The limits of counterterrorism

Editor’s note: Daniel Byman writes in his August 2 post for the Lawfare blog that using counterterrorism as a lens for seeing the Middle East has helped the United States in several of its success against the al-Qaida core, but argues that this filter has also led to an underestimation of the overall impact on terrorism, as well as hindered an adequate response in general.

Using counterterrorism as a lens for seeing the Middle East, as the Obama administration so often does, has helped the United States achieve several important successes against the al-Qaida core and avoided an overreaction to real, but not often existential, dangers to U.S. interests in the region. But this filter has also led the United States to miss threats to broader U.S. interests and underestimate the overall impact of terrorism, and has hindered an adequate response in general.

Building on the post-9/11 efforts of the George W. Bush administration, the Obama administration has constructed an effective machine to identify and disrupt terrorists. Much of the effort is built around an intelligence liaison campaign: partnering with countries around the world to gather information on terrorists and then use it to arrest or otherwise disrupt them. Where the government cannot (or at times will not) arrest the suspected terrorists, the intelligence gathered is used for drone strikes, at times on behalf of a weak allied government and at other times in areas where the government is deemed to have lost its sovereignty.

From the Obama administration’s perspective, perhaps the biggest advantage is what this approach avoids. The Middle East was a mess even before civil wars and chaos consumed it after the 2011 Arab Spring, and there are good reasons not to sink deeper into the region. By limiting the U.S. role, American leaders can concentrate on other critical regions like Asia, avoid costly occupations and wars like Iraq after 2003, and otherwise try to put the Middle East on the back burner. Moreover, by keeping the U.S. footprint light, Obama administration officials hope terrorist groups might turn their guns on the local regimes they hate and each other, further reducing the danger to the U.S. homeland.

Preventing attacks on the U.S. homeland should remain a priority, and since 9/11 this has been a remarkable, though imperfect, success. But killing terrorists alone will not end terrorism. For much of the Middle East, fighting terrorism requires navigating regional civil wars. Although a look at the U.S. record on civil wars in the Middle East suggests pessimism, this poor record does not extend everywhere: in places as diverse as Colombia, Indonesia, Kenya, the Philippines, and Uganda, the United States has successfully worked on statebuilding with allied regimes, building their capacity and enabling them to improve their performance in civil wars, better negotiate from a position of strength, and, of course, fight terrorism.

Statebuilding assistance goes beyond working with security forces to improve their technical proficiency. Rather, it requires assistance in reforming and building political institutions on which the security forces should rest. Political systems should help countries moderate predatory elite behavior, bolster legitimacy, and weather shocks that might otherwise produce violence.

Building state capacity is not the same as building a democracy. Indeed, as partial democracies are prone to civil wars and unrest in general, it is dangerous to push democratization when the rule of law and state institutions are not in place or are too weak. However, undemocratic elites may be open to statebuilding in a way they would not be to democratization. They may care little about the general welfare, either political or social, of their citizens, but they will seek economic openings that will bolster the regime’s core supporters and welcome security assistance that will help them suppress or defeat their enemies.

The United States should devote particular attention to defense institution building (DIB). Too often counterterrorism assistance is seen as a technical capacity issue, when poor governance is usually the root of the problem. However, the defense institutions—the military, local forces, intelligence services, and police—at all levels often need reform. Iraq is a painful example where years of massive U.S. assistance went to waste because a politicized political system quickly rotted out the senior military leadership and then spread to the military as a whole.

Often the goal should be conflict resolution, not democracy promotion. The United States and its allies should seek to cut deals between moderate warring parties to isolate radicals and otherwise try to end or at least reduce the violence to subdue the threat of terrorism.

In general DIB, like other programs, should be seen as a long-term enterprise that may take years to have a positive impact. In particular, DIB must be tied to efforts to promote accountability in the security sector and otherwise improve the quality of governance. We should also expect limited progress. The United States is only making a partial commitment to part of the system, and local dynamics will still reign. In addition, the United States will be implicated by association with military coups, abuses, and other problems. All these costs are worthwhile, however, if the United States is able to make states less vulnerable to civil wars and terrorism while improving overall governance.

By focusing too much on counterterrorism the United States neglects its other interests in the Middle East and is unable to wage a more comprehensive fight against terrorist groups. Lasting progress is likely to be in short supply as a result.