A conservative friend of mine recently accused me of being soft on terrorists. He pointed out that I am highly critical of the way Homeland Security is being operated and he inferred that I am unwilling to support action against terrorists. This is not the case.
My view is not that terrorists should not be fought. My view is that the way the war on terror is being fought is wasteful and ineffective. To use an analogy, I see the current strategy as being like the famous French Maginot Line. The Maginot Line was a series of high tech (for the time) fortifications built along the French border. The intent was to protect the homeland (France) from invaders. As any military expert will attest, the fortifications were extremely well constructed and would have been tough to break. However, as anyone familiar with WWII knows, the Germans were able to bypass the Maginot Line and take France in a very short time. The Germans, ironically, tried to defend France against the allies using a somewhat similar method of fortification (known as the Atlantic Wall). That did not work either.
The lesson to be drawn from the Maginot Line is that spending vast sums of money to create defenses is not a very good idea if those defenses are not effective. The French assumed they would be fighting WWI again and prepared for that (they made other mistakes as well). In the case of Homeland Security, we are dumping billions of dollars into our own Maginot Line.
Even worse, the terrorists are actually tiny threat, so such spending is doubly foolish. Yes, there are terrorists who want to kill us. But, consider an honest assessment of their threat capacity. Even assuming they were able to get nuclear or biological weapons, all the terrorists in the world combined would not even match even a portion of the military power of a single country such as Iran or North Korea. Hence, such spending is not a very good idea from a strategic standpoint.
Since I claim that we are spending money on a Maginot Line, I certainly can be expected to offer an alternative.
Fighting terrorists is highly problematic. They do not wear uniforms and they hide among civilian populations. They are typically adept at doing without many things that actual armies require to function. This makes it hard to locate them (tanks, fighters and ships are easy to spot while people with improvised bombs and light arms are not) and it makes it difficult to use standard military tactics against them (cutting supply lines, taking key areas of ground, and so on). In this regard, fighting terror is much more like a police operation than a military operation. As such, the use of tried and tested police methods can be effective. An obvious problem is that police methods work because the police are operating in their own community and in the case of most counter terror operations; the United States is trying to conduct such operations in other countries. As such, it would be extremely useful if local law enforcement could be brought into the struggle. The countries where we need such local help the most (Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, etc.) are either unwilling or incapable of providing it. So, what is needed is building up effective police forces and establishing good relations with such countries. Doing this also contributes to the second way of countering terror.
While terrorists do not need the same infrastructure as a proper military force, they still need a degree of support and places to operate from. Terrorists can, of course, still function with no outside support. After all, one person making explosives in his basement can conduct terrorist attacks. However, without adequate support and organization, such people and groups are, in effect, mere criminals-dangerous individuals who can hurt people, but not a credible political force. One way to try to deny terrorists their support is by using old fashioned military methods-invade and/or destroy their support areas with force. Unfortunately, there are two problems with this. First, the terrorists can usually just move somewhere else. Second, such actions tend to create hostility that actually leads to more people being willing to support or become terrorists. A more effective method is to take action to remove and reduce the factors that encourage people to support and become terrorists. Resources should be used to properly study these factors and to find ways to counter them. Being in academics and being familiar with politics, I do worry that millions would be spent in foolish ways that lead to nothing useful. But perhaps I would be proven wrong.
A third way to fight terror is to use the overall method of the terrorist. This does not mean being as evil as they are and hence targeting innocents and committing atrocities. Rather, it means using tactics and strategies aimed at breaking their will. This must be done without generating sympathy and support for them, obviously. One method is to use the same strategy employed in fighting crime-target key individuals and deal with them. To some extent this is being done today. It is also possible to break their will in other ways-such as psychological warfare. It is also possible to fight a moral war-to convince the terrorists they are doing wrong. If a terrorist stops believing in his cause, then he will be much less inclined to murder people. The challenge is finding the right way to do this. Unfortunately, while American culture tends to infect the world, Americans have been notoriously bad at political and moral struggles for hearts and minds in places like the Middle East. This is a struggle we can win-but we have to fight the right way.