In his West Point commencement speech last month, President Obama outlined a new plan for addressing threats to U.S. national security. "I believe we must shift our counterterrorism strategy — drawing on the successes and shortcomings of our experience in Iraq and Afghanistan — to more effectively partner with countries where terrorist networks seek a foothold," he said, going on to propose a $5 billion fund to equip and train partner countries to launch their own offensives against terrorist networks.
Sounds simple enough — who can argue against burden sharing? But letting others do our dirty work will only compound the problem.
There's no more obvious example than Iraq. The billions of dollars we invested in reconstituting, arming and training Iraqi security forces over the last decade is now money down a rat hole — or worse, since some of the weapons, uniforms and supplies are now in the hands of the most dangerous and anti-American factions. Across North Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia, the number and capability of violent extremist groups keeps growing.
Moreover, there is a reputational and moral hazard to such training, given that many of the security forces with which we would be consorting are widely viewed as corrupt and abusive by their own populations. This is one of the problems we face in Nigeria, whether it's the search for the missing schoolgirls or the fight against Boko Haram in general; as Michela Wrong so keenly notes, local inhabitants perceive men in uniform "not as reassuring symbols of law and order but as potential predators." Aligning ourselves with such forces, even to "professionalize" their behavior, not only sullies our reputation and public image but turns local grievances into an international cause.
At the very least, we need to rethink our assumptions about counterterrorism assistance.
First, it doesn't work to strengthen one institution or sector in the absence of a broader strategy for societal advancement. Just as you can't improve agriculture effectively or sustainably without also addressing water, energy, roads and women's right to own land, you can't build counterterrorism capacity without also working to strengthen civilian governance, judicial systems, and respect for the rule of law.
Second, we must be transparent about what we are doing and evaluate the results. As Obama emphasized, "When we cannot explain our efforts clearly and publicly, we face terrorist propaganda and international suspicion, we erode legitimacy with our partners and our people, and we reduce accountability in our own government." Yet U.S. counterterrorism assistance, most of which is not classified, is one of the least transparent aspects of our foreign assistance and has never been subject to serious evaluation of its impact.
Third, we must ensure there is broad-based local buy-in and high-level political commitment to a shared set of goals and objectives. Counterterrorism is often seen by other countries as "America's war," not relevant to the security challenges they face. It's not a lack of resources that constrains our success; it's a failure to understand that our priority is not their priority. While we are focused on international terrorist networks that pose a threat to the United States, our local partners want to use the training and materiel for their own purposes, which frequently contradict our larger foreign policy interests.
Ultimately, though, better counterterrorism training will only take us so far. The underlying problem is one that Obama himself acknowledges: Not every problem has a military solution, and having the best hammer does not mean that every problem is a nail. This applies whether we are talking about the U.S. military or a foreign one.
It's time to call a halt to our heavily militarized and narrowly conceived approach to terrorism and begin addressing the factors that fuel violent extremism: acute and pervasive corruption; social, economic and political exclusion; unemployed young men without hope for a better future. These are problems better suited to the tools of development and diplomacy, although those tools are in desperate need of strengthening. If our civilian aid agencies received even a quarter of the resources we lavish on the Pentagon, perhaps we could devise a comprehensive approach to global terrorism that would stand a fighting chance.
Ohlbaum is a senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a former senior professional staff member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.