Countering Violent Extremism Really Does Involve Killing Terrorists

Michael G. Waltz Senior National Security Fellow, New America Foundation
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The recent White House Summit on Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) reignited a fierce debate about the underlying causes of terrorism and the best way to confront it. Missing from the summit — indeed, missing from the Obama administration’s strategy — is a basic understanding of the concept of the “strong horse,” and the natural attraction of embattled populations — particularly disaffected youths — to the perceived winner.

During my tours as a Special Forces commander in Afghanistan, we saw time and again individuals faced daily with a life or death choice: ally with the insurgency or with the Coalition and Afghan government. Yes, many people viewed the Afghan government as worse than the Taliban. However, far more cases of “popular support” for the insurgency were a result of intimidation at the end of an AK-47, forced recruitment, or the general perception that the insurgents were going to be the eventual winner.

One grizzled elder in eastern Afghanistan waved his finger back and forth as he chided me, “You Americans don’t understand. You can build all the schools and roads and wells you want. We are very thankful. We need these things. They create jobs and a future for our children. But tonight, after you leave and go back to your base, the Taliban will have a gun to my head. I want to work with you but I cannot until you rid this place of them.”

In the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the U.S. rightly supported economic development initiatives, jobs programs, and education, which are critical to improving the environments where extremism thrives. But I can testify from my own experience, the most important thing we did was to go after the Taliban and al Qaeda thugs who were menacing the population. When we did it right — with minimal to no collateral damage — not only did our raids take the pressure off individuals who justifiably feared for their lives, but they also changed the calculus for new insurgent recruits. If they joined the Taliban, they knew they too would be targeted. It also helped to shatter the insurgent propaganda that they were untouchable and the inevitable winner.

The same lessons are instructive today. The Islamic State’s (ISIS) declared “caliphate” in Iraq, Syria and now parts of Libya — coupled with extremist inspired attacks in Paris, Sydney, Rotterdam, and elsewhere — are providing weekly reminders that Islamic extremism is a global threat that must be forcefully dealt with now. Unfortunately, last week’s White House summit highlighted two serious flaws in the Obama administration’s approach to ISIS: its tendency to overemphasize the grievances used to radicalize and recruit terrorists, and its obvious discomfort with the use of military force. Many speakers, including the president, focused solely on the underlying causes of instability and disaffection in the Muslim world without exposing the hypocrisy of groups like ISIS and their enablers.

The approach promoted at the summit may form part of our long-term strategy, particularly if it involves a more vocal role for mainstream Muslims who reject violence. In the short term, however, thousands of fighters continue to join the ranks of ISIS every month. Are they motivated by the Crusades, economic injustice, or the Palestinian cause, as the administration would have us believe? Jobs? These grievances must be recognized and dealt with, but they were overemphasized by the administration. And, the “soft power” initiatives needed to counter them are critical, but are likely to take a generation or more to truly make a difference. In the short term we must have more decisive military intervention for the people of the region and our enemies to realize that United States and its coalition will emerge as the strong horse.

Unlike ISIS’s leaders today, Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri, and al Qaeda’s inner circle went underground for the past decade for a reason — they knew we were coming for them and would not stop until they were killed or captured. That knowledge degraded their operations and undermined their appeal. By 2008, we regularly saw young men across the Middle East refusing al Qaeda’s recruiters. Why? Because they were afraid, and the group appeared to be on the decline. Other potential mid-level commanders refused promotions because they said they couldn’t sleep at night — the Americans would get them. Their once-strong horse was increasingly perceived as lame, and that perception helped sow the seeds of discontent among the local tribes who had allied with them. Al Qaeda became increasingly unwelcome, in the mountains of Pakistan and the sands of Iraq. The weakness of the leaders of Islamic extremism was soon coupled with what was surely to be its death knell — popular demands across the Muslim world for liberalism and democracy in the Arab Spring. Islamic extremism faced something worse than military defeat and weakness, it faced irrelevance.

However, instead of keeping its boot on the neck of extremist groups and allowing the seeds of moderation to grow, the United States declared victory and pivoted to Asia. The administration withdrew militarily and diplomatically from the new movements and governments, leaving the forces of moderation to flounder. Only as Islamic extremism rebounded and evolved into the ISIS nightmare more vicious than the previous incarnation, is the administration reluctantly and partially responding to pleas for help.

Time and again, the administration says things like, “We cannot kill our way out of this war.” Of course the military piece shouldn’t be the only element of our strategy, but as the elder in Afghanistan chided me back in 2006, security is the oxygen that soft power initiatives, like those discussed in the summit, need to breathe.

The bottom line is, people in conflict zones like Afghanistan, Syria, and Iraq, who are betting their lives on which side will win, respect strength. That is why you saw King Abdullah of Jordan respond immediately and decisively to the horrific burning of his pilot. He had to respond to brutal force with brutal force or risk being perceived as weak by his people, and his enemies.

To tip the balance, we need more American Special Forces operators, with a mandate not only to train our local allies, but also to accompany them on their missions as combat advisors. Too many people think of advocates of military force as divisions of U.S. soldiers and tanks like the Iraq invasion. Rather, several hundred Special operators can make a huge difference through the Iraqi Army and Peshmerga. They will also enable them to call in more precise and therefore more effective airstrikes. Our most elite units in JSOC also should be empowered to hunt down ISIS leadership in the dead of the night. The more time and energy al Baghdadi and his lieutenants are forced to spend making plans to live through the next night, the less they will be able to spend on commanding and controlling an area the size of Great Britain — much less conquering new territory.

If these additional measures are not in place by the time the Iraqi Army launches its offensive to retake Mosul this Spring, I fear that ISIS will grind it down in the urban labyrinth of Iraq’s second largest city and massively boost its strong horse perception across the region. I also fear that without U.S. Special Forces instilling professionalism and accountability into the Army’s mostly Shi’ite leadership as well as keep an eye on the Iranian-back militias fighting alongside, the offensive will face a backlash from the Mosul’s Sunni population.

At best, last week’s Summit was an overdue recognition that we are in the middle of a lengthy ideological conflict that most of us understood wasn’t going to end with the death of Osama bin Laden. Now, the president needs to make clear that the forces of modernity and moderation, led by the United States, are the strong horse. To do so is going to require a more serious — and specialized — application of military force. We can still accomplish our goals with a relatively small number of boots on the ground. The longer we dither, the more it’s going to require.