In the fight against terrorism and the quest to ensure American security, the United States has made a series of blunders that have arguably exacerbated security risks. Decision makers have learned lessons about what works and what does not, and must apply those lessons to policy effectively, without succumbing to base political currents. In order to ensure American domestic security, the United States must aggressively invest in aid to encourage development in countries where radicalism has flourished and thereby prevent further radicalization and violence, instead of combating radical groups once they appear.
American interventions, from Vietnam to Iraq to Afghanistan, have provided teachable moments. Most importantly, they have illuminated the fact that one cannot create peace in societies explicitly through the use of force. In Vietnam, the most powerful military force in the world was unable to subdue a considerably smaller and weaker enemy. Events like the My Lai massacre and the policy of body-counts as a measure of success ultimately poisoned the well of public support for the intervention, both in Vietnam and in the United States. In modern times, Americans have seen how excessive force and collateral damage due to carelessness have been used to great effect by local insurgents to turn host nations’ public opinion against the United States. In order to move American foreign policy in a smarter direction, officials in the Defense Department must start to address the wellsprings of motivation of terrorist groups.
The springboards of terrorism are often rooted in poverty, disenfranchisement, and bad policies that destroy social capital and sow the seeds of distrust and hatred towards the United States. Take two examples; first, the disbanding of the Iraqi Army after the 2003 invasion, and second, the use of drones.
Following the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the Bush Administration decided to demobilize the Iraqi Army, which effectively returned a quarter of a million young men to the streets of Baghdad without any real prospects for employment to support their families. The war and disbanding of the army removed a significant number of breadwinners from the economy and created a cohort of disenfranchised young people, who – as a result of demographic and economic pressures – were then prime targets for radicalization.
Drone strikes started under the Bush Administration and expanded under the Obama Administration have been another driver of extremism. In 2013, a Pakistani boy told Congress that he was afraid of blue skies and preferred the clouds, because drones do not fly when it is cloudy. This anecdote is an illustrative example of how American policy can have unanticipated effects that ultimately undermine its initial goals. Even though drone strikes are an effective way to target enemy combatants, they also have the effect of creating a perception that death can come arbitrarily from the sky, delivered by the American government. In the absence of a counterbalancing positive force such as aid, each one of the estimated 424 to 966 civilians accidentally killed in these attacks leaves behind bereaved families and friends who likely feel strong antipathy towards the United States that radical groups can exploit.
How does the United States work to combat these effects? It cannot simply stop fighting extremist groups like Al-Qaeda and ISIL. But at the same time, American foreign policy makers must address the reality that policies designed to protect Americans sometimes end up undermining that very objective. The best way to counteract this dilemma is to increase aid expenditures in a way that is driven by data and responsive to past failures. While development is already an element of security policy, including the idea of the campaign for “hearts and minds,” more energy needs to be devoted to this path. Doing so will help to counteract the image of the United States as a violent, imperial power and foster a perception that the United States is determined to help people out of poverty, ultimately cutting off radicalization at the source.
A renewed focus on the importance of aid as a tool of foreign policy must be undertaken carefully. In a conversation with the author, Roger-Mark DeSouza, Director of Population, Environmental Security, and Resilience at the Wilson Center, argued that American policymakers need to “address root causes of issues that have potential spillover effects that can reach us here in the United States,” and find “ways to break down the silos in which aid traditionally is dispersed and accounted for.” By emphasizing the importance of local actors instead of elites, American aid policy can be designed in such a way that targets the sources of disenfranchisement that often drive radicalization.
For example, following the invasion of Iraq, more money could have been spent on the economic rehabilitation of the country. A focus on community-based solutions meant to create gainful employment and community connections for former members of the military, could dull the anger directed at America. Helping to build roads and infrastructure in Afghanistan could help communities create integrated economic structures that would further opportunities for meaningful engagement, staving off the allure of radicalization. Dedicating resources to rebuilding city infrastructure in the wake of the campaign against ISIL would help prevent radicalization in territories that the group was recently pushed out of.
While economic development is certainly not a silver bullet, the United States should be investing in it more heavily. The American defense budget for 2016 totalled nearly $600 billion, while the country’s projected contributions to international aid and development in 2017 are only $34 billion, a significant chunk of which will be military assistance. Considering the United States gives little aid, relative to its size, it certainly has the ability to increase the amount of effort and money dedicated to development, and it is imperative that it does so in order to address radicalization at the source. The military can deal with the results of the poisoned well, but unless Americans want to fight in perpetuity, the United States must cleanse the well itself.
Ian Hutchinson is a first year master’s student at the Elliott School of International Affairs at the George Washington University. His focus is on international law and organizations. His past research has included ethnic identity construction among Jamaican Maroons and the politics of water usage in central-southern Chile.