As I’ve noted in the past (here and here), George Bush attacked John Kerry for arguing that, while military force might also be needed, the war on terror was primarily a matter of law enforcement and intelligence gathering. The previous posts note that successes in fighting terrorism have also primarily been cases of law enforcement. The McCain campaign has launched similar attacks against Obama.
It looks like it is time for McCain to flip-flop once again and adopt another one of Obama’s positions. The Rand Corporation issued a report which found that law enforcement and intelligence have been more effective than use of the military in fighting terrorism:
In looking at how other terrorist groups have ended, the RAND study found that most terrorist groups end either because they join the political process, or because local police and intelligence efforts arrest or kill key members. Police and intelligence agencies, rather than the military, should be the tip of the spear against al Qaida in most of the world, and the United States should abandon the use of the phrase “war on terrorism,” researchers concluded.
“The United States cannot conduct an effective long-term counterterrorism campaign against al Qaida or other terrorist groups without understanding how terrorist groups end,” said Seth Jones, the study’s lead author and a political scientist at RAND, a nonprofit research organization. “In most cases, military force isn’t the best instrument.”
The comprehensive study analyzes 648 terrorist groups that existed between 1968 and 2006, drawing from a terrorism database maintained by RAND and the Memorial Institute for the Prevention of Terrorism. The most common way that terrorist groups end — 43 percent — was via a transition to the political process. However, the possibility of a political solution is more likely if the group has narrow goals, rather than a broad, sweeping agenda like al Qaida possesses.
The second most common way that terrorist groups end — 40 percent — was through police and intelligence services either apprehending or killing the key leaders of these groups. Policing is especially effective in dealing with terrorists because police have a permanent presence in cities that enables them to efficiently gather information, Jones said.
Military force was effective in only 7 percent of the cases examined; in most instances, military force is too blunt an instrument to be successful against terrorist groups, although it can be useful for quelling insurgencies in which the terrorist groups are large, well-armed and well-organized, according to researchers. In a number of cases, the groups end because they become splintered, with members joining other groups or forming new factions. Terrorist groups achieved victory in only 10 percent of the cases studied.
Jones says the study has crucial implications for U.S. strategy in dealing with al Qaida and other terrorist groups. Since al Qaida’s goal is the establishment of a pan-Islamic caliphate, a political solution or negotiated settlement with governments in the Middle East is highly unlikely. The terrorist organization also has made numerous enemies and does not enjoy the kind of mass support received by other organizations such as Hezbollah in Lebanon, largely because al Qaida has not engaged in sponsoring any welfare services, medical clinics, or hospitals.
The study recommends the United States should adopt a two-front strategy: rely on policing and intelligence work to root out the terrorist leaders in Europe, North America, Asia and the Middle East, and involve military force — though not necessarily the U.S. military — when insurgencies are involved.
The United States also should avoid the use of the term, “war on terror,” and replace it with the term “counterterrorism.” Nearly every U.S. ally, including the United Kingdom and Australia, has stopped using “war on terror,” and Jones said it’s more than a mere matter of semantics.