THE AFGHAN-PAKISTAN BORDER region is widely identified as a haven for jihadi extremists. But the joint between local insurgencies and global terrorism has been dislocated. A combination of new technologies and new ideologies has changed the role of popular support: In local insurgencies the population may still be the "terrain" on which resistance is thriving--and counterinsurgency, by creating security for the people, may still succeed locally. But Islamic violent extremism in its global and ambitious form is attractive only for groups at the outer edge, the flat end of a popular support curve. Jihad failed to muster mass support, but it is stable at the margin of society. Neither the West nor its enemies can win--or lose--a war on terror.
Western anti-terror policy rests on the assumption that the threat of violent extremism has to be treated at the root--in Afghanistan. A stable Afghan-Pakistan border region, the theory goes, would stop exporting terrorism to the rest of the world. "Our strategy is this: We will fight them over there so we do not have to face them in the United States of America," in former President George W. Bush's words. President Barack Obama, it seems, has taken over a strategic mainstay from his predecessor: "I want the American people to understand that we have a clear and focused goal: To disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan," the president said on March 27, upon announcing his new strategy. This approach is indeed shared by many allies in Europe; confronting the jihadi menace in distant theaters, they agree, will make the homeland safer. In the argument's strong version, comprehensive counterinsurgency is the right means to that goal; a weaker version is limited to going after the hardened jihadis.
This approach to countering terrorism, in both versions, is predicated on a more general assumption: that global terrorism and local insurgency are flipsides of the same coin. Insurgencies thrive on chaos and failed governance, environments from which they can, through terror, extract popular support and ultimately political success. The local population, therefore, is the critical "human terrain" of modern wars. Creating a safe environment for the population in one area, and making that area fit for basic governance and commerce, would win over popular support and choke the insurgency. Spreading these pacified areas like "oil slicks" would thus eliminate terrorist "safe havens." Terrorism and insurgency, in short, are seen as tightly linked. Modern land forces, in General Rupert Smith's commonly used phrase, win "among the people." But how valid is this old assumption in the ninth year of Operation Enduring Freedom?
The linkage between terrorism and insurgency has been altered in the early 21st century. Instead of seeing high-volume popular support in an insurgency as the "soil" on which resistance and terrorism are flourishing--and counterinsurgency as a competition for that support--an additional paradigm is needed: the "tail." Islamic violent extremism is attractive only for a fringe group, the low-volume end of a popular support curve. Individuals and groups at the extreme margin hold views and embrace methods that antagonize mainstream society, in Lashkar Gah as well as in London. Yet, because of increased efficiencies in the distribution, manufacturing, and marketing of Salafist ideas and tactics, the demand and support for--and thus the feasibility of--violent extremism has become more independent of mainstream popular backing. The terrain analogy may retain limited relevance to grasp the role of the population in local insurgencies with a political and territorial agenda, and these local insurgencies might continue to be of interest to some militants with a global agenda. But the support base for global terrorism fueled by ideology and uprooted activists remains at the tail, not at the head--it is therefore immune to many of the methods that are employed to combat insurgency. …