Trump's War on Terror
Fourth, unconditionally embracing repressive governments with poor human-rights records comes with a high cost. Over the long term, these regimes are brittle and prone to collapse. Their regional interests often do not or only partially align with U.S. counterterrorism and stabilization objectives—and even if they do, partner governments may lack the capacity to effectively absorb U.S. assistance. For example, a recent RAND Corporation study found that U.S. military aid aimed at reducing fragility tends to be much less effective in regions with weak state institutions, low state reach and autocratic regimes. Many partner countries advance U.S. counterterrorism objectives in some ways while blocking them in others. The challenge is, thus, to accurately assess partner interests and incentives to maximize gains and avoid doing further harm. In the most extreme cases, U.S. security assistance can prop up governments and security forces that breed further extremism and insecurity. As former NSC Senior Director for Counterterrorism Luke Hartig remarked to us in an interview, “The reality is that we have a very spotty record on military partnerships sustainably mitigating terrorist threats, much less promoting the development, better governance and the rule of law.”
The Trump administration should prioritize strengthening partner accountability. This involves improved intelligence and analysis of the political, economic and social dynamics of partner countries, and how they affect U.S. strategic objectives. Security-sector assistance should take into account the recipients’ domestic and regional political interests, rather than follow an apolitical capacity-building model. The United States should condition training, support and arms transfers on clear benchmarks linked to partner compliance with civilian-protection standards and international humanitarian law. This will likely require withholding or reducing assistance in case of underperformance. If the United States lacks the leverage to press for meaningful security-sector and governance reforms, then it should not be afraid to walk away from the security relationship. In such cases, more U.S. assistance is unlikely to solve underlying tensions, and may instead fuel corruption and insecurity.
Fifth, for U.S. counterterrorism strategy to be effective beyond the near term, the United States needs to support the development of legitimate governance institutions in regions and countries prone to terrorism. Such assistance should go beyond training security forces. Instead, it should include support for meaningful reforms of political institutions to mitigate corruption and bolster inclusive participation. Institution building is a long-term process, and the influence of external actors tends to be limited. Yet by adapting a “security first” approach that disregards governance challenges as secondary objectives, the United States risks further exacerbating the problem.
For example, in Iraq, selective and politicized governance and the systematic torture of Sunni Iraqis by Shia security forces undermined the government and facilitated the Islamic State’s capture of western Iraq. Likewise, gross human-rights abuses propagated by the Nigerian government in response to the Boko Haram insurgency have arguably bolstered the group’s standing and undermined government efforts to retake and stabilize the northeast. In countries like Yemen and Libya, effectively tackling terrorist threats will require renewed efforts to attain political settlements to ongoing conflict. If the Trump administration prevails in its plan to cut governance and development aid and slash the State Department’s budget, the United States will weaken essential tools in the long-term fight against violent extremism. Not surprisingly, many high-ranking military officers have spoken out against the proposed cuts, noting that the military needs “strong civilian partners in the battle against the drivers of extremism—lack of opportunity, insecurity, injustice, and hopelessness.”
The nine months of Trump’s presidency have witnessed some showy moments—Tomahawk missiles raining down on a Syrian airfield, the detonation of the “Mother of All Bombs” in a distant corner of Afghanistan. There has been less evidence of a serious commitment and strategy to truly reduce the threat of terrorism. In fact, signs have pointed in the opposite direction—toward a diminished emphasis on diplomacy and development, and a less rigorous adherence to civilian protection. As Trump’s national-security team continues to take shape, they should pay close attention to the lessons of past presidencies and the accumulated evidence from sixteen years of fighting terrorism.
Saskia Brechenmacher is an associate fellow in the Democracy and Rule of Law Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Steven Feldstein is a nonresident fellow in the same program and the Frank and Bethine Chair of Public Affairs at Boise State University.