If the war against jihadist terrorists lasts another five years, it's possible that issues such as the US in Iraq will be history. What will remain? Most likely the largely unreported "war of ideas." Not the one between Western and jihadist values, but among Muslims over Islam.
Terrorist groups such as Al Qaeda can only be made to fade away if they are seen as irrelevant to the Islamic faithful who now side with them and provide recruits and money. Much of the world's attention since 9/11 has been focused on US efforts to kill or capture Al Qaeda members and the campaign to turn Iraq into a model democracy for the Middle East. But even if largely successful, such efforts would do little to settle the theological debate among the world's 1.2 billion Muslims over the wisdom of using violence against innocent people.
Winning that contest of visions within the Islamic community will take more than armies and spies. Ideas do matter in some wars, even more so than the quality of military leaders, weapons, and tactics.
The cold war, for instance, was won on the West's certainty that communism was an unsustainable idea in both its economics and in the use of fear to command nations. Simply contain the Soviet empire, the West concluded, and it would self-destruct. As Yale scholar John Lewis Gaddis wrote in a history of that war: "Both of the ideologies that defined those worlds were meant to offer hope: that is why one has an ideology in the first place. One of them, however, had come to depend for its functioning on the creation of fear. The other had no need to do so. Therein lay the basic ideological asymmetry of the Cold War."
In a similar way, the US must ultimately rely on the power of persuasion by those Muslims who stand up for Islam as a religion of peace, not one that relies on terror, or fear.
That is the main front in this "war." Many Muslim groups, mostly in the West, have found the courage to take such a stand. They reject the idea that any Muslim can issue a fatwa justifying terror.
In a major step last year, Jordan's King Abdullah, who traces his lineage back to the prophet Muhammad, brought together more than 170 leaders of the often-antagonistic schools of Islam from 45 nations. They issued a statement condemning the practice of Muslims calling others "apostates" as a means to justify violence. A similar gathering has been in the works for Iraq.
The US can do only so much to support these Muslims in speaking out and publishing views on tolerance and nonviolence. Any news of such US backing for such efforts may only undermine them. Was US money or covert action, for instance, used to target Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood to help moderate that group's radical views? Better not to know until this "war" is over.
Even if Islamic societies become affluent, just, and democratic; and even if Israelis and Palestinians make peace; and even if the US leaves the Middle East – such changes may not guarantee that a jihadist distortion of Islam will not remain appealing to many Muslims.
Five years on, this war's crucial battles are being fought in mosques and between mullahs, relying on scriptural words as weapons.
As during the cold war, the victor will have the right idea.