Senator John Kerry delivered a brilliant speech on Wednesday morning at the Center for American Progress Action Fund entitled “A New Approach to Fighting Terrorism.” Kerry’s speech reflected his recent findings from his Middle East trip to Saudi Arabia, Israel, and Egypt earlier this month and outlined his proposals to deal more effectively with Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Iraq, thus continuing to lead on the issue as he has for the past few years.
Sadly, the media is more interested in the current candidates for president and their back and forth over John McCain’s sleezy campaign ads, than they are in a spot on speech from our former Democratic nominee on foreign policy, that both candidates should bear in mind. And so…
The full text of Senator Kerry’s speech is as follows:
Every generation has faced a great challenge in meeting the security needs of our country. Nearly five years ago, a prescient memo framed the crucial question in today’s challenge — the struggle against radical religious extremism and terrorism. The author? None other than Donald Rumsfeld. The question he asked? “Are we capturing, killing, or deterring and dissuading more terrorists every day than the madrassas and the radical clerics are recruiting, training, and deploying against us?”
Today, five years later, the answer remains, tragically, no. The statistics tell the story and as John Adams reminded us, “facts are stubborn things.” Today, terrorist attacks are at historic highs; al Qaeda leadership is reconstituted along the Afghan-Pakistan border; the Taliban is resurgent; Hamas is tightening its grip on Gaza; and Hezbollah is running a state within a state in Lebanon.
On January 20th, 2009, we will begin our second post-9/11 presidency. And the question is, how can we craft a more effective strategy going forward? The answer, I am certain, is that we must remake our military-dominated “War on Terror” as the global counterinsurgency campaign it always should have been — namely, a battle for hearts and minds that takes our military effort to capture and kill today’s terrorists and folds it into a larger “information war” designed to prevent tomorrow’s bad guys from ever being recruited.
This is not a rebranding, it is a rethinking. Let me tell you what I mean:
A few weeks ago in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia of all places, I learned about a successful program that shows the kind of strategic reorientation that I believe America needs to engage in globally.
At the same moment Rumsfeld was asking his theoretical questions, the Saudi regime was fighting a very real battle for survival against al Qaeda. Extremists and Saudi police were trading gunfire in broad daylight in major cities. Militants were bombing banks and residential compounds, nearly incapacitating the main oil refinery, and even briefly overran the US consulate in Jeddah. This was a country on the brink.
Today Saudi streets are largely peaceful. Much of the public has turned on al Qaeda. Extremism remains a threat, but make no mistake-the Saudis have regained the initiative.
So the question is, how did they do it? The answer: they were smart. They thought outside the box and, with their backs against the wall, the Saudis transitioned from a narrow approach – focused primarily on using force-to a broader campaign to win the people away from extremism. Saudi security thinkers understood that for every terrorist killed, ten more were created. They realized they were fighting an ideological battle-a war of ideas- a war that could not be won with guns and bombs alone. The Saudis learned the lesson of T.E. Lawrence, who said: “Irregular warfare is far more intellectual than a bayonet charge.”
And so the Saudis took pains not to “over-generalize” the enemy, to understand the individual and societal factors that led some to become terrorists, and acknowledged that the indiscriminate use of force only created blood feuds that perpetuated the cycle of violence. In a traditional tribal society, one cannot overstate the importance of that reality.
The centerpiece of the new strategy was a groundbreaking counter-indoctrination program. While the real hard-liners, irreconcilables and terrorist leaders remained in high-security prisons, others were treated as responsible for their actions, yes, but also as members of a cult, to be deprogrammed and, where possible, reintegrated into society. Instead of being tortured, detainees are visited by imams who explained why violent jihadist theology was a perversion of Islam.
For those prisoners who credibly pledge to reform and denounce extremism, family and tribe then step in as guarantors of their future good behavior. Some are even given money, help finding a job, and a dowry to start a family. And then they are watched closely for the rest of their lives. Accurate numbers are tough to come by, but the best evidence of the program’s success is the calm in the streets of Saudi cities.
