Fighting terrorists never works out as we hope. The threat of violent extremists is not new to this millennium. Fears of small, organized groups undermining authority at home and abroad go back at least to the 19th century in Europe, North America and other continents. The fears of harm usually exceed the realities of danger, but the dangers are real nonetheless. Although terrorists have never brought down a major power, they have caused major dislocation and suffering in countless societies (including Russia, Germany and China.)
The contemporary Middle East has endured decades of terrorism since at least the early 1970s. The extremism has silenced moderate voices and the violence has splintered governing institutions into tribal tyrannies. The disintegration of Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, Yemen and other countries, and the rise of al-Qaeda and ISIS, among others, are recent manifestations of this historical process. The terrorists have hijacked the region’s politics and replaced civil society with gang warfare. Citizens are defined by the group they belong to; disloyalty is punished with death.
Recognizing that terrorism in the Middle East threatens the broader international community, Americans have spent decades trying to fight it. The nature of American counter-terrorism has shifted in regular fashion between two schools of thought.
One school, the “development” approach, has emphasized investments in education, health and economic growth to encourage citizens of terrorized societies to embrace good government. The goal has been to build a grassroots constituency for civil authority and a broad cohort of citizens with the skills to run a prosperous, open society. The Peace Corps, the World Bank, USAID and many other American-sponsored organizations pursue this approach of treating the poor conditions that appear to produce terrorism.
The second school, the “combat” approach, defines terrorists as foreign armies that must be defeated. Proponents of this approach deploy overwhelming force to kill and capture terrorist leaders, destroy their resources and punish their supporters. Through aggressive intelligence work, including the torture of suspected terrorists with valuable information, the combat school aims to grind terrorist organizations to dust, making them more pathetic than threatening. Unmanned aerial vehicles (“drones”), Army and Navy Special Forces and CIA covert operatives are the lead actors for those who seek to go in hard and fast to defeat the extremists.
In our long history with counterterrorism, Americans have alternated their emphasis between these two schools, experiencing the frustrating limits of each. In the 1990s, after the end of the Cold War, the United States focused on development in the Middle East, encouraging investments in business enterprises, the rule of law and education throughout the region. Each of these areas of development showed some progress, but powerful actors (including the oil-rich leaders of the Gulf states and wealthy individuals like Osama bin Laden) also expanded their support for terrorist groups. While regional development contributed to a new generation of entrepreneurs, it also inspired a new generation of extremists among those who turned to religious fundamentalisms rather than more cosmopolitan ideas.
Following the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States, Americans decisively favored force over development. That seemed necessary to stop the groups that had shown a desire and a capability of killing thousands of citizens. Force also appeared to produce results in the overthrow of the Taliban in Afghanistan and the removal of Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq. After 2003, when insurgencies in both countries exposed the limits of this strategy, Americans accepted that they could not totally destroy the terrorists, but they hoped to keep them scattered and under heavy pressure. Even as he withdrew American forces depart from Iraq and as troops withdraw from Afghanistan, President Barack Obama held to this strategy through the use of increased drone attacks on terrorist leaders, and special covert interventions, including the killing of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan in May 2011.
Of course, the use of force against terrorists has not proven more successful than prior development efforts. Syria, Iraq, Libya and Yemen are more dominated by terrorists today than they were in late 2001. The United States has spent billions of dollars training counter-terrorist forces in the region and bombing from the air, but it is not clear if these actions have killed or inspired more terrorists.
There is no proven solution to terrorism in either the development or the combat schools. Ignoring the problem, as many Americans might prefer now, is no solution either, especially when the fate of an economically vital region like the Middle East is at stake. The future of American counterterrorism policy will involve new innovative ways to mix the promise of development with the power of combat. The United States has failed to strike the correct balance in recent decades. Finding the pathways to civil order between corrupting handouts of foreign aid and alienating attacks from the air – that is the supreme challenge for a new generation of policy-makers. It is an intellectual opportunity for our best minds to help bring some order to a violent, fragmenting world.
Suri is a professor in the Department of History and the LBJ School of Public Affairs.