"War on Terror" reconsidered
Funny how the conventional wisdom can change, seemingly out of nowhere. After the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on Washington and New York, President Bush declared a "war" on terror. He launched military action against Afghanistan, where the 9/11 plot was hatched and where al Qaida had its base; soon invaded Iraq (although Saddam Hussein's ties to al Qaida were somewhere between slim and none); and launched smaller military operations elsewhere.
To be fair, rhetorically, Bush emphasized that the GWOT (the inelegant acronym for the Global War on Terror) was not just a military matter. He talked about winning hearts and minds and spreading democracy in the Muslim world--a policy that has backfired badly in Lebanon, Egypt, the Palestinian areas and elsewhere.
But in terms of money and emphasis, Bush's war on terror has been until recently mostly a military affair.
Fast forward nearly seven years. The new conventional wisdom says that military force, while a necessary part of the "toolkit," is not the main way to fight terrorism. Some go further, saying the whole idea of a "war on terrorism" misconstrues the problem--and the solution.
Exhibit A is a new report entitled "How Terrorist Groups End," by Seth Jones and Martin Libicki of the RAND Corp. The authors surveyed 648 terrorist groups that existed between 1968 and 2006, looking at how those groups ended. They found that nearly half (43 percent) of the groups ended their terrorism by joining the poltical process. Of the remaining groups, another 40 percent were defeated via intelligence and police work. Ten percent of the terrorist groups ended by achieving their goals through violence (not a good percentage from the terrorists' point of view), while just 7 percent were defeated by military force.
"Militaries tend to be most effective when used against terrorist groups engaged in an insurgency in which the groups were large, well-armed and well organized. Insurgent groups have been among the most capable and lethal terrorist groups, and military force has usually been a necessary component in such cases," Jones and Libicki write. "Against most terrorist groups, however, military force is usually too blunt an instrument."
What does this mean for the struggle against al Qaida? The two analysts say that U.S. strategy against the group has largely failed to achieve its objectives, as al Qaida remains "strong and competent," and in some areas, resurgent. They say that policing and intelligence should be the backbone of a U.S. strategy. Military force will be necessary, but it should be primarily local military, not American. "The U.S. military ... should generally resist being drawn into combat operations in Muslim societies, since its presence is likely to increase terrorist recruitment," the study says.
Most of all, the pair favor ditching the phrase war on terror. It gives the false impression that there's a battlefield solution to the problem, they write, and elevates criminals and murderers to the status of holy warriors.
Exhibit B is the new National Defense Strategy released today by Defense Secretary Robert Gates. Gates sees a years-long struggle against violent extremist groups--a struggle he pointedly does not call the war on terror but rather the Long War.
Much like the RAND study, Gates says military force is not the most important tool in dealing with terrorism.
"The use of force plays a role, yet military efforts to capture or kill terrorists are likely to be subordinate to measures to promote local participation in government and economic programs to spur development, as well as efforts to understand and address the grievances that often lie at the heart of insurgencies," the report says.
"For these reasons, arguably the most important military component of the struggle against violent extremists is not the fighting we do ourselves, but how well we help prepare our partners to defend and govern themselves," it says.
So there you have it. The new conventional wisdom. For now.