The Saudis recognized that modern jihad uses information as a weapon-and so they decided to counterattack by launching a media campaign of their own: Halftime of a typical soccer game might feature a message from an imam that killing civilians is against Islam-haram, forbidden-or a warning from a former terrorist not to repeat their mistake. And recognizing the key role mosques played in radicalizing Saudi youths, the King made a personal appeal to imams not to preach violent extremism. Meanwhile, as al Qaeda claimed more innocent lives, the extremists increasingly lost the support of the people.
That, my friends, is how you rethink a failed policy. Obviously, Saudi Arabia’s struggle is vastly different from our own. Our enemies are a loosely-linked network that stretches from Hamburg to Helmand and beyond, and I am certainly not suggesting that we try to re-indoctrinate terrorists or directly emulate the Saudi’s program. And yet, applied globally, much of the same strategic logic holds true. In fact, as several influential thinkers have argued, the “War on Terror” can best be understood as a global counterinsurgency campaign, where some of the core principles of fighting a local insurgency are applied on a global scale.
First, for the United States to succeed, we must understand the real battlefield. In a counterinsurgency, the people are the center of gravity and the core objective is to isolate the insurgents by winning the support of the local population. Applied globally, the battlefield is the hearts and minds of the Muslim world, and the challenge is to dissuade potential radicals from using terrorism as a weapon. Defense Secretary Robert Gates recently said flatly: “we cannot capture and kill our way to victory.” He’s right. In fact, RAND recently released a study on how terrorist groups meet their end. They found that military action was the primary cause just 7% of the time. Seven percent.
That’s why you fight not just a military battle but an “information war.” Frankly, al Qaeda is fighting an information war -which explains bin Laden’s frequent speeches exhorting violent jihad and even the virtual town hall meeting conducted by Ayman al-Zawahiri. It is long overdue that we, who ushered in the information age, start to fight one too.
Another of the core principles of current counterinsurgency doctrine, as written by General Petraeus, holds that “the more force you use, the less effective it is.” Our most important weapons are often non-military, drawing on the full arsenal of American power. While humanitarian aid, development assistance, support for good governance and smart diplomacy may not be much use in apprehending terrorists–they are invaluable in addressing the root causes of terrorism.
As Secretary Gates put it in the newly-released National Defense Strategy: “The use of force plays a role, yet military efforts to capture or kill terrorists are likely to be subordinate to measures to promote local participation in government and economic programs to spur development, as well as efforts to understand and address the grievances that often lie at the heart of insurgencies.” Ironically, some of our military’s most significant successes against extremists have actually been humanitarian efforts after an earthquake in Pakistan and a tsunami in Indonesia.
Without legitimacy, winning over hearts and minds is impossible. That’s why this Administration’s embrace of torture and indefinite detention has been so self-defeating. Our enemies have already overreached in places like Anbar and Amman, and we have to have the moral authority to capitalize on their failures. That starts with shutting down Guantanamo and making clear once and for all that the United States does not torture. Period.
Third, we need to understand our enemy. We all recognize the importance of eliminating bin Laden and the core al Qaeda leadership. But as important as that is, that alone will not defeat the terrorists. The theorist David Kilcullen has described al Qaeda as 60 different organizations in 60 different countries, loosely linked by a shared ideology. Taken together, these groups form a global insurgency. As Tom Friedman wrote yesterday, “[t]he truth is that Iraq, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon and Pakistan are just different fronts in the same war.” The goal of al Qaeda is to draw these disparate extremists into their broader struggle against the West, sometimes with logistical support, but more broadly by offering a unifying narrative: “Islam under attack.”
To defeat this enemy, we must adapt as they adapt and tailor our response to local conditions. In some places, that means development projects and television broadcasts. In others, it means visits to sheikhs in their tents and-when necessary-it means Predator strikes on high value targets. We can’t fight al Qaeda in sixty countries by ourselves, and so we have to recognize the importance of strengthening relationships and working with foreign governments and security forces.
Understanding our enemy as a loosely-aligned network of insurgencies underscores how critical it is that we counter al Qaeda’s rhetoric and prevent local grievances from rising to a global level and drawing small groups of disaffected individuals into the larger struggle. And viewing the disparate actors as an interrelated whole is crucial to recognizing how one theater impacts the others and implementing a comprehensive strategy to defeat them.
