By Bonnie Kristian
Last week, a little-reported map prepared by the National Counterterrorism Center using State Department data spelled the end of the war on terror as we know it.
Dated August 2016, the graphic showed where the Islamic State is operating worldwide. Of course, the greatest concentration was in the Middle East, where the United States is actively fighting ISIS in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, and now Libya. But since the brutal terrorist organization declared its “caliphate” in 2014, ISIS has expanded well beyond that home base.
Indeed, as U.S.-led coalition forces retake land from ISIS in its erstwhile stronghold—the group has lost about 25 percent of its territory, a square mileage about the size of Ireland, since January of 2015—the terrorists have shifted gears. Initially eschewing the pattern of low-cost, global strikes favored by al Qaeda, ISIS is now turning toward that sort of worldwide havoc.
As ISIS loses on the more traditional battlefield, “At some point there is going to be a terrorist diaspora out of Syria like we've never seen before,” FBI Director James Comey recently predicted—and that’s exactly what the map depicted.
In addition to the Iraq-centric core, official and aspiring ISIS branches are popping up elsewhere in the Mideast: Saudi Arabia, the Sinai Peninsula, Yemen, Pakistan, and even the Caucasus region in a southernmost tip of Russia near Iran. ISIS expanding in Africa, too, with branches in Egypt, Algeria, Nigeria, Mali, and Somalia. And they’re in Asia, organizing in Bangladesh, the Philippines, and Indonesia.
All told, there are now 18 nations where ISIS is operational, and another six where would-be groups are sinking in their poisonous roots.
Common sense makes the game-changing nature of this information immediately apparent: There is no way the United States can follow ISIS with additional military interventions wherever and whenever it metastasizes. Already spread thin with accelerating campaigns in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan and Libya—plus smaller interventions in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia—it is simply not possible to open another nine or more theaters of the war on terror.
We cannot be everywhere at once. We cannot follow ISIS everywhere it goes. We cannot endlessly escalate this fight.
There is nothing ISIS would like more, however, than to see us try. After all, for ISIS, global expansion offers minimal risk and maximal reward. Find any deluded schmuck and convince him collect a small band of would-be murderers in pursuit of promised glory and you’ve got a new branch of ISIS.
But for the United States, the reverse is true. Even a comparatively “small” intervention like the air campaign ramping up in Libya comes with a massive price that must be paid by debt, as well as danger to thousands of American lives, a precarious detraction from defensive commitments, and the real risk of a long-term quagmire of war and nation-building.
It’s a lot like a game of cat and mouse. The mouse can’t kill the cat. The mouse can’t even meaningfully threaten to hurt the cat. But the mouse can send his buddies to 18 parts of the back yard, tricking the cat into running from place to place, scratching a tail here or an ear there and utterly failing to rid the property of pests because he too cannot be everywhere at once.
The better plan, for the cat and America, is to play defense. Catch the mouse when comes into our house, absolutely, but ignore the false lure of an aimless chase around the yard.
To expand the war on terror as we know it would be to allow ISIS to set the terms of engagement. Instead, to protect our national interests and ensure American security, Washington must shift its tactics toward prudence and restraint, refusing to be drawn into an inevitably fruitless and frustrating pattern of global interventionism.
Bonnie Kristian is a fellow at Defense Priorities. She is a weekend editor at The Week and a columnist at Rare, and her writing has also appeared at Time Magazine, Relevant Magazine and The American Conservative, among other outlets.
This piece was originally published by The Huffington Post on August 12, 2016. Read more HERE.