In Foreign Policy , Gustavo de las Casas makes an intriguingly counter-intuitive argument for why al Qaeda should not be destroyed —at least not completely:

The world would be wise to keep al Qaeda alive, paradoxically enough, for security reasons. Like it or not, keeping a battered al Qaeda intact (if weak) is the world’s best hope of funneling Islamist fanatics into one social network — where they stand the best chance of being spotted, tracked, and contained. The alternative, destroying the terrorist group, would risk fragmenting al Qaeda into thousands of cells, and these will be much harder to follow and impossible to eradicate. It’s the counterterrorist’s dilemma, and the only real choice is the least unsavory: Al Qaeda must live.

What’s most interesting about this argument is not so much the conclusion—which I think is entirely correct—but the initial revulsion we have to the idea. The reason is that while modern warfare has changed, our thinking about it has not.

The mental model of warfare we carry around in our heads tends to be based on the two World Wars of the twentieth century: The war is fought until one side decisively imposes its will upon the other, resulting in a unconditional surrender and a cessation of direct conflict. This model fit most wars of the modern age that were between nation-states since these actors had clear-cut objectives and a desire to end fighting after their goals were accomplished.

Wars that are carried out by non-state actors and that have idealogical objectives, however, do not fit this model. Terrorist groups fully recognize this fact, which allows them to take advantage of our refusal to acknowledge reality. These organizations know that the simplest way to impose their will on a Western enemy is to keep fighting. Modern democracies have no stomach for extended warfare and will almost always surrender if a conflict last more than ten years. But since the terrorists have objectives that can never be realized, they will keep fighting even though their enemy has given up.

Admitting this reality can help us recognize that the “war on terror” is really a long-term (think centuries, not years), global counter-insurgency operation. The idea that we can isolate ourselves within our own borders was a noble but foolish dream even during the age when nations went to war against each other; in the era of the terrorist cell it is even less of an option.

We have no choice but to fight. But by containing the enemy—rather than trying eradicate them completely—we can limit the detrimental effects of what has been aptly called “the long war.”

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