The Future of Counterterrorism: Scalpel, not a sledgehammer

September 19, 2011 By Jane Kaminski

The anniversary of 9/11 cast a bright light on U.S. security and counterterrorism policy- where it was ten years ago, where we are now, and where it should go.  Across the political spectrum of debate, a consistent theme cropped up: as we draw down in Iraq and Afghanistan, the most effective tools to fight the threats of terrorism will target the causes of terrorism which cannot be addressed by a military approach alone.  In the words of Secretary of State Clinton, “We need a scalpel, not a sledgehammer.”

Military leaders voiced similar views about the future of national security.  At last Thursday’s House Armed Services Committee hearing on the Future of National Defense, former Chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Richard Myers said that the U.S. must engage all tools of national security- military, diplomatic, economic, and informational- for a strong and effective foreign policy.  General Peter Pace echoed him and Secretary Clinton by saying, “sometimes [the military] is a very blunt tool, when we need a scalpel.”

The think tank community has been active as well.  A recent report from CSIS analyzed the current threat of al Qaida and associated movements to the United States, concluding that counter terrorism operations that focus on terrorist threats must be complemented with counter extremism operations that focus on societal factors that fuel terrorism.  In today’s austere economic climate, the report emphasizes cost savings and efficiencies from focusing on prevention, the “force-multiplying effects of U.S. investment and aid abroad,” and forging new partnerships.  In other words, the most effective response to extremism is not a military campaign, but targeted diplomatic and development efforts along with counterterrorism defense programs.

Many of these operations take place in countries not considered frontline states, such as Yemen, Indonesia, Mali, and Algeria.  Yet the International Affairs Budget is facing the prospect of cuts of nearly 20% to programs outside the frontline states of Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan.  As a result, efforts by USAID, State Department, and the Millennium Challenge Corporation to build stable societies are in jeopardy.  At a time when political and military leaders are calling for a scalpel, Congress may be leaving us with a sledgehammer.