Maybe the way to go after al Qaeda is using a new organization: ‘Killer NGOs’
By Col. Gary Anderson (USMC, Ret.) Best Defense department of modest proposals We need new thinking in the hunt for Al Qaeda. If you didn’t like Iraq and Afghanistan, you are really going to hate Somalia and Yemen. This nation needs a better strategy for fighting terrorists than invading every country where we find them ...
By Col. Gary Anderson (USMC, Ret.)
By Col. Gary Anderson (USMC, Ret.)
Best Defense department of modest proposals
We need new thinking in the hunt for Al Qaeda. If you didn’t like Iraq and Afghanistan, you are really going to hate Somalia and Yemen. This nation needs a better strategy for fighting terrorists than invading every country where we find them with a force as large as the one that hit the Normandy beaches. Al Qaeda is, after all, a Non Governmental Organization (NGO), albeit a very evil one; and we have to figure out how to deal with it without creating a major regional war every time we uncover an al Qaeda cell.
Failed and failing states are the kind of places that Al Qaeda and its affiliate are looking for. Afghanistan and Iraq are too hot for Al Qaeda to operate in, and Pakistan is becoming that way. It is true that Iraq was never a haven for al Qaeda until our invasion led to a civil war in that country, but al Qaeda operatives saw opportunity in chaos and exploited it. The 9/11 attacks were enabled by the fact that al Qaeda found sanctuary in Afghanistan and used it to launch attacks on the ultimate enemy, the United States. Preventing another 9/11 has been a priority for the last two administrations, but no one has yet articulated a way of dealing with them short of using a sledgehammer to kill the proverbial fly.
Here is an alternative: If al Qaeda is an NGO, we begin to encourage and support "Killer NGOs" to destroy it in the countries that it infests.
If al Qaeda is an NGO, it is a malignant one. But it is like other NGOs that primarily pursue peaceful change in two ways. First, Al Qaeda doesn’t answer to any government. Second, it survives on donations. Unlike political parties, it doesn’t seek to dominate the people it infects; it desires merely to use them for international ends. The best way to fight an NGO might be with another NGO.
What would an anti-al Qaeda "Killer NGO" look like?
–First, it would have to consist of natives of the region where it operates; its message would be to reject the outside influence of foreign Islamist extremists.
–Second, it would need a competent military component. Militias are a dime a dozen and usually they are predatory. A small cadre of skilled fighters with cohesion and a cause can easily defeat the kind of rabble that al Qaeda pays to act as its muscle in areas that it infests. This is not a mercenary organization such as Blackwater. Mercenaries don’t fight for a cause; they fight for money.
–Third, a killer NGO needs a development arm. In a failed or failing state without a social safety net, a local NGO capable of supplying rudimentary medical, educational, and nutritional support is a welcome addition in places where hope is a scarce commodity
–Finally, a killer NGO needs a media arm that will get out its story and discredit that of Al Qaeda and its affiliates. A strong message of local self-reliance and rejection of exploitive foreigners is always a powerful one in the Third World. It has been used against us when we have been a visible presence. The difference here is that we are not a presence in the places most at risk of al Qaeda infestation; nor is it in our interest to be. We are present, and will continue to be in places where we have vital economic or geopolitical interests. Yemen, Somalia, and the southern Philippines don’t generally make that list, and that is why they become attractive to al Qaeda and its affiliates.
What happens if a killer NGO goes bad? We stop funding it. Unlike unpopular governmental regimes that do bad things, we are under no treaty obligation to support a NGO that goes bad. There are thousands of NGOs around the world. They are born and die every day. There is no loss of national prestige in withdrawing support to a rogue private entity.
The opposite is always possible. Some of these organizations might succeed wildly and become legitimate political parties with interests aligned to ours and democratic aspirations. We always have the option of reinforcing success.
We should of course retain the alternative of chasing al Qaeda across the world in a lethal game of "Where’s Waldo" with Special Forces and drone aircraft, and that option should never be taken off the table. If a particularly dangerous situation arises, we need the capability of direct action. But we need to consider options that are less expensive politically and economically. To make a medical analogy, al Qaeda is an infection. Direct military action is like chemotherapy. It can do nearly as much harm to the infected host as the disease itself. Killer NGO s would be a carefully targeted antibiotic. Chemotherapy is always an option, but it should not be the first choice.
The American public has lost its desire to wage counterinsurgency and counter-terrorism operations on the scale of Iraq and Afghanