On the strategy against ISIS

This week President Trump will receive a preliminary plan from the Pentagon for defeating ISIS. Early indications are that the strategy will focus mostly on military options and may include a proposal for sending additional U.S. troops into Syria. More air strikes in Iraq and Syria are also likely to be included. Meanwhile President Trump has ordered a “massive rebuilding” of the military, and the Republican majority in Congress is preparing a Pentagon budget boost.

On the campaign trail candidate Trump was skeptical of military solutions in the Middle East, but as President he seems to be following the same failed policies of his predecessors. After more than 15 years of the ‘war on terror’, we should know by now that this fight cannot be won by military means. “We cannot kill our way out of this war,” said the chief of Air Force intelligence recently.

The challenge of defeating ISIS and related groups requires a different approach and wider set of policies. Instead of relying on the military for advice, the President should convene a broader group, including civilian peacebuilding and governance experts, to develop a holistic strategy that addresses the underlying causes of terrorist violence.

Empirical evidence confirms that war is not an effective means of countering terrorist organizations. A 2008 RAND Corporation study shows that terrorist groups usually end through political processes and effective law enforcement, not the use of military force. An examination of 268 terrorist organizations that ended after a period of nearly forty years found that the primary factors accounting for their demise were participation in political processes (43 percent) and effective policing (40 percent). Military force accounted for the end of terrorist groups in only 7 percent of the cases examined.

Alternative strategies for countering terrorist violence are well known and have been articulated by the United Nations and many other organizations. The core requirement is an accurate assessment of the political roots of the conflict. In the case of the struggle against ISIS, the problem is not that Sunni Arabs ‘hate America’ (many of them joined with the U.S. in battling al Qaida in the 2006 Iraq Awakening), but rather that they have been suppressed and marginalized by political leaders in Baghdad and Damascus. The solution is to work for equitable political power sharing arrangements in both countries.

Success in the struggle against extremism also requires greater efforts to build effective and accountable institutions of governance. Regimes in the region are deeply corrupt, lack the capacity to deliver basic goods and services, and offer few if any avenues for citizen participation. The U.S. military has long recognized that the political function is key to effective counterinsurgency. The priority task is to help local governments build accountable institutions of governance that ameliorate social grievances and provide pathways for political inclusion and participation to all major stakeholders. These are long-term challenges that require sustained international support for good governance and economic and social development.

An emphasis on addressing grievances and improving governance does not obviate the need for security protection. International police and intelligence operations are essential for preventing terrorist plots. Cooperative policing between the United States and other countries has successfully interdicted many plots, saving thousands of lives. International sanctions and financial restrictions are also helping to isolate and weaken terrorist networks.

The strategic framework against ISIS requires a two-level approach: preventive measures that ameliorate the grievances and conditions that give rise to terrorism, and protective efforts to guard against attacks. If the President is serious about defeating ISIS he will need a bigger toolkit and a new approach that emphasizes political solutions and police protection more than the use of military force.



The Strategy of Nonviolent Protest

Millions of us have marched and protested in recent weeks against the divisive and dangerous policies of the Trump administration. The Women’s March of January 21 brought more than 700,000 people to Washington and sparked protests all across the country. More than four million people participated in demonstrations that day, making it the largest protest action in U.S. history. Since then there have been countless rallies and protests at airports and in town squares against the administration’s immigration ban, and a growing number of actions at Congressional offices to prevent the gutting of the Affordable Care Act (ACA).

The concerns of this new progressive movement are many—human rights, social justice, religious tolerance, climate care, peace, women’s rights—but the unifying goal is a desire to roll back the extremist agenda of the new administration. This is a goal that many Americans support. The President’s approval ratings are historically low, and with every new Executive Order or tweet he seems to alienate more people. Opposition groups are gaining members and financial support. The ACLU received a record $24 million in contributions in one weekend after the immigration ban was announced.

The strategic mission of the movement in the months ahead is to continue building opposition to the administration’s policies and to drive a wedge between the White House and Congressional Republicans.

Already we’ve seen some successes. Federal judges have temporarily blocked the immigration ban. Green card holders won’t be prevented from returning to the U.S., and Iraqis who served as translators for American forces will be exempted from the ban. Proposed executive orders to reopen CIA ‘black sites’ and authorize discrimination against women and LGBTQ people in the name of ‘religious freedom’ have been shelved for now.

Splits have started to appear in Republican ranks. Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham and other Republican leaders have criticized the Muslim immigration ban. Republican members of Congress are nervous about the backlash they will face if they pull the rug out from under the 20 million people who gained health coverage through the ACA.

Achieving further success will require maintaining the peaceful spirit and demeanor of the Women’s March and avoiding actions that could turn away those we seek to attract.

We need to apply the lessons of empirical research on civil resistance. Nonviolent movements are more effective than violent campaigns. Political success comes from building mass participation and inducing loyalty shifts among the adversary’s supporters. Tactics are effective to the degree that they draw large numbers of people to the cause and undermine the legitimacy and moral authority of the opponent.

This is not a time for the kind of anarchist action that occurred in Berkeley last week. Using fire bombs and throwing fire crackers at police feeds the Trump narrative and damages the credibility of the progressive movement. They alienate people who might otherwise support the movement. Studies show that violent action often provokes government repression and can be counterproductive politically. The same is true today.

This is not to say that disruption and civil disobedience will have no place in the current struggle. Social change often requires disrupting business as usual and generating what Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. called “creative tension.” If the Trump administration starts to come after the undocumented, many of us will put our bodies on the line and engage in nonviolent civil disobedience. If federal authorities want to detain or deport our neighbors, they will have to arrest us first.

As we resist the Trump agenda we should maintain nonviolent discipline and a sense of respect and caring for others. Our goal is to protect the vulnerable, and we should act in the spirit of charity and love that is appropriate to that purpose. We must attract ever larger numbers of people to our cause and build the social force and political support necessary to stop the Trump onslaught.