Should Cops or Generals Spearhead the War on Terror?

An Associated Press article quotes Seth Jones, a RAND political scientist and author of a study on fighting terrorism, as saying that intelligence operations and police work, not military operations, are the most effective tools against terrorism.

terrorists should be perceived and described as criminals, not holy warriors, and our analysis suggests there is no battlefield solution to terrorism. ... The United States has the necessary instruments to defeat al-Qaida, it just needs to shift its strategy.

One component of that strategy would be to end the "War on Terror" and transform it into a police action. The AP writes that "nearly every ally, including Britain and Australia, has stopped using 'war on terror' to describe strategy against the group headed by Osama bin Laden and considered responsible for the Sept. 11, 2001 suicide attacks at the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon." Why shouldn't America do the same?

A closer reading of the RAND study shows it doesn't wholly disparage military force. The monograph, How Terrorist Groups End, points out that terror groups often become susceptible to political reconciliation or police action only after the neutralization of their geopolitical and state sponsors, a process in which military force plays a preeminent role.

Based on a study of "648 groups that existed between 1968 and 2006", RAND finds "the evidence ... indicates that most [terrorist] groups have ended because (1) they joined the political process or (2) local police and intelligence arrested key members." Yet this is often made possible only by the decline in the fortunes of their international sponsors. The RAND report gives a number of examples.

Page 15 says "a number of terrorist groups that advocated the creation of an independent Armenian state, such as the Armenian Resistance Group, disbanded after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Page 21 says "the collapse of the Soviet Union meant that a number of groups, such as the FMLN in El Salvador, saw their outside assistance quickly begin to dry up." Page 69 cites the "end of the Cold War" and the "Soviet Union's withdrawal of support for Marxist movements in Latin America" as a key factor in the the Salvadoran insurgency's decision to negotiate a peace settlement.

Nor did police action itself take place in a vacuum. The RAND report points out that military protection is required for the police to go about their work. Without an Army to protect police and informants from heavily armed groups, neither law enforcement nor intelligence can long survive. RAND cites the case of al-Qaeda in Anbar as an example of where military force is necessary to enable law enforcement (page 109).

US operations in al Anbar province provide a useful illustration of when military forces can be appropriate against terrorist groups ... such groups are often well equipped, well organized and well motivated, and police acting alone would be quickly overpowered.

The critical relationship between the police and the military was demonstrated in other settings, like Kosovo. On March 17, 2008 several hundred Serb rioters fired weapons and threw grenades at the UN police headquarters in Mitrovica. "The rioters had freed 21 Serbs detained in the raid, stopping the UN cars that were carrying them. At least four UN and NATO vehicles were burned . . . and the police were eventually forced to pull out of northern Mitrovica, leaving NATO troops to face the rioters."

What the RAND study actually criticizes is a strategy which overly relies on military force without a corresponding police, intelligence and political component. It claims the campaign in Iraq drained away resources that could have been better used to fund intelligence and political initiatives against terror. As proof of the inefficacy of military responses, the report on pages 137-138 cites the rise in total al-Qaeda attacks after the US operations in Iraq and Afghanistan as evidence that military action didn't slow the AQ down.

There are no reliable estimates -- and no way to reliable assess -- which attacks in Afghanistan included a significant al Qa'ida component. ... Nonetheless, al Qa'ida's direct role in the Afghanistan and Iraq insurgencies, both of which occurred after September 11, 2001, strengthens the argument that it was involved in more attacks in the first six years after September 11, 2001, than it was before that date. ...

After 2001, al Qai'da significantly increased its number of attacks which spanned a wider geographic area across Europe, Asia, the Middle East, and Africa. As Figure 6.2 indicates, al-Qai'da continued to conduct attacks in several key locations, such as Saudi Arabia and Kenya. But it also expanded into North Africa (Tunisia and Algeria), Asia (Bangladesh, Indonesia, and Pakistan), the Middle East (Jordan, Turkey, and Egypt), and Europe (the United Kingdom). ...

The obvious problem with citing the rise in al-Qaeda attacks on US forces in Iraq and Afghanistan between 2002 and 2007 as evidence of growing terrorist strength is that it is correlated with combat operations between the two forces. The number of clashes would be expected to grow in any case as both sides came to grips. The intensity of fighting between the two sides in war is not a good indicator of who is winning, but the end state is. The increased clashes between the Imperial Japan and the United States between 1942 and 1945 didn't prove that Japan was gaining strength, but the surrender on the battleship Missouri proved Japan had lost. Similarly, whatever the intensity of combat between al-Qaeda and the coalition may have reached between 2003 and 2006, the growing stability in Iraq which has prompted Joe Klein of Time to write that "the reality is that neither Barack Obama nor Nouri al-Maliki nor most anybody else believes that the Iraq war can be "lost" at this point" should call into question the argument that simply because al-Qaeda was fighting hard in Iraq, it was therefore gaining in strength.