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.