Perhaps the most memorable among the twelve labors of Hercules was his fight with the hydra. As if the beast’s seven snaring heads were not formidable enough, two more would rapidly grow back for every one Hercules lopped off. Although known much more for his brawn than his brain, Hercules finally solved that exasperating dilemma. Before resuming battle, he heated his sword red-hot and then with each mighty swing the blade seared shut the gaping wound left by another severed head. And so Hercules eventually killed the hydra.
Insurgencies are often like hydras. They would not exist were it not for exploitive, repressive, corrupt, brutal, and inept governments which worsen vicious cycles of mass poverty, violence, and despair. Yet those horrific conditions alone are not enough to spark an insurgency. That takes brilliant, ruthless leaders with an organization that mobilizes people to fight against their exploiters and an ideology to fight for a radical agenda for change. Once an insurgency begins, the measures a government takes to eliminate militants often provoke countless others to join the enemy ranks. The reason why is simple. Tactical victories often breed strategic defeats. Traditional “search, destroy, and withdraw” missions that rely on firepower to wipe out rebels often ravage innocent people caught in the crossfire. That can transform once cowed people with something to lose into enraged revolutionaries devoted to destroying the government that ruined their lives.
The United States is warring against that hydra of insurgency in Afghanistan and Iraq. Those wars offer a myriad of lessons over how to feed and how to starve a hydra. Alas, there is no elegant solution like the one Hercules found. But there are a series of steps that can be taken to determine whether getting involved in an insurgency is a good idea in the first place and, if so, how to systematically destroy rather than multiply the beast’s heads.
Know Your Enemy
The first step is to heed the number one lesson of warfare articulated over 2,300 years ago by Sun Tzu to “know your enemy, know yourself.” Devising the best strategies and tactics for vanquishing an enemy can only come after exploring and comparing the ends, means, strengths, and weaknesses of that enemy and oneself.
President George W. Bush and most of his key advisors failed to heed that essential step. They rejected the warnings of outgoing Clinton officials, Counterterrorist Czar Richard Clark, and CIA Director George Tenet that Al Qaeda was the most dangerous enemy that the United States faced and was determined to strike the American homeland itself.
Instead, during the nearly nine months from the January 20th inauguration until September 11, the Bush administration squared off with Russia, China, Iraq, North Korea, and Iran in what realists criticized as unwarranted and gratuitous conflicts. The president and his fellow neoconservatives were especially eager to somehow crush Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq. If nothing else, those confrontations made ideological and political sense. They helped justify the huge boosts in Pentagon spending with missile defense at its core which neoconservatives demanded to widen the gap between America’s global military and political domination and that of any potential rivals.
Those obsessions blinded the Bush administration to Al Qaeda’s threat and persisted even after the mass murder and devastation of September 11. The debate over how to respond pitted the handful of realists against the neoconservatives. The realists called for a systematic campaign to destroy Al Qaeda in Afghanistan and in scores of other countries around the world. The neoconservatives insisted that the United States should attack Iraq even though the evidence was clear that Al Qaeda was responsible for September 11. For once the realists prevailed, but at a price. The neoconservatives grudgingly agreed to first go after Al Qaeda, but only if the realists supported a later assault on Iraq.
Even then the neoconservatives failed to follow Sun Tzu’s admonition. When Bush tried to explain the enemy’s nature to the American people, he presented an ideological rather than analytical portrait. In his televised address on September 21, he answered the rhetoric question, “Why do they hate us?” by asserting that they “hate our freedoms: our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote and assemble and disagree with each other…These terrorists kill not merely to end lives, but to disrupt and end a way of life. With every atrocity they hope that America grows fearful, retreating from the world and forsaking our friends. They stand against us because we stand in their way.”
Actually Al Qaeda and other Islamists hate American more for what it does than what it is, although they do see the connection between American policies and culture. The relative short-term goals of Al Qaeda and its affiliates are clear-to drive the United States and other western countries from the Muslim world, destroy Israel, overthrow so-called apostate governments ruling Muslim peoples, and unify all Muslim peoples under one Caliphate dedicated to fulfilling the Koran and Sharia. Those are relative short-term goals. Ultimately they would convert all people to the true faith.
The inability of President Bush and his fellow neoconservatives to understand the nature of both the enemy and themselves has distorted and undermined the war against Al Qaeda, with tragic results for American wealth, power, and honor.
Know Your War
Having assessed the nature of one’s enemy and oneself, the next step is to fulfill a maxim by that great theorist and practitioner of warfare, Carl von Clausewitz: “The statesman and the commander have to … establish the kind of war on which they are embarking, neither mistaking it for, not trying to turn it into, something that is alien to its true nature. This is the first of all strategic questions and the most comprehensive.”
A core question for policymakers is whether to treat terrorism as a crime or an act of war. That decision would depend on the strength, operations, and motivations of the group which commits terrorism. The smaller the group’s numbers, the more restricted its operations, and more motivated it is by hatred and vengeance rather than a coherent ideology and program of change, the more sensible it would be to treat the terrorists as criminals. But if terrorism is a tactic of a mass insurgency that is trying to destroy an established authority and replace it with a completely different political, economic, and social system, then a counterinsurgency strategy would certainly be more appropriate.
The subsequent strategies would differ. A terrorism-as-crime strategy would emphasize police investigations and criminal court trials to apprehend and prosecute suspects. A terrorism-as-war strategy would include all the appropriate elements of a counterinsurgency
Any successful campaign against Al Qaeda and its affiliates clearly demands a hybrid of both strategies. Islamist operatives in states where the rule of law prevails can be investigated, apprehended, and prosecuted. A legal approach, however, will not work in failed or failing states where an Islamist movement threatens to take power or has taken power. Just what mix of methods might best counter the terrorists will vary from one country to the next. The bottom-line of any strategy is whether it works.
That was not the kind of war that President Bush and his fellow neoconservatives were interested in fighting. The nature of their war was elaborated in the president’s “National Security Strategy of the United States,” released in September 2002. That document unequivocally declares: “The United States is fighting a war against terrorism of global reach. The enemy is not a single political regime or person or religion or ideology. The enemy is terrorism itself-premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetuated against innocents…We must persevere until the United States together with its friends and allies, eliminates terrorism as a threat to our way of life.”
Realists blasted the Bush team’s so-called “war on terror.” William Pfaff denounced the “intellectually incoherent elevation…of terrorism, a tactic or method of combat employed throughout the ages, to metaphysical standing as ‘Terror,’ a phenomenon which American arms were expected to conquer.” Jeffrey Record criticized the neoconservatives for identifying “a multiplicity of enemies, including rogue states; weapons of mass destruction…proliferators; terrorist organizations of global, regional, and, national scope; and terrorism itself. It also seems to have conflated them into a monolithic threat, and in so doing, the administration has… subordinated strategic clarity to the moral clarity it strives for in foreign policy and may have set the United States on a path of open-ended and gratuitous conflict with states and non-state entities that pose no direct or imminent threat to the United States.”
The result of the neoconservative crusade against terror itself would be to kick in a hornet’s nest of enemies which did not originally threaten the United States as well as to spread American power so thin that it might be unable to prevail anywhere, especially against its most threatening enemies.
Nonplused by the barrage of criticism, the Bush administration and neoconservatives beyond tried to promote their “global war on terror” as equivalent to the Cold War as an organizing principle for American foreign policy. That only provoked a new round of criticism. Those two “wars” bear no resemblance. The Cold War was an existential struggle between two diametrically opposed ideological blocs with the capacity to annihilate each other. In contrast the terrorist threat Al Qaeda and its affiliates pose to the United Statesand others is hardly existential.
For neoconservatives the notion of a “war on terror” made perfect political and ideological sense. The concept is so vague, open-ended, and scary for the average American that it could be and was used to justify virtually everything on the conservative agenda. As true believers they never questioned their own beliefs no matter how catastrophically they collided with reality. Instead they tended to project onto others their own inner demons by hurling accusations of weakness, cowardice, unpatriotism, and even treason against their critics.
President Bush elaborated the kind of targets that would be included in the “global war on terror” in his State of the Union speech of January 29, 2002: “The United States of America will not permit the world’s most dangerous regimes to threaten us with the world’s most destructive weapons.” He singled out Iran, Iraq, and North Korea as “an axis of evil, arming to threaten the peace of the world.” Once again the realists were stunned. No alliance bound those countries. Indeed Iraq and Iran were enemies, and each had limited ties with North Korea.
The neoconservative belief in a monolithic “terror bloc” of rogue states and terrorist groups echoed similar beliefs about a monolithic “communist bloc” during the Cold War by earlier generations of conservatives. Both notions were utter delusions and both became the foundation for policies that were utter disasters for America and an array of other countries.
Here again a neoconservative shibboleth which justified a policy backfired with tragic results. The American invasion of Iraq sent a clear message to Tehran and Pyongyang, but not the one the neoconservatives intended. The Bush administration had chosen to attack the weakest of the so-called “axis of evil,” a state which posed absolutely no threat to its neighbors let alone the United States. In stark contrast, North Korea and Iran did potentially threaten other states in their regions if not the United States. The lesson for Tehran and Pyongyang was that the United States under neoconservative rule bullied the weak and feared the strong. So the obvious policy to counter that American threat was to become stronger. Rather than be intimidated from developing nuclear weapons, Iran and North Korea accelerated their programs. With most of America’s military bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan, neither Tehran nor Pyongyang worried that the Bush White House would launch a war against them. As Joseph Nye trenchantly observed, “deterrence is working. The only trouble is that we are the ones being deterred.”
The Bush administration eventually compounded its self-imposed dilemmas of semantics and policy by asserting that its war against terror would be accompanied by a war against tyranny. The argument now was that terror and tyranny were an inseparable dynamic and that one could not be defeated without defeating the other. President Bush devoted nearly all of his second inaugural address to promoting a crusade against tyranny which threatened the existence of America itself: “The survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands. The best hope for peace in our world is the expansion of freedom in all the world…All who live in tyranny and hopelessness can know that the United States will not ignore your oppression or excuse you oppressors.”
The public relations campaign to market that vision took off when the original justifications for invading Iraq-that Iraq was linked with Al Qaeda and posed an imminent threat to attack the United States with weapons of mass destruction–were proven to be either blatant lies or delusions. Now the justification for invading Iraq would be to impose a revolution from above, transforming Iraq from tyranny into a liberal democracy which would inspire similar revolutions across the Middle East and beyond. A half year after the invasion, Bush declared that in “Iraq, we are helping…to build a decent and democratic society at the center of the Middle East… The Middle East will become a place of progress and peace or it will be an exporter of violence and terror…The triumph of democracy and tolerance in Iraq, in Afghanistan, and beyond would be a grave setback for international terrorism.”
The Bush administration’s failure to “know your war” compounded the tragedies resulting from its failure to “know your enemy, know yourself.”
Conquest versus Containment
Failed states can, and at times do become sanctuaries for international terrorism and crime. How should America respond? Neoconservatives assert that the United States has no choice but to conquer and convert such a country from extremism into democracy. Citing the historic tendency for such crusades to be disastrous for American interests, realists reject that knee-jerk response and instead insist that any policy must be tailored to the specific nature of that regime’s threat to the United States. On rare occasions the conquest and conversion strategy may be the best option; usually, it simply plays into the “rope-a-dope” strategy of America’s enemies.
Containment is not only an alternative to conquest and conversion but historically has been a far less costly and far more successful strategy. The reason is simple-it is a lot easier to change behaviors than regimes. The larger the territory and more diverse, numerous, anti-western, and radical the population of a belligerent state, the more absurd the conquest and conversion strategy and the more sensible the containment strategy become.
It is falsely believed that containment is a purely defensive strategy that leaves the initiative to the enemy. A better name for containment is “constriction,” with the image of an anaconda methodically crushing its prey. The means would include all appropriate diplomatic, economic, covert, and even military actions that erode both the specific threats that regime poses and that regime’s legitimacy in the hearts and minds of the population. Like any other successful assertion of power, containment depends on the capacity and will of those who wield it.
Deterrence is an essential part of containment. Deterrence works only if the enemy does not attack because it believes that the retaliation would be certain and devastating. But can an Islamist regime be deterred?
Islamists face a dilemma. They at once enhance and diminish their power when they take over a state. The monopoly they enjoy over the country’s sources of power can be at once a blessing and a curse. Those resources are vulnerable to international economic sanctions and attack by American missiles, bombs, and Special Forces. It can be as difficult to hold as to take power. The new revolutionary regime faces the same hearts and minds dilemma as the regime it overthrew.
Thus theoretically even the most radical regime can be deterred and thus contained. The key is for the White House to communicate to that regime just what behavior is unacceptable and the consequences if it chooses to behave that way. At the same time the United States must have not just the capacity but as vitally the will to act on its threat should deterrence fail.
If the government of a nation-state can be deterred, what about a terrorist group without a mailing address? In a commencement address at West Point on May 27, 2006, President George W. Bush declared that the “terrorists have no borders to protect or capital to defend. They cannot be deterred-but they will be defeated.”
Actually terrorism can be deterred, even the suicide version. The key to deterring terrorists is to feed their fear that they will get caught before they reach their target. That entails three vital components: “we must be able to identify the adversary; the adversary must know that we have the capability to cause them great harm as well as the willingness to use that capability; and the adversary must wish to avoid the harm we can cause.”
Ideally that fear begins in their lairs. Terrorists must be made to exist in constant dread that their safe houses are death traps, that at any second black-clad Special Forces will burst in tossing stun grenades or a Hellfire or Cruise missile will obliterate the building. The measures the terrorists take to avoid detection and thus destruction in their hideouts will divert crucial resources from preparing and executing attacks. That line of deterrence is obviously only nurtured by successful attempts to find and capture or kill terrorists.
Ideally it is far better to capture than kill terrorist leaders who are gold mines of information that can be used to devastate the group. If that is not possible, then killing them is the next best option, although that usually has relatively little impact on the terrorist group. Leaders can be replaced while charismatic leaders killed in action become martyrs. Yet killing a key leader in a group with ambitious lieutenants and no clear line of succession can ignite a self-destructive power struggle.
The next line of deterrence is promoting the fear that they will get caught en route to their target. The enhanced security measures since September 11 for obtaining visas, catching planes, and entering countries most likely have had a powerful deterrent effect on would be terrorists.
The final line of deterrence is at the target itself. That involves determining which targets would be the most likely and hardening them. Just what that hardening entails will vary. Obviously there are classes of targets like airports, planes, ports, or shipping containers which can benefit from the same or similar measures.
Compulsion can also be an appropriate strategy of containment. Here again it works only if the enemy believes that the threat is credible and the results would be worse than giving in. The Taliban apparently believed that the Bush administration would not invade Afghanistan if it did not surrender Osama bin Laden and other Al Qaeda leaders after September 11. That belief was certainly understandable. After all, President George W. Bush and his fellow neoconservatives had ignored the advice of experts that Al Qaeda was a danger and chose not to retaliate even after it was revealed in January 2001 that Al Qaeda was behind the suicide boat bombing of the USS Cole the previous October.
Some threats can only be confronted with appropriate military force after all other measures have failed. For instance, should Tehran break its promise not to develop nuclear weapons or an Islamist revolution takes over Pakistan with its fifty or so nuclear weapons, then a military strike that eliminates the nuclear threats might be the best option. That would involve not a suicidal “conquer and convert” invasion, but instead a “smash, grab, and run” operation that secures those nuclear weapons and materials. Of course the political fallout of such an operation would be the equivalent of kicking in a hornet’s nest. But if the array of other containment measures is in place then any attempt to retaliate would be blunted.
Search, Destroy, Withdraw versus Take, Hold, and Build
The outright conquest and conversion of a country could only be legally, morally, and, most importantly, strategically justified if its government was responsible for a massive attack on the United States. By that criteria the Bush administration was as justified in going to war in Afghanistan as it was unjustified in warring against Iraq.
When terrorism is among the tactics a popular revolutionary movement wields to take over a country or countries vital to America’s defense, then the United States military will have to play a prominent role. In that situation, counterterrorism and counterinsurgency are essentially synonymous. But that begs the question, just what is the most effective method of fighting terrorists when they morph into insurgents?
Andrew Bacevich, a West Point graduate, Vietnam War veteran, and military theorist, identifies two broad schools of contemporary American warfare, the Powell and Petraeus doctrines. Two different ground commanders in Iraq, General Ricardo Sanchez who served from June 2003 to June 2004, and General David Petraeus, from January 2007 to September 2008, exemplify those perspectives. That debate was resolved among reasonable observers when Sanchez’s strategy exacerbated and Petraeus’s strategy quelled the insurgency.
The Powell Doctrine emphasizes the launching of overwhelming force against an enemy so that wars are “brief, decisive, and infrequent,” and is the essence of the Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA). The strategic and tactical key to the Powell Doctrine is “search, destroy, and withdraw.” When the war is conventional the Americans can actually field fewer troops than the enemy as long as those troops and bombs are concentrated in devastating numbers against the enemy’s military, economic, and political infrastructure which sustains its ability to fight. After systematically eliminating the enemy threat and imposing terms, the American military will be swiftly withdrawn.
The Powell Doctrine recognizes that an insurgency takes much longer to defeat than a conventional enemy. In such a war, the tipping point is the ratio of ten soldiers to each insurgent. The greater the ratio the greater the chance of smothering the insurgency; the lesser the ratio the more likely the insurgents will not only survive but prosper and ultimately prevail.
The Petraeus Doctrine understands that ever more wars are characterized as being “protracted, ambiguous, and continuous.” To win such wars, the strategic and tactical emphasis is to “take, hold, and build” in order to win the “hearts and minds of the population and thus win the war.
“The U.S. Army and Marine 2006 Counterinsurgency Manual” explores that strategy in depth. An insurgency is defined as “an organized movement aimed at the overthrow of a constituted government through the use of subversion and armed conflict…Counterinsurgency is military, paramilitary, political, economic, psychological, and civic actions taken” to defeat an insurgency.
The emphasis is on securing the population rather than destroying the enemy since the enemy diminishes as the population becomes more secure: “The civilian population is the center of gravity-the deciding factor in the struggle. Therefore civilians must be separated from insurgents to insulate them from insurgent pressure and to deny the insurgent ‘fish’ the cover of the civilian ‘sea.’ By doing so, the counterinsurgents can militarily isolate, weaken and defeat the insurgents.”
A successful counterinsurgency concentrates on developing the economic, social, and political infrastructure that gives people security with which to develop their living standards and quality of life. Here too numbers and ratios are important, but primarily to secure the population rather than attack the enemy. The tipping point is one soldier for every fifty inhabitants. The greater the ratio of soldiers to inhabitants, the more secure the population, the more likely they can work and live in relative peace, and the more likely they will be loyal to the government and see the foreign troops as allies rather than enemies.
Successfully fighting an insurgency involves first understanding its unique, complex nature and then committing the most appropriate forces that will eventually overwhelm each of its dimensions. That takes time although how much depends on the nature of the insurgency and what resources can be mustered to counter it. Patience is essential but being a quick learner is even more important. “Learn and adapt” is the most important of the counterinsurgency mottos since “the side that learns faster and adapts more rapidly…usually wins.”
The Petraeus Doctrine seeks to revolutionize the way Americans and their allies understand and conduct counterinsurgency. To that end the manual identifies eight Zen-like paradoxes for practitioners to constantly meditate: (1). Sometimes the more force is used, the less effective it is; (2) The more successful the counterinsurgency is, the less force can be used and the more risk must be accepted; (3) Sometimes doing nothing is the best reaction; (4) Some of the best weapons for counterinsurgency do not shoot; (5) The host nation doing something tolerably well is normally better than us doing it well; (6) If a tactic works this week, it might not work the next week; if it works in this province, it might not work in the next; (7) Tactical success guarantees nothing; and (8) Many important decisions are not made by generals.
A counterinsurgency strategy that focuses on defending the population rather than searching out and destroying guerrillas demands vast numbers of troops with the general ratio of one soldier for every fifty inhabitants. Ideally that ratio is met not by deploying foreign boots on the ground, but by raising and deploying native forces. The reason is simple. Even in the best of causes, the transition from liberator to occupier to imperialist oppressor in the eyes of a population can be swift.
The presence of foreign troops often feeds rather than starves a counterinsurgency. Even the best trained troops can literally and figuratively trample local sensitivities, customs, and people. Search and destroy missions, especially the midnight raids of shouting soldiers, kicked in doors, screaming women and children, and suspects shot or dragged away are hardly the most convincing way to win hearts and minds. So, ideally foreign troops should remain in the background, training the native troops, evaluating intelligence sources, and backing rather than leading operations.
According to a Rand Corporation study, “by far the most effective strategy against religious [terrorist] groups has been the use of local police and intelligence services, which were responsible for the end of 73 percent of [terrorist] groups since 1968.” The key element behind that success is the ability to understand, penetrate, and rally the people away from the insurgents and behind the government. Local police are the best able and foreign troops the least able to do that.
