Back in 2002, then aspiring US presidential candidate John Kerry began arguing that “the war on terror is far less of a military operation and far more of an intelligence-gathering law enforcement operation”.
To my ear back then, this sounded like one of Kerry’s more thoughtful contributions. In the struggle against terrors of various sorts over many years, police-style actions of all sorts have usually trumped conventional military force. A series of 20th-century conflicts, not least Vietnam, demonstrates that armoured brigades or infantry platoons do their best work fighting conventional battles. They cannot successfully chase down loose-knit, decentralised networks of militants. Once militants decide to avoid fighting in the open, there are few hard targets for cruise missiles to pick out. Human targets prove even tougher to identify. Most targets are surrounded by civilians who do not react well to seeing Hellfires flying through their neighbours’ windows. You have to convince civilian populations in downtown Islamabad and Mogadishu to turn militants in – a task for which Private John Kryswicki from Duluth, Michigan is almost uniquely ill-equipped. So emphasising intelligence-gathering and law enforcement – “police work”, if you like – sounded the sensible option.
Yet Kerry’s phrase became an embarrassment to his campaign. Through 2004, George W. Bush and Dick Cheney relentlessly argued that September 11 gave the president not just the right but the duty to call out the troops. Declared Bush, to cheering audiences: “After the chaos and carnage of September the 11th, it is not enough to serve our enemies with legal papers”.
I was surprised by this revulsion against law enforcement and intelligence-gathering, not least because I had always thought of US law enforcers and detectives as fairly tough characters. Late-night reality TV shows like Cops depict them charging into situations and slamming suspects against car hoods. I’ve never seen those guys serve papers. What was so wimpy about policing?
The answer, of course, is that Americans wanted a dramatic response to September 11. Promising good police-work simply did not deliver the right gut response. Large-scale war did.
But a half-decade of pandering to US dismay is enough. Now, with the weaknesses of large-scale war against militant Islam horribly exposed, it’s time to find strategies that will work. It’s time to insist on the policing approach.
The US Army vs the principles of counterinsurgency
Iraq has confirmed just how poorly soldiers cope with flexible networks of armed militants and insurgents. Western governments almost never train their soldiers in all the specialised police-style skills of counterinsurgency. The British Army learned policing skills the hard way over three decades in Northern Ireland. They had the distinct advantage that the opposing forces ranged along the Falls Road all spoke English of a sort. British sweeps through the Falls Road area nevertheless have a mixed history.
It nevertheless remains startling to find out just how little the US Army knew of effective counterinsurgency techniques in 2003. Thomas Ricks’ book Fiasco contains a section titled “The US Army vs the principles of counterinsurgency”, in which he sets out the counterinsurgency basics: minimise use of force, combine military and civil action, close the borders, treat civilians with respect and make your principal goal the winning over of the population. US commanders, he reports, seemed “flatly ignorant” of these principles. After Vietnam, the US Army had collectively decided that it did not want to know about counterinsurgency.
(The US Army now boasts a well-written and fascinating counterinsurgency manual available to the public as a 10MB PDF download.)
George Bush and the US Army chose the plain old soldiering route when they opted for war in Iraq. They’re choosing it still. The new commander of Coalition forces in Iraq, General David Petraeus, championed counterinsurgency tactics during 2003-04, when he commanded the 101st Airborne Division, and until his January 4 appointment he headed US Army officer training. Yet the newly-announced sweeps through Baghdad, a key element of the planned 2006 “surge”, seem set to be classic soldiering exercises. Thus the Coalition seems likely once again to replay our failures of the past three years.
Away from Iraq, policing is the norm
Outside Iraq and Afghanistan, though, a different pattern holds sway. In this wider world, the “war on terror” has in fact been pretty much a police exercise – detective work followed by law enforcement. US immigration and customs officials at the Canadian border foiled Ahmed Ressam’s “Millennium Plot” to bomb Los Angeles International Airport. They did it by following their policing instincts and looking in the trunk of his car. Australia and Indonesia did not send troops after Jemaah Islamiyah in the wake of the Bali Bombing; instead, the Australian Federal Police and Indonesian police co-operated to arrest Jemaah Islamiyah members. British and Pakistani agents last August uncovered the plot to simultaneously blow up as many as 10 jets leaving Britain for the US. Police and ASIO agents last week arrested a man in Sydney over the alleged theft of seven military rocket launchers.
Unlike Iraq, none of these efforts has cost large numbers of civilians their lives, alienated large Muslim populations or cost hundreds of billions of dollars. The hallmark of success in the “war on terror” has been solid police work. The hallmark of failure has been the infantry sweep.
Cross-border police work is also likely to be what saves the West from the ultimate escalation of terrorist violence – the compact nuclear weapon brought in on a freighter to destroy a major city.
Iraq is not the war on terror
As Ken Lovell has noted in a recent discussion on Troppo, John Howard argues that:
“If America is defeated in Iraq, it is hard to see how the longer-term fight against terrorism can be won.”
This formulation, designed to raise the stakes in Iraq, gets it almost exactly wrong. And just as well, since the chances of Coalition victory against the Iraq insurgency look extremely slim. Iraq is not the war on terror, no matter how hard George W. Bush works at weaving them together. Iraq has likely been lost, but the struggle against fundamentalist Islamic terrorism can still be won.
End the “war” and start winning
It is now popular to disparage John Kerry, but it seems to me that back in 2002 he got the “war on terror” exactly right. Here’s a fuller 2002 quote, taken from, of all places, the US Republican Party Web site:
[W]hat I think all of us need to focus on is the fact that the rhetoric of this war is overblown in some ways and not focused properly in others. This is not a war as we have known it. This is not a war in which there’s a front-line or the troops are going out every day on control. This is fundamentally an intelligence operation and the law enforcement operation and a diplomatic operation. On all three fronts, we have not been doing adequately.
Kerry has first-hand experience of this issue: he was among US officers arguing for counterinsurgency tactics while on duty in Vietnam. And in 2002, he was right. Our rhetoric is part of the problem. “The war on terror” is one of the silliest political phrases of recent years. Once you frame the fight against terror as a war, you almost automatically start marching down the path most likely to bring failure. You deploy troops and air support. You shoot missiles and bullets at targets. You alienate populations. You guarantee that for every terrorist and militant you kill, two more will spring up to take their place.
It’s time to end the “war” on terror, in order to win the fight.
This is not necessarily an argument for Australia or the US to withdraw immediately from Iraq: after three years of foolishness there, we have responsibilities to discharge. It is, however, an argument for a change of approach, of emphasis, of rhetoric. The formula for success against militant Islam over the next decade involves more policing and less soldiering, more investigation and less shooting, more Mick Keelty and less Angus Houston. Keep the strike forces and the sophisticated missiles on hand for those occasions when you have a clear shot at the leadership of a terror cell. But forswear the tactic of moving troops in amongst civilian populations unless they can be counted onto to carry out consistently effective counter-insurgency. Support border security, cargo-inspection and cross-border intelligence and policing efforts.
For politicians this is a tough ask. It will involve a lot less posturing and speechifying, and leave them vulnerable to opponents still hoping to play on the emotions stirred in 2001. US politicians who take this approach will find it harder to sound like Ronald Reagan. Australian politicians who take this approach will have to live with accusations that they are neglecting the fight against terror: police work does not lend itself to dramatic statements in front of a flag. Australian politicians may also be accused of cosying up to Indonesia, because local and regional anti-terror efforts demand a measure of co-operation with Jakarta.
But a policing approach stands a decent chance of working. The current soldiering approach seems to almost guarantee failure.