Study: Fighting Terrorism With Military Almost Never Works

Remember when the George W. Bush campaign and the Republican Party was attacking John Kerry during the 2004 campaign over comments where they construed as him saying that terrorism is a police matter? Here’s a refresher:

Bush campaign Chairman Marc Racicot, in an appearance on CNN’s “Late Edition,” interpreted Kerry’s remarks as saying “that the war on terrorism is like a nuisance. He equated it to prostitution and gambling, a nuisance activity. You know, quite frankly, I just don’t think he has the right view of the world. It’s a pre-9/11 view of the world.”

Republican Party Chairman Ed Gillespie, on CBS’ “Face the Nation,” used similar language.

“Terrorism is not a law enforcement matter, as John Kerry repeatedly says. Terrorist activities are not like gambling. Terrorist activities are not like prostitution. And this demonstrates a disconcerting pre-September 11 mindset that will not make our country safer. And that is what we see relative to winning the war on terror and relative to Iraq.”

The Institute for Economics and Peace, a nonpartisan think tank in Australia, just issued its latest Global Terrorism Index. Buried deep in the report (pdf), on page 56, is this figure in which they summarize data from a RAND Corporation report:

end

The figure summarizes RAND Corporation findings from a study of 40 years of data on terrorist groups and how the terror activities of those groups come to an end. Despite the gargantuan US Great War on Terror with its trillions of dollars wasted and hundreds of thousands of people killed, only seven percent of the time when a terrorist group ends its activities is that due to them being defeated militarily. In fact, since they cease ten percent of the time due to achieving their goals, it can be argued that a military approach alone makes it more likely the terrorists will win than lose. The leading way for terrorist groups to cease their activities is for them to become a part of the political process, at forty-three percent. And gosh, it turns out that Kerry was correct, because police action (which in this study means “policing and intelligence agencies breaking up the group and either arresting or killing key members”) was the cause forty percent of the time when terrorist groups stop using terror. Oh, and adding further to the importance of policing, the report also states elsewhere that homicide accounts for forty times more deaths globally than terrorism.

As we saw in a previous report on the Global Terrorism Index, once again the countries in which the US GWOT is most active are those that have the worst ratings for terrorism. The list is headed by Iraq, with Afghanistan in the second position, Pakistan third and Syria fifth.

Not only are the countries where the US is actively militarily at the top of the index, the timeline of terror attacks provides a very strong correlation for the jump in global terror activity being triggered by the US invasion of Iraq in 2003:

timeline

The timeline seems to suggest that terror attacks were going back down after the 9/11 large event, but then took off after the US invaded Iraq.

Not only should the US learn from this report that the “military only” approach to terrorism is dead wrong, but there are warnings that the US should heed about domestic conditions as well. Here is how the study assesses the risk for future terrorism events:

Using terrorist incidents and events data dating back to 1970 and comparing it to over 5,000 socio-economic, political and conflict indicators, three groups of factors related to terrorist activity have been identified. Countries that are weak on these factors and do not have high levels of terrorism are assessed as being at risk.

The correlations section of this report details the most significant socio-economic correlates with terrorism. There are three groups of factors:

    Social hostilities between different ethnic, religious and linguistic groups, lack of intergroup cohesion and group grievances.
    Measures of state repression such as extrajudicial killings, political terror and gross human rights abuses.
    Other forms of violence such violent crime, organised conflict deaths and violent demonstrations.

It sure sounds to me like a lot those boxes get checked when we start talking about what is going on in Ferguson, Missouri.

Many years ago, Jim got a BA in Radiation Biophysics from the University of Kansas. He then got a PhD in Molecular Biology from UCLA and did postdoctoral research in yeast genetics at UC Berkeley and mouse retroviruses at Stanford. He joined biosys in Palo Alto, producing insect parasitic nematodes for pest control. In the early 1990’s, he moved to Gainesville, FL and founded a company that eventually became Entomos. He left the firm as it reorganized into Pasteuria Biosciences and chose not to found a new firm due a clash of values with venture capital investors, who generally lack all values. Upon leaving, he chose to be a stay at home dad, gentleman farmer, cook and horse wrangler. He discovered the online world through commenting at Glenn Greenwald’s blog in the Salon days and was involved in the briefly successful Chris Dodd move to block the bill to renew FISA. He then went on to blog at Firedoglake and served a brief stint as evening editor there. When the Emptywheel blog moved out of Firedoglake back to standalone status, Jim tagged along and blogged on anthrax, viruses, John Galt, Pakistan and Afghanistan. He is now a mostly lapsed blogger looking for a work-around to the depressing realization that pointing out the details of government malfeasance and elite immunity has approximately zero effect.

