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Time to drop "war on terrorism"

How do terrorists meet their end? According to an analysis conducted by RAND of 648 terrorists groups that operated between 1968 and 2006 the most common way, 43 percent of the cases, is they join the political process. But an almost equal number, 40 percent, met their demise at the hands of police and intelligence services that either killed or captured key leaders. Unleashing the military on terrorists was successful just 7 percent of the time.

The RAND study says the military is too blunt an instrument for most counterterrorist missions, and is only effective, and only occasionally, when terrorists operate within the context of a full blown insurgency. Military power is too indiscriminate and can actually help terrorist recruitment by causing civilian casualties.

The RAND study usefully knocks down some of the wilder assertions that have gained traction in the U.S. since the 9-11 attacks, such as claims that Al Qaeda poses an existential threat to the U.S., or that the specter of a pan-Islamic caliphate spanning the globe should actually be taken seriously. In reality, the data shows that Al Qaeda’s “probability of success in actually overthrowing any government is close to zero.” Al Qaeda has been rejected everywhere it has attempted to establish anything resembling a government. And because of the group’s indiscriminate killing of civilians, Al Qaeda’s list of enemies continues to grow. Religiously motivated terrorists fare far worse than those motivated by political grievances, according to RAND.

RAND says the “war on terror” label should be dropped and terrorists treated more like common criminals than elevated to the status of “holy warriors.” Terrorism experts have long argued that jihadi groups operate much like criminal gangs, often financing operations through drug sales and robbery. Policing and intelligence are the most effective tools in sweeping up terrorist networks scattered throughout Europe, Asia and the Middle East. That means the military should take a back seat to efforts to track and arrest terrorists, a job more suited for the CIA, FBI and foreign agencies such as Interpol.

RAND's analysis makes a good point. When in Iraq, I constantly heard the refrain from soldiers that going after insurgent networks was more police work than soldiering. They said they didn’t have the training or expertise needed to bust roadside bomber networks that operated more like criminal gangs than military outfits. So they improvised and began using law enforcement techniques to go after the bomber networks: tapping cell phones; paying informants to finger the bad guys; forensic analysis of bomb sites to try and detect signatures of specific bomb makers.

Catching terrorists is a human intelligence job, which means finding and developing informants; paying people to rat out their colleagues. Paying informants is not a traditional military function and strict regulations exist limiting how much military officers can pay informants, regulations that often hindered efforts to go after bomber networks in Iraq.

The only problem is that the U.S. government security and intelligence apparatus is, by nature of resource allocation, a military one. RAND says the budgets of civilian agencies such as the CIA, State and the FBI should be increased and those agencies, not the military, should take the lead role in counterterrorism. But in what powerful lawmaker’s districts do those agencies reside? What part of industry is going to actively lobby for greatly expanding the budgets at CIA, State and the FBI? Last time Congress tried something along those lines we ended up with the Department of Homeland Security.

Perhaps the next administration will push for a reallocation of resources, less military and more civilian agency. To his credit, Defense Secretary Robert Gates has been pushing this idea for much of the past year, arguing that the civilian agencies of government most useful in combating terrorism and irregular warfare are woefully underfunded relative to the Pentagon. But any effort to pull money from defense and give it to civilian agencies would be vigorously resisted on the Hill. So policymakers will continue to throw the one government agency, DOD, with lots of money and people at the terrorism problem. So, it’s more than likely we’ll see another study similar to this one from RAND in about eight years arguing once again that law enforcement, not the military, should take the lead in counterterrorism.

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