Sometime next week, President Trump hopes to declare a victory over Islamic State. The militant group’s last stronghold is expected to fall in Syria, a tiny remnant of a caliphate that once spanned almost half of Syria and a third of Iraq. He may then use this territorial triumph as a reason to withdraw the remaining United States forces from Syria.
Yet the president, like many political leaders, would be wise to expand the definition of victory over terrorists far beyond the retaking of land or the number of fighters killed. The causes of jihadi violence lie deep, requiring different kinds of victories that often go unheralded. They lie in the rebuilding of Muslim societies and the lives of individuals prone to terror.
While the four-year US-led military campaign against the caliphate has succeeded, thousands of determined Islamic State (ISIS) fighters remain at large. Many have returned to insurgent tactics of bombing and assassinations, seeking to undermine weak societies from within. The group has affiliates from Asia to Africa. The ultimate battle in such places, perhaps after a military campaign to clear a village or city of jihadists, is to transform the social, political, economic, and even theological conditions that help breed terrorism.
Worldwide, such victories are adding up. The number of deaths from terrorism has steadily fallen from a peak in 2014, according to the latest Global Terrorism Index. While the numbers are still too high compared to pre-2001 levels, many countries have become better at addressing root causes.
Iraq has a new government since the defeat of ISIS that is better at reconciling Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds. In Nigeria, which suffered frequent attacks by Boko Haram, politicians compete in elections to build schools and improve livelihoods in the embattled northeast. In the Philippines, a plebiscite last month will create a self-governing entity in the Muslim south, scene of Islamic insurgencies for decades.
In Afghanistan, after 17 years of rebuilding democracy, negotiations have started to end the war with the Taliban, with the hope that the Taliban will turn against an ISIS affiliate. Tunisia keeps setting a model for Arab countries in expanding liberties and showing how an Islamist political party can embrace democracy. Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim nation, is a model in rehabilitation of Muslim militants and creation of an inclusive society for their reintegration.
Such examples show that quality of peace can matter more than the quantity of war-fighting capabilities. Are countries improving systems of justice, security in everyday life, opportunities for work, and harmony between religious and ethnic groups? Have they made a convincing case against religious violence?
These victories do not always carry the euphoria of a military victory. They are more difficult to measure and often harder to achieve. They are seen in reconciliation between once-opposing hearts and less in parades of conquering soldiers.