5 replies
  1. orionATL says:

    say it again, jim! say it, again!

    klunky machines by the thousands.

    an officer corps that has trouble with battlefield discipline and views “the other” as a target or an obstruction.

    a political system and a dept of defense that view american wars against terrorism as strictly a game to win – like a football or basketball game.

    the u.s. military – thousands of klunky miltary machines crawly and flying over a nation like an insect hoarde, designed only to prevent american soldiers deaths and “take down” anyone the soldiers inside consider a bad guy.

    a great recipe for cooking up some terrorism – which “terrorism” is far more accurately described as “revenge” for american harm done rather than “terrorism”.

  2. Don Bacon says:

    Absolutely — great article. also–

    July, 2008 — How Terrorist Groups End — A RAND research effort [investigates] how terrorist groups have ended in the past. By analyzing a comprehensive roster of terrorist groups that existed worldwide between 1968 and 2006, the authors found that most groups ended because of operations carried out by local police or intelligence agencies or because they negotiated a settlement with their governments. Military force was rarely the primary reason a terrorist group ended, and few groups within this time frame achieved victory. These findings suggest that the U.S. approach to countering al Qa’ida has focused far too much on the use of military force. Instead, policing and intelligence should be the backbone of U.S. efforts. . . .Key to this strategy is replacing the war-on-terrorism orientation with the kind of counterterrorism approach that is employed by most governments facing significant terrorist threats today. Calling the efforts a war on terrorism raises public expectations — both in the United States and elsewhere — that there is a battlefield solution. It also tends to legitimize the terrorists’ view that they are conducting a jihad (holy war) against the United States and elevates them to the status of holy warriors. Terrorists should be perceived as criminals, not holy warriors.

    David Miliband, the UK Foreign Minister, said in January 2009 that the ‘War on terror’ was wrong — the phrase gives a false idea of a unified global enemy, and encourages a primarily military reply. “The call for a ‘war on terror’ was a call to arms, an attempt to build solidarity for a fight against a single shared enemy. But the foundation for solidarity between peoples and nations should be based not on who we are against, but on the idea of who we are and the values we share.”

    Washington, Aug 3, 2007 — Former (Republican) House Speaker Newt Gingrich said Thursday the Bush administration is waging a “phony war” on terrorism, warning that the country is losing ground against the kind of Islamic radicals who attacked the country on Sept. 11, 2001. A more effective approach, said Gingrich, would begin with a national energy strategy aimed at weaning the country from its reliance on imported oil and some of the regimes that petro-dollars support. “None of you should believe we are winning this war. There is no evidence that we are winning this war,” the ex-Georgian told a group of about 300 students attending a conference for collegiate conservatives.

    General Peter Pace, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that fighting terrorism is a police problem (which means the “Global War on Terror” is a bogus mistake): “People talk about, ‘Are you winning?’ First, you have to define: What is winning? And I don’t mean to be glib about that. Winning in this war on terrorism is having security in the countries we’re trying to help that allows for those governments to function and for their people to function. “Example. Washington, D.C., has crime, but it has a police force that is able to keep that crime below a level at which the normal citizens can go about their daily jobs and the government can function.

    Colin Powell– What is the greatest threat facing us now? People will say it’s terrorism. But are there any terrorists in the world who can change the American way of life or our political system? No. Can they knock down a building? Yes. Can they kill somebody? Yes. But can they change us? No. Only we can change ourselves. So what is the great threat we are facing? I would approach this differently, in almost Marshall-like terms. What are the great opportunities out there—ones that we can take advantage of? It should not be just about creating alliances to deal with a guy in a cave in Pakistan. It should be about how do we create institutions that keep the world moving down a path of wealth creation, of increasing respect for human rights, creating democratic institutions, and increasing the efficiency and power of market economies? This is perhaps the most effective way to go after terrorists. . .The only thing that can really destroy us is us. We shouldn’t do it to ourselves, and we shouldn’t use fear for political purposes—scaring people to death so they will vote for you, or scaring people to death so that we create a terror-industrial complex.

    Henry Kissinger– I don’t like the term “war on terror” because terror is a method, not a political movement.

    Finally, remember Barbara Lee in 2001.

    • der says:

      Yes, and having read James Risen’s “Pay Any Price” our “fearless” leaders and citizens of Oz on the Potomac are never wrong, so endless war.

      • Jim White says:

        Thanks for the reminder. I have to get back to reading my copy. By the way, there is a Book Salon at FireDogLake Saturday at 5 pm Eastern for the book. Risen will be there for the online discussion.

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