Seen through this lens, it’s clear why invading Iraq was a grave mistake. We diverted resources from al Qaeda. We failed to differentiate between a secular dictator and religious terrorists and in so doing played directly into bin Laden’s hands. It’s not surprising, then, that our own intelligence agencies called our presence in Iraq a “cause célèbre” for terrorists.
We misunderstood the facts –and once and for all, we need to get them right if we are to succeed. That’s what it takes to be commander in chief. But unfortunately, when it comes to events in Iraq, John McCain continues to misstate those facts and mangle history.
I’ve known John McCain for years as a fellow Vietnam veteran and a friend, and I recognize that his views are borne of a genuine desire to do what’s best for the country. I just think his recent judgment has been dead wrong. And what’s interesting is that as a testament to his superior judgment, he recently declared that the surge-and I quote–“began the Anbar awakening. I mean that’s just a matter of history.”
In fact, history shows just the opposite. The Anbar Awakening started well before the surge. This is more than just a political gotcha game or yet another instance of Senator McCain getting his facts wrong. To apply counterinsurgency principles on a global scale, we need to draw the right lessons from the surge.
Let’s look at exactly what happened. And this is important: the tensions between al Qaeda in Iraq and Sunni leaders in Anbar were already apparent nearly two years before the surge, culminating in the first reported battle between AQI and Sunni militias in the western town of Husaybah in May of 2005. The reason? Al Qaeda’s brutality, disrespect for local customs, insistence on marrying local women over the objections of tribal leaders, and disruption of local businesses.
When Colonel Sean MacFarland and his Ready First brigade arrived in Ramadi in June of 2006, al Qaeda was still fully in control. The Ready First immediately saw the need for a change in tactics and-on their own-they launched an extensive outreach campaign to win over the local population-starting with local tribal leaders, to whom they assigned an Arabic-speaking former special forces officer who grew a moustache to gain the locals’ trust. They emphasized getting local Iraqi forces out into neighborhoods by deputizing tribal militias.
These efforts culminated on September 9, 2006 – some four months before the surge was even announced — when a young local sheik, Sittar albu-Risha, created a new Awakening Council and officially declared the Anbar Awakening underway. That created a snowball effect. And, as MacFarland noted, with the 2006 US election approaching “a growing concern that U.S. forces would leave Iraq” made tribal leaders open to our overtures – a not unimportant transformation as we think about leveraged changes in behavior that might come from redeployment of American forces. By late October, nearly every tribe around Ramadi had either joined the Awakening or was openly considering it.
The coming months saw the Awakening Movement, with American help, repel an AQI attack on a friendly sheik in the Battle of Sufia. As security improved, a major campaign was launched to rebuild Ramadi, culminating in the Ramadi Reconstruction Conference in January 2007.
For those of you keeping score, this is the point in the story where the surge begins. President Bush announced the surge on January 10th 2007. In fact, President Bush and Senator McCain both pointed to our success in flipping tribes in Ramadi against AQI as a reason to support the surge.
Let me be clear: there is no question that our troops performed heroically, and did everything that was asked of them and more. And yes, they undoubtedly played a significant role in securing Baghdad and helping to expand the Awakening beyond Anbar Province.
But, the true history of the Awakening is important in drawing the right lessons from the surge. The Iraqis made a political calculation that they didn’t like al Qaeda and wanted to work with us. The actions that led to the Awakening reflected our understanding that U.S. military action alone would not defeat the terrorists: we needed to win over the population by co-opting the tribal sheiks, utilizing indigenous security forces, winning the information war, and helping our Iraqi allies deliver goods, services and improved governance.
Moreover, the reduction in violence resulted from many other factors beyond a simple surge of troops. You have to consider Moqtada al Sadr’s ceasefire in August 2007, the sectarian segregation of neighborhoods, and the success of Iraqi security forces, with US military support, in taking the streets back from Shia militias, especially in Basra. We also benefitted from the death of al Qaeda in Iraq’s leader, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, in a US airstrike.
This last point is significant because, for all its non-military dimensions, counterinsurgency doctrine – not to mention common sense- tells us we still must take out the leaders of the global jihad and deny them safe haven. Our intelligence services have a pretty good idea of where the bad guys are – in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas of Northwest Pakistan -once again plotting attacks on our homeland and wreaking havoc in Afghanistan. The Administration still has not come up with a way to deny them this shockingly unacceptable reality.
