In Yemen three years ago, Islamic scholars challenged a group of defiant al-Qaeda prisoners to a theological debate. “If you convince us that your ideas are justified by the Koran, then we will join you in the struggle,” the scholars told the terrorists. “But if we succeed in convincing you of our ideas, then you must agree to renounce violence.” The scholars won the debate, the prisoners renounced violence, were released and were given help to find jobs. Some have since offered advice to Yemeni security services – a tip from one led to the death of al-Qaeda's top leader in the country.
As Americans watched workers sift the rubble for body parts at Ground Zero after 9/11, few can have been thinking about winning the hearts and minds of those responsible for the attack and their sympathizers. Mars ruled. Instead, the United States responded with bombs and bullets. The Global War on Terror had begun.
But armed force alone cannot win this war in the long run. In the continuing campaign against al-Qaeda and the insurgency raging in Iraq today, political warfare must be an essential part of America's arsenal.
Few Americans understand political warfare, which in its broadest sense, may encompass everything other than military operations, from assassination to political accommodation. Reversing Clausewitz's famous dictum that “war is the extension of politics by other means,” political warfare is the extension of armed conflict by other means.
Political warfare does not focus exclusively on enemies who are at large or end with their capture. It targets those on their way in to enemy ranks, those who might be persuaded to quit, and those in custody. Political warfare sees the enemy not as a monolithic force, but as a dynamic population of individuals whose grievances, sense of humiliation, and desire for revenge, honor, status, meaning, or mere adventure propel them into jihad and resistance.
Political warfare accepts no foe as having irrevocably crossed a line, but sees enemy combatants as constantly calibrating and recalibrating their commitment. It sees every prisoner not merely as a source of operational intelligence, but as a potential convert. Political warfare is infinitely flexible and ferociously pragmatic. It accepts local accommodations to reduce violence, offers amnesties to induce divisions and defections, and cuts deals to co-opt enemies.
The United States, of course, does some of these things now. But America's efforts are uncoordinated byproducts of intelligence, law enforcement or military operations.
Americans remain suspicious of psychological operations beyond battlefield leaflets. We are a nation of laws and believe in punishment. We bridle at local accommodations with those who have been our enemies.
There are numerous lessons to be learned from past American political warfare experiences and innovative approaches currently being pursued by other countries.
Pre-emptive recruiting is one approach. During the Vietnam War, I was among the U.S. Special Forces soldiers who recruited highland tribesmen to the South Vietnamese side – knowing if we didn't give them rifles, the Viet Cong would. In the same way today, the immediate benefit of recruiting large numbers of Iraqis into government security forces is keeping them employed and out of the clutches of the resistance.
Another approach involves interfering with recruiting. As part of their campaign against terrorists in the 1970s, German authorities deployed hundreds of young undercover agents to likely recruiting spots. Their mere presence caused the already paranoid terrorists to suspect every new volunteer.
Luring back those in the terrorist fold is another task. Terrorists say they are all determined to fight to the death, an illusion they foster with suicide attacks. But the ranks of even the most fervent fanatics include latent defectors who might quit if offered a safe way out.
The Chieu Hoi or Open Arms program during the Vietnam War produced more than 100,000 defections to the South Vietnamese side by offering enemy soldiers amnesty, cash, job training assistance and homes. Some of the “ralliers” as they were called drifted back to the Communist side, but overall the program was a less expensive and certainly less dangerous way of removing a sizable number of enemy combatants.
Although it may be difficult to convert committed jihadists, it is not impossible. Several years ago a former Egyptian militant wrote a fascinating memoir titled “Earth is Better Than Paradise,” which described his recruitment, indoctrination, terrorist training, imprisonment and self-examination. Freed from prison, he still had to liberate his mind. Only months after leaving the extremists did he recover his ability to think independently, outside of the texts and slogans that had been pressed into his brain. Translated only into French, one wonders why the book has not been disseminated throughout the world.
Faced with a direct terrorist challenge from al-Qaeda, the government of Saudi Arabia cracked down hard, but it also offered its terrorist foes amnesty and financial assistance for their families. A few openly accepted, but it established that there was another road, and it gave greater legitimacy to the Saudi government's continuing campaign against those who rejected the offer.
Last year, Iraq's interim president floated the idea of a broad amnesty to the insurgents in that country. The objective, he said, was to split the insurgency between nationalists fighting to evict foreign troops and foreign fighters engaged in jihad. Iraq's new president revived the idea in April of this year, restricting the offer to Iraqi insurgents who turned away from the resistance, not criminal terrorists from abroad.
American officials reacted negatively. “We don't think it's appropriate to give amnesty to people who have killed American or coalition forces,” observed a State Department spokesman. It is an understandable sentiment, but one that narrows exit scenarios. Can the fighting end only when the last American soldier in Iraq kills the last Iraqi insurgent?
Political warfare does not end with terrorist captivity. Determined to reduce the number of Irish Republican Army detainees, British authorities compiled evidence to justify the release of those individuals whose family or community background suggested they could be moved away from violence.
Italy, a Catholic country, used an appropriate religious term to encourage Red Brigade prisoners to renounce terrorism and cooperate with authorities. Those who did were called “repentants” and their sentences were reduced accordingly. The mere fact that some repented dismayed those still at large, and the information they provided was crucial in cracking the terrorists' campaign.
Americans have not done well here. Despite holding hundreds of detainees, some for three years now, including many whose participation in jihad was minor, not one has been publicly turned. One doubts that they are all so dedicated. Is it instead because the interaction is limited to confinement and interrogation, which produces only resistance and radicalization?
Ahmed Ressam, the man convicted of planning to bomb Los Angeles Airport as part of the terrorist millennium plot, currently awaits sentencing. In prison for more than five years, he has renounced terrorism and helped identify more than a hundred terrorists. He faces a possible sentence of 35 years. Would it not be better, if possible, to employ him as a spokesman against al-Qaeda's brand of jihad, telling his story to would-be jihadists – his initial illusions, his experience in prison, his decision to cooperate?
That would shift the public debate from terrorists versus government spokesmen to terrorists versus former terrorists.
So long as we see political warfare as merely advertising American values, dangerous deception unbefitting democracy, or dancing with the devil, we are condemned to take down our opponents one at a time in endless combat. Even as we defeat them, they will multiply.
Those who have dealt with earlier versions of the challenges we face, or less hampered by American attitudes, can teach us things not learned at artillery school. American military technology has no equal. What we need now is some of those Islamic scholars from Yemen.
Jenkins is a former officer in the U.S. Army's Special Forces. He founded the RAND Corporation's research program on international terrorism in 1972 and is now a senior adviser to the president of RAND, a nonprofit research organization.
This commentary originally appeared in San Diego Union-Tribune on June 26, 2005.