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PPI | Policy Report | November 30, 2006
Rethinking the War on Terrorism
The Lessons of Counterinsurgency Doctrine
By Kevin Croke


Editor's Note: The full text of this policy report is available in Adobe PDF format, only. (Requires Adobe Acrobat Reader.)

Executive Summary

Five years into the war on terrorism, Americans find themselves searching for new ideas and strategies. PPI Foreign Policy Fellow Kevin Croke proposes a new paradigm for understanding the conflict -- the war on terror as counterinsurgency. In this paper, Croke outlines key tenets of counterinsurgency theory and how they apply to the war on terror.

Winning Hearts and Minds

The most important task of counterinsurgency is to separate insurgents from their base of popular support. For the war on terrorism, counterinsurgency theory suggests the following principles:

  • Use measured force. Unless it can be carefully targeted, use of conventional military power against non-state groups will backfire;

  • Hold the moral high ground. Abusive interrogation techniques or unlimited extralegal detention are counterproductive at the strategic level;

  • Support political reform. A patient, multilateral strategy of support for indigenous political reform is the best way to repair America's image in the Muslim world;

  • Pay attention to soft power. The US also needs to use the neglected tools of soft power, such as economic aid, trade preferences, diplomatic leverage, public diplomacy, and the attractive power of American ideals.

    Targeting the Enemy

    To target the hard core of jihadists, intelligence is key. This means that the U.S. must:

  • Prioritize intelligence and police work. Day-to-day counterterrorism is mostly police and intelligence work, which means that continued intelligence reform is critical;

  • Build anti-terrorism coalitions. Breaking up terror plots requires the cooperation of foreign authorities, so good international working relationships must be a top priority;

  • Avoid civil liberties absolutism. The primacy of police and intelligence work means that Americans will have to make new tradeoffs between security and civil liberties;

  • Invest in area and language knowledge. Counterinsurgents need to have an intimate knowledge of the language, culture, and history of the host population.

    Supporting Reform

    Counterinsurgency doctrine stresses the need for reforms that undercut popular support for insurgency:

  • Promote political and economic modernization. The US needs to fight the root cause of extremism -- the Middle East's lagging economic, political, and social development;

  • Divide the enemy. The US should seek opportunities to exploit internal divisions among jihadist groups;

  • Help Europe integrate its Muslims. The susceptibility of some European Muslims to extremist ideology means that better integration policies are critical.


    Download the full text of this report. (PDF)

    Kevin Croke is a PPI Foreign Policy Fellow.



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