In fact, our current impasse in Afghanistan and Pakistan is partly a result of this Administration’s fixation on Iraq and misjudgments about the demands of the new global counterinsurgency. When the President and Senator McCain refuse to put Iraq into the context of a larger struggle, their mistakes and misstatements only build on each other. Just a few months ago Senator McCain said “Afghanistan is not in trouble because of our diversion to Iraq.” That’s been proven wrong, and now both men admit that we need more troops in Afghanistan. The point is, Bush and McCain were wrong about Afghanistan because they were wrong about Iraq-and still are. That’s what happens when you’re left clinging to a failed policy.
I believe there are a number of steps we can take right away in the tribal areas of Pakistan to strengthen collective efforts against al Qaeda and the Taliban right where they actually live. For starters, we should work to improve military and intelligence cooperation with the Pakistanis, who often have the best information on where the terrorists are hiding, by creating a joint operations center where U.S. personnel can coordinate with any trusted counterparts. And to ensure this effort extends up the chain of command, we should arrange for regular strategic dialogue between our top national security advisors. We should also expedite efforts to supply effective elements of the Frontier Corps with the equipment they need-including attack helicopters and night-vision gear.
Over the long-term, the solution in the FATA lies in helping Pakistan’s government implement a comprehensive plan that emphasizes education, economic development, political and legal integration, and tribal outreach. And we must help the Pakistani military reorient itself to fight the kind of counterinsurgency operations that we are fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan-and nothing will help that more than working to free up resources by easing tensions with India.
Finally, we must make better use of our foreign aid to improve our standing with the Pakistani people. That’s what we’ve tried to do with a bill we passed out of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee this week that makes a sustained commitment to dramatically increase non-military assistance and getting it directly to the people, while ensuring that we get what we pay for in military assistance.
Crucial to all of these steps is ensuring the survival of the democratically-elected Pakistani government. Five months into its term, the government is near failure. Pakistani politicians-primarily the big three of Zardari, Sharif, and our old friend President Musharraf-must put aside their past personal differences and find a way for the new leaders to govern effectively. They need to present a compelling vision of Pakistan’s future-and an economic plan to make people’s lives better. This ultimately is their fight, and their future, but for their sake and ours, we need to help them succeed — including by pushing countries like Saudi Arabia and the UAE, places that have the personal and financial leverage over the Pakistani leaders, to use their influence constructively.
Getting Pakistan right is also essential if we’re to have any chance in Afghanistan. The fact of the matter is, we’re in real danger of losing in Afghanistan. As I’ve been saying for almost two years, we need additional combat troops to stop the bleeding. But I fully recognize that while more troops are necessary, they will not be sufficient.
As one general told me, “if it were just about dominating the Taliban on the battlefield, you could put Afghanistan in the win column.” He emphasized corruption, warlordism, drug dealing, foreign intervention, and a weak government-the hallmarks of a failed state. From solving the poppy problem to good governance projects-we need a single person truly empowered to coordinate the many operations in Afghanistan.
It’s also urgent that we redouble our efforts to train the dysfunctional and often corrupt Afghan national police. As we’ve seen in Anbar, restoring order in a failed state is primarily a task for local security forces. After seven years of a failed piecemeal approach, we still don’t have enough trainers to undertake a major program to train local police. Fixing this must become a major priority going forward.
Unfortunately, Afghanistan’s endemic corruption problem doesn’t stop there. It’s hard to demand that the rank and file toe the line when President Karzai has failed to arrest a single warlord or crack down on corrupt officials. He seems more focused on currying favor to win upcoming elections. We must join with the international community to give the Afghans more financial support– and demand more accountability in return. Right now, the government leadership isn’t pulling its weight, and if that continues, we’re not going to win.
Looking at all these conflicts, the big picture is this: focusing on winning a war of ideas, as opposed to just killing terrorists, will not only enable us to defeat our enemies–it will also restore our ability to affect positive change in other arenas. Let George Bush be remembered for an overly militarized approach to fighting terrorism at the expense of our moral authority and our global standing. Let the next President defeat the terrorists by emphasizing the best about America, using force wisely – and in so doing allow us to emerge stronger and better able to tackle the many other challenges we face-and to lead the world into the 21st century.