After securing the population the next vital step is to break up the enemy. Smearing any insurgents and their supporters as “terrorists” and trying to wipe them all out only strengthens the insurgency. “You cannot kill your way out of insurgency,” General Petraeus explained. “You’re not going to defeat everybody out there. You have to turn them.”
Iraq and Afghanistan must represent National Rifle Association dreamlands-virtually all men are armed, dangerous, and members of local militias. Each of those hundreds of militias are political wild cards, ropes in the tug-of-wars between insurgents and counterinsurgents. The militias know their turf, the people, places, and resources of their territory whether it’s a neighborhood, a village, or an entire valley. Their primary loyalty is to the clan, village, or tribe that they are organized to defend. They will fight with or against anyone if it defends or enhances their particular interests. It is easy to alienate and tough to entice such militias.
As the saying goes, the loyalty of a militia cannot be bought, but it can be rented. Part of the Americans’ “take, hold, and build” strategy in both Afghanistan and Iraq involves buying the cooperation of the militias. Yet that strategy might actually conflict with attempts to build a viable state, army, and police. American cooption of local militias in Iraqand Afghanistan means arming, training, and funding groups which are at best autonomous and at worst opposed to the states that Washington is trying to develop in those countries.
There is another way to enlist a militia’s arms if not its hearts and minds. A militia can be terrorized into a temporary loyalty, as the Taliban has proven. A Taliban threat to behead the militia chief and his sons will most likely cause them to submit. They might only resist if American, allied, or government forces are present and strong enough to defend them. Tragically, that is rarely the case.
Building Nations and Draining Swamps
Perhaps the central dilemma in counterinsurgency is the chicken and egg relationship between security and development. A country can not develop unless it is secure and can not be secure unless it develops.
Legitimacy is the bottom-line of development and thus security. Seymour Martin Lipset defines legitimacy as “the capacity of a political system to engender and maintain the belief that existing political institutions are the most appropriate and proper ones for the society.” The more people who question or outright resist a political system’s legitimacy, the greater the chance that it will be overthrown and replaced. Insurgencies break out and persist for good reasons. People rebel because a government has failed not just to satisfy their fundamental needs, wants, and rights, but has wielded its power to repress and exploit them.
A government establishes legitimacy by solving rather than worsening problems. Thus the most logical and effective counterinsurgency strategy is to resolve the grievances that first sparked the rebellion. That in turn robs the insurgency of its appeal. The result is to lock the insurgents into a vicious cycle of ever fewer recruits, funds, operations, and legitimacy. But to do that there has to be a willing and able government, which brings us back to that chicken and egg dilemma.
The central goal for a counterinsurgency strategy is to build up faster than the insurgents tear down. Dell Dailey, the State Department’s counterterrorist coordinator, explains that “our most important task in the war on terrorism is not the ‘destructive’ task of eradicating enemy networks, but the ‘constructive’ task of building legitimacy, good governance, trust, rule of law, and tolerance. Systems that are characterized by an absence of political choice, honest governance, economic opportunity, and personal freedoms can create incubators for extremism. Ignoring human-development problem is not an option.” He estimates that “addressing the conditions that terrorists exploit” is two-thirds of the counterterrorist effort.
Larry Diamond, who was a senior advisor to the Coalition Provisional Authority in Baghdad and is an expert on development, offers a succinct analysis of the four key components necessary in “any effort to rebuild a shattered, war-torn country: political reconstruction of a legitimate and capable state; economic reconstruction, including the rebuilding of the country’s physical infrastructure and the creation of rules and institutions that enable a market economy; social reconstruction, including the renewal (or in some cases, creation) of a civil society and political culture that foster voluntary cooperation and the limitation of state power; and the provision of general security, to establish a safe and orderly environment.” He goes on to explain how the four are interrelated and when one fails it erodes the others. But of the four, security comes first. Without order and stability there will be little or no political, economic, and social development. The result is “nothing but disorder, distrust, and desperation-an utterly Hobbesian situation in which fear pervades and raw force dominates.”
The state-building or “drain-the-swamp” strategy tries to eliminate the festering socioeconomic conditions which may breed terrorism and terrorists. As President Bush put it, “we fight against poverty because hope is an answer to terrorism.”
The trouble with that strategy is that terrorists are more likely to rise from failed psyches than failed states. There are literally billions of people around the world mired in poverty, repression, and despair. Only a tiny sliver of that population would ever join a terrorist group let alone commit vicious atrocities in its name.
Attempts to identify a definitive terrorist profile have been a chimera. The reason why is simple enough. Terrorists come from virtually all professions, income levels, and backgrounds. Most studies, however, belie the notion that a society’s most desperate are the most inclined to become terrorists. A study of Hezbollah members found that they had on average better incomes and schooling than most of the population. The 9/11 hijackers mostly had middle class background and high school or university degrees. Osama bin Laden himself came from one of the world’s wealthiest families. Terrorists groups have at times bedeviled affluent societies like those of America, Europe, and Japan. Revolutionary leaders in any country tend to emerge from privileged backgrounds, with their drive and vision to change the world animated by a profound sense of injustice combined with enough wealth and education to understand and act on radical alternatives.
Yet, regardless of the personal backgrounds of terrorists, most come from countries with appalling poverty, repression, exploitation, and corruption, and an ever widening gap between the haves and have nots. The key appears to be whether a government can repress those who would rebel against it. A tottering or outright failed state will breed more terrorists than a government which is as efficient at crushing dissent as it is at exploiting the population.
Clinton Watts established a profile for foreign fighters in both Afghanistan and Iraq. That fighter is most likely from a country in the Middle East or North Africa with “a high infant mortality rate, a high unemployment rate, and few civil liberties.” He was more likely recruited by a returning fighter or a local religious leader than from the internet. “He is not necessarily impoverished but has time on his hands and a lack of purpose, making him more susceptible to radicalization…If he has experience fighting, he will elect to fight; if not, he will elect to be a suicide bomber.” The countries which supplied the most fighters in proportion to their populations were Libya, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen. Armed with that knowledge, Watt contends that the United States should work with the governments of the countries most likely to breed such fighters and try to alleviate the socioeconomic conditions that make terrorism appealing.
Expert Jessica Stern offers a succinct explanation of the sources of terrorism and the best counter-strategy: “While there is no single root cause of terrorism…alienation, perceived humiliation, and lack of political and economic opportunities make young men susceptible to extremism. It can evolve easily into violence when government institutions are weak…Thus the best way to fight them is to ensure that they are rejected by the broader population. Terrorists and guerrillas rely on getting at least some popular support.”
Among the crucial ingredients of nation-building is that the teacher of democracy should be a model to the student. The failure to practice what is preached can tragically skew the results. The Bush administration essentially sacrificed nation-building in Afghanistan and Iraq on the altar of political payback and ideological correctness. Eventually tens of billions of taxpayer dollars were handed over in no-bid or insider contracts to huge Republican Party campaign contributors like Halliburton and Bechtel. Overhead and often blatant theft devoured up to half of those payments, leaving very little left for the actual projects. Hundreds of projects never got beyond the blueprints or started and were never completed. Regardless, American taxpayers paid the bills. The result was to grossly undermine the counterterrorism campaigns in both countries. The American occupation’s corruption, ineptness, and brutality alienated literally millions of people, turned thousands into insurgents and terrorists, and squandered tens of billions of dollars, tens of thousands of local lives, and thousands of American lives.
George W. Bush and the neoconservatives gave democracy a very bad name. Few people around the world failed to notice the glaring gap between the Bush team’s democratic rhetoric and its autocratic practices at home and abroad. The notion of imposing democracy at gunpoint on Afghans and Iraqis was derided as hypocritical, either cynical or naïve, and ultimately self-defeating. Here again the neoconservatives mistook style for substance. Elections do not equal democracy. Indeed an election can destroy a democracy if it brings to power those determined to do so.
In all, America’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq reveal an array of lessons of how to fight an insurgency along with, tragically, many more of what not to do.
 Sun Tzu, The Art of War (New York: Barnes and Noble Book, 1994), 179.
 William Pfaff, “The American Mission?” New York Review of Books, vol. 51, no 6, April 8, 2004, 23; Jeffrey Record, Bounding the Global War on Terrorism (Carlisle, Penn.: Strategic Studies Institute, 2004), v, 1.
Armed Services Committee, September 19, 2008.
 Alan B. Krueger and Jitka Malesckova, “Education, Poverty, and Terrorism: Is There a Casual Connection,” Journal of Economic Perspectives, vol. 17, no. 4, Fall 2003, 135; See also Ted Gurr, Why Men Rebel (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1970.