violence was almost entirely carried out in Northern Ireland and England. The conflict with the Vietcong was fought in Vietnam and to a lesser extent Cambodia and Laos. The Vietcong never attempted to stage attacks against civilians in San Francisco or against U.S. military installations in Europe. In the struggle with jihadism there are no targets off the table, no theater of operation that is off limits or beyond reach.
Finally, the fact also remains that the jihadists identify themselves as Muslims, utilize Islamic iconography and its symbolism, and wrap themselves in its traditions and sacred scriptures to justify their actions. Moreover, in doing so they have the support of a sizable number, even if they remain a minority overall, of other Muslims around the globe. We can characterize their beliefs as a corruption of the Islamic faith and point out that an overwhelming majority of the world's Muslims do not agree with them and that they simply wish to live in peace with their non-Muslim neighbors. Nonetheless, it doesn't change the fact that a Muslim identity, albeit a corrupted one, is at the core of the jihadist movement.
This is what world war looks like in the 21st century. It is not a conventional global war like World War I and II, although it certainly involves the deployment of military forces around the globe. It has both the elements of a conventional battlefield and an insurgency, but an insurgency fought simultaneously across the globe in multiple independent theaters where the target of opportunity might just as easily be a local shopping mall as it is a military target half a world away. Jihadist violence might be the result of a centrally organized operation or unscripted, random acts of violence by local, self-radicalized militants. The enemy can be a combatant on the other side of the world or your seatmate on the local subway, they can be everywhere and they can be equally impossible to find.
We have never fought a war like the one we are fighting now. We lack a comprehensive doctrine of how such a war should we fought or a coherent strategy to defeat our opponents. We have relied predominantly on military operations, even though it is clear that in a war of ideas military force will never be a complete solution. Our government leaders are unwilling to admit this is going to be a multigenerational war that will require significant spending and sacrifice. We expect our military personnel to carry out never ending deployments while politicians treat the notion of mandatory military service as the third rail of American politics.
Instead those same politicians look for any pretext to hang out the "mission accomplished" sign. They can put it away because it is unlikely that they will have a legitimate reason to use it in our lifetime. Even as we roll back the Islamic State, new and old jihadist organizations are standing by ready to assume the mantle of jihadist leadership. The defeat of Islamic State and its militants won't end jihadist violence in the world, it will simply morph into new organizations and actors articulating the same storyline.
This is a war for nothing less than the heart and soul of secular Western civilization, a war in which the old rules of combat and strategic protocols no longer apply. We cannot win this war with the tactics and strategy of the last World War, we cannot win it with our current half-hearted attempts, we cannot win it with tactics devised and judged on a template of political correctness, and we cannot win this war if we are unwilling to admit we are already fighting it.
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