The Threat Remains By Drew H. Kinney
Almost sixteen years after the Global War on Terrorism (GWOT) war against terrorism began, the Trump administration has carried that torch by dropping the most powerful non-nuclear bomb in its military arsenal against Daesh in Afghanistan, and reportedly killing over 1,000 civilians in Iraq and Syria as a result of its ramped up air campaign against the organization. That does not mean there’s an endgame.
Carl Von Clausewitz wrote that the logic of war is a violent approach produces an even more violent response, and so on until the level of devastation is overwhelming. War should therefore be reserved for more powerful international actors, like states. It shouldn’t be perpetuated without a political strategy (other than re-election).
If fighting terrorism with guns and bombs was a sound strategy in 2001, then employing such tactics in response to non-state political violence would be superfluous in 2017. Fighting terror—a political tactic—with tanks and bombs and guns, however, isn’t a sound strategy.
In 2012, I was finishing an honors thesis on the United States’ flawed strategy for fighting terrorism. I argued in that essay that the US should go about business as usual, and merely use its police force for what amounts to only another type of violent crime. It doesn’t make me happy to be arguing the same point five years later. Unfortunately, it’s still necessary.
Terrorism is relatively non-threatening—11 September 2001 is the exception that proves the rule. It is also impossible to predict and prevent every attack. If someone wants to drive their car into a group of people, they can do so with ease. Such an unsophisticated attack, however, is a reflection of weakness, not a show of strength. A military strategy is therefore both ineffective and profligate.
Wasting blood and treasure combating non-state actors who are literally defined by their lack of state capacity is never going to work.
American counterterrorism is evidence of this. The United States engaged Al-Qaeda in the GWOT under George W. Bush, the Overseas Contingency Operation (OCO) under Barack Obama, and is now carelessly disregarding civilian life bombing Daesh (ISIS) targets in Iraq and Syria.
As consequence, the US has no clear strategy in the Middle East. For example, in the name of fighting terror it is aligned with Iran in Iraq and Syria, but fighting against Iranian-backed Houthi militants (“terrorists”) in Yemen. Some more radically minded academics would argue the use of the phrase “terrorist” is convenient cover for military intervention where vital to U.S. national security, but there’s no evidence the Middle East is crucial to American national security interests.
The way the United States combats terrorism can be summed up nicely by introducing the key point of tension between two competing factions of the counterterrorism “schools.”
The first faction is born of the endurance of the Powell Doctrine—more accurately, the Caspar Weinberger Doctrine, based on the latter’s six tests for the application of military force. This group argues, basically, that if the U.S. is going to use its military, it should use overwhelming force (with a preference for ground troops). George W. Bush’s strategy involved ground troops, but not overwhelming force. Bush’s Rules of Engagement (ROE) irked proponents of the Powell Doctrine who felt the enemy should be annihilated and shown who’s boss.
Partisans of the second faction follow David Petraeus’ Counterinsurgency (COIN) manual, which involves “insurgent math”—kill one civilian and inspire his or her family to take up arms—and elements of state-building with the empowerment of civil society. This approach seeks to limit civilian casualties so you don’t turn the local population into the enemy. Proponents of this strand of counterterrorism strategy are loathe to see numbers like 1,000 civilians killed since Trump took office, because this only causes more terrorists.
There is obvious tension here: states can’t use overwhelming force without sustaining high levels of civilian casualties, which runs counter to the defining concept of COIN.
We can resolve the tension. The American military should stop fighting terrorism abroad and instead treat the use of terror as a political tactic like any other violent crime, for which there are domestic police forces from California to Washington, D.C.
Terrorism mobilizes few resources to cause fear (it’s in the name) through relatively low levels of violence in order to elicit a major policy response. The U.S. is playing directly into Al-Qaeda and Daesh’s hands by overreaching, one of their key desires in Washington’s policy response to terrorism. This damages long-term American security on the cheap. The best course of action would be instead to understand that terrorism is less dangerous than driving a car to work each day, and to therefore mourn the victims of political violence and then forget about it.
In short, vengeance really is a dish best served cold. The jingoistic argument that the US should take the gloves off in its fight against terrorism is wrong, but not because COIN is preferable. They’re both wrong because keeping Americans safe from terrorism doesn’t require a military approach at all.
Good foreign policy requires acknowledging where the real dangers are in order to respond adequately to those threats. Since stamping out terrorism is not possible, American national security is most threatened by its own counterterrorism policy. That’s why the “threat” of terrorism remains today.
Drew H. Kinney is a Ph.D. Candidate at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University.