Is a fighting organization a more desirable adversary than a terrorist organization?
Putting aside the still-unrealized specter of nuclear or biological attacks, war has always been far more disruptive and destructive than terrorism. It is more destructive in terms of lives lost, property destroyed, and economies ruined. It causes more civilian casualties, even when it does not specifically target civilians. This has been the case in Iraq, Somalia, Yemen, and now Syria.
The economies of these countries have been laid to waste, and for many residents, there is little hope for a return to peaceful existence any time soon. All told, these warfighting activities have an immensely higher human cost than terrorism. In the long term, however, that steep price buys some opportunities for Western and Middle Eastern countries opposed to the spread of extremism and terrorism -- cold comfort for sure, but better than none.
A critical difference between terrorist organizations and fighting groups lies in the scope of conflict: For warfighters, the conflict eventually draws to a close, whereas for terrorists, it can drag on indefinitely.
Violent extremism tends to arise when a weak movement with a small number of followers pits itself against an impossible foe with no realistic expectation of success. As such, some violent extremist movements can linger for decades or longer, moving through periods of increased and decreased activity. Consider the Ku Klux Klan, which still persists in the United States despite the impossibility of its political goals and the contempt with which it is viewed by the vast majority of Americans.
Wars can also continue for decades, of course. But often they are defined around goals which -- if achieved -- can change the equation and create possible avenues for closure.
In Syria, that goal is currently the ouster of Assad. It is far from certain that Assad's ouster will lead to peace in Syria -- in fact, the odds are stacked against it (consider Libya). But the nature of the conflict is likely to change and evolve if and when the Syrian dictator falls. Some combatants will be satisfied with some outcomes. Others will change their goals to reflect new realities. Still others -- the real diehard extremists -- will not be satisfied until they have created a new global caliphate.
The motivations and objectives of the majority of fighters currently carrying black flags into battle may be fundamentally different from the nihilistic ideology of al Qaeda, in which fighting must continue until the end of the world, regardless of victory or failure. Warfighters have exit opportunities that are unavailable to most terrorists, particularly those of al Qaeda's stripe.
Is an embryonic al Qaeda state a more desirable adversary than a stateless radical group?
Buy J.M. Berger's book, Jihad Joe: Americans Who Go to War in the Name of Islam
One of those exit opportunities is especially unpalatable for the West -- the emergence of islands of sovereignty governed under al Qaeda's outlier interpretation of Islamic law.
This development would be interpreted as a victory by al Qaeda supporters and would result in great suffering for those unfortunate enough to live in a region under such a brutal and authoritarian regime. But it also comes loaded with pitfalls and challenges for the theoretical conquerors.
For starters, it is extraordinarily difficult to govern for long without a certain critical mass of consent by the governed (though it need not be a majority). Effective tools to rule in defiance of popular support include vast wealth and resources, an existing power base, an aura of invincibility, and the promise of stability and security. None of these tools can be found in al Qaeda's belt.
This leaves few options. In the instances where it has gained control over significant territory -- as it has in Mali, Yemen, Iraq, and Somaliawithin the last five years -- al Qaeda affiliates have thus far opted to govern as purists on the theory that their ideology is divinely ordained and obviously superior to the alternatives. This has largely backfired, resulting in quick losses of territory through a combination of internal dissatisfaction and external military pressure.
Should al Qaeda succeed in staking a persistent claim over a significant amount of land in the future, it portends further evolution. Organizations that hold territory have an interest in protecting their control of that territory. None of al Qaeda's territorial gains thus far have been stable enough to exist as anything but a war zone. If one of al Qaeda's emirates were to survive long enough to do anything except hold on by the skin of its teeth, its leaders may find that ideological purity is inadequate to feed and protect an infrastructure and a population, not to mention cultivate a tax base.
Successful governance requires attention to issues other than purist ideology.
If al Qaeda succeeds in establishing an emirate but fails to moderate, a valuable global learning moment may occur: Rather than being unseated by Western military force, al Qaeda's experiment in governance could fail on its own terms -- laying bare the fact that black flags and beheadings are of limited utility in preventing polio, building roads, or sustaining an economy. There would of course be a terrible human cost for those forced to live through the experiment, and a host of second-order consequences to consider -- mostly deriving from the perils associated with weak states, which tend to foster regional unrest, instability, and criminal activity, while creating problems with refugees, famine, and cross-border epidemics.
But a hypothetical al Qaeda nation with a specific geographic locale may actually present a more manageable adversary than a stateless terrorist group, making strategic approaches such as containment, destruction, isolation or negotiation more straightforward. America's problems dealing with the Taliban regime in the 1990s are well-documented, but it's hard to look at the current situation in Afghanistan and argue that the outlook is at all promising. There may be options for dealing with terrorist threats emanating from extremist Islamist states that stop short of regime change.