WASHINGTON — A successful strategy in the war on terror demands convincing Muslims around the world that their interests are congruent with U.S. interests and not with those of the terrorists.
Actions that conflict with this objective, whatever their short-term tactical value, should be avoided.
The fight against jihadist groups can be best likened to a counterinsurgency campaign on a global scale. For all the horror that terrorist attacks can generate, we must not lose sight of the fact that such attacks are weapons of the weak. Terrorists use these tactics because, like insurgents, they know that they cannot prevail in open battles with government security forces. They therefore rely on stealth and support from surrounding populations for survival.
As a result, terrorists can be defeated by identifying and isolating them. This is why all successful counterinsurgency campaigns place at the forefront of their strategy efforts to "win the hearts and minds" of non-combatants, and why failing to do so spells defeat even for powerful states.
America did not win the Cold War by mistreating or killing communists. The key to victory in the long struggle against the power and totalitarian ideology of the Soviet Union was the power of America's ideas and ideals of justice and individual liberty.
The West prevailed in the long war of the 20th century by convincing the vast majority of people around the world that freedom and democracy could give them better lives than communism and dictatorship. To win the 21st century war on terrorism, America should learn from its Cold War victory and work harder to earn the support of the people among whom terrorists seek to operate.
We will know that we are making real headway in the struggle against violent jihadists when the pools of willing recruits begin to dry up and when villagers in Waziristan and Yemen come forward to the authorities to report on the identities and activities of terrorists in their midst.
This will happen not as a result of coercion, but rather when people see that terrorist violence runs counter to their interests. To encourage this perception to take root, the United States and its partners in the fight against terrorism must conduct themselves in ways that win the respect and admiration of a global audience
The legislation recently approved by the U.S. Congress and signed by President George W. Bush governing the treatment of suspected terrorists in U.S. custody will, in the long run, do more to hinder the fight against terrorist groups than to advance it.
This is because harsh interrogation methods — such as water-boarding (in which the person being questioned believes he is on the verge of drowning), prolonged exposure to bitter cold, long periods of required standing, and intense sleep deprivation — alienates Muslims around the world.
Americans, above all, should understand the inseparability of national reputation and a credible national security strategy. The United States has been most effective at advancing its agenda internationally when its policies and actions have been aligned with the principles of human dignity and the inviolability of individual rights that inspired America's leaders at the founding of the republic.
The Bush administration has argued that holding U.S. interrogators to the standards set down in the Geneva Conventions would hinder American efforts to protect innocent people from terrorist violence. But justifying brutal means by pointing to worthy ends is bad strategy.
America should be taking a leaf from the book of successful counterinsurgency strategy. Instead of using coercion against captured terrorists, the United States should be showing them humane treatment and engaging them in patient philosophical argument with the aim of converting them. The British applied this approach very successfully in Malaya, where the government defeated a communist insurgency in the 1950s and '60s.
U.S. actions speak far louder than words. By showing they are bound by international agreements such as the Geneva Conventions, American officials encourage other nations and groups to follow the rules as well. Rejecting international courts and disregarding or "clarifying" international treaties that embody widely-held norms of state behavior is self-defeating, and will do more harm than good in the war on terror.
© 2006 United Press International
David Ochmanek and Lowell Schwartz are international policy analysts at the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit research organization. Ochmanek was deputy assistant secretary of defense for strategy from 1993 to 1995 in the U.S. Defense Department.
This commentary originally appeared in United Press International on October 18, 2006.