The US approach to “Terrorism”: Failure

Photo from Amnesty International

The “War on Terror” was first proclaimed by the Reagan administration in the early 1980s.  It has been redeclared by every president since then.  The goal we are told is known as “4d”; defeat, diminish, deny, and defend. Talk of “respecting human dignity” and “winning the hearts and minds” is flooded on T.V. networks and scholarly papers. As the NSS in 2006 notes:


The first pillar is promoting freedom, justice, and human dignity- working to end tyranny, to promote effective democracies, and to extend prosperity…free governments are accountable to their people, govern their territory effectively, and purse economic and political policies that benefit their citizens.  Free nations do not oppress their people or attack other free nations.

Without going into the problems of the Democratic Peace Theory, the policy under the Bush administration seems humanitarian and idealistic.  Indeed, the Obama administration has echoed the same thoughts. In the recent NSS the Obama administration proclaimed that:

We reject the notion that lasting security and prosperity can be found by turning away from universal rights- democracy does not merely represent our better angels, it stands in opposition to aggression and injustice, and our support for universal rights is both fundamental to American leadership and a source of our strength in the world.

All rhetoric aside, the US has failed to follow international law, seek justice, or promote democracy.  The US supports the most tyrannical and despotic governments in the Near East; namely, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt.  Outside of popular rhetoric the US government, for decades now, has supported these governments with arms shipments and diplomatic support.  If the goal of the previous four administrations was to “promote democracy”, their record is dismal at best.

Furthermore, recent events in Yemen and Afghanistan (and Pakistan) provide ample evidence that the US is has not been too concerened with “human dignity” or “human rights”.  For example, a recent Amnesty International (AI) report has released

“images of a US-manufactured cruise missile that carried cluster munitions, apparently taken following an attack on an alleged al-Qa’ida training camp in Yemen that killed 41 local residents, including 14 women and 21 children…A military strike of this kind against alleged militants without an attempt to detain them is at the very least unlawful. The fact that so many of the victims were actually women and children indicates that the attack was in fact grossly irresponsible, particularly given the likely use of cluster munitions,”

This is the first time, to my knowledge, that the US has been cited as being involved in the attack.  The deaths of these women and children, no doubt, will be “unfortunate”.    However, it is unlikely that anything will come except a tacit apology from the US for the “collateral damage” in the “War on Terror”; if any statement is even released.  If the US deems a person a “militant” then attacks against them are legitimate.  The danger arises when there is no credible investigation to these accusations.  The US is at liberty to attack and label anyone it pleases.  This attack on the civilian population of another country with cluster bombs is reminiscent of US atrocities in Vietnam and Israeli actions in Lebanon.

The same is true in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Civilian causalities have gone up and down over the years; however, deaths of Afghan civilians by NATO troops have more than doubled this year. This trend, if it continues, will seriously undermine any effort to “win” in Afghanistan; whatever that means.  The fact is, the UN has condemned drone strikes (which have been discussed on our blog here) which are a leading cause of civilian deaths.  The Counterinsurgency (COIN) specialist David Kilcullen has noted:

“If we want to strengthen our friends and weaken our enemies in Pakistan, bombing Pakistani villages with unmanned drones is totally counterproductive…[Drones] increase the number and radicalism of Pakistanis who support extremism, and thus undermine the key strategic program of building a willing and capable partner in Pakistan”.

Disregarding the moral and legal questions (these “utopian” concerns have never bothered policy planners) the strategy is a losing strategy. The policy of “root out terrorists and kill them” is a failing strategy.  Unless the underlying grievances are understood and addressed, resistance to US actions will continue; free-trade, Christianity, and democracy will not change anything as long as the US is killing innocent civilians, supporting despotic regimes, blocking economic opportunity, and a litany of other actions.

Daniel Ellsberg was a pentagon official during the Vietnam War and has become infamous for his release of “The Pentagon Papers”.  His job was to evaluate the COIN strategy in Vietnam.  Here are his thoughts on the war in Afghanistan:

What it [COIN] ignores is that the recruiting tool of our adversaries there is predominantly the presence of foreign troops. And when we add more foreign troops, we are sustaining that recruiting tool. And for every enemy trying to eject foreigners from his country that we kill, and especially his families, the wedding parties, and the funeral parties after we’ve hit the wedding parties, all of those recruit more people in a way that will—assures us that, contrary to what President Obama is saying, we will not prevail. When he does say we aren’t going to quit, in the short run, at least, he’s right, unfortunately. We have many years ahead of us.

The Bush and Obama administrations have utterly failed to understand the driving motivations for war, “terror”, and conflict in the Near East.  If the US followed its own rhetoric- supporting freedom, democracy, and international law- then progress might be made.  However, as long as the US has hundreds of thousands of troops on foreign land, supports dictators and despots, and blocks economic progress, the US will continue to see hostility and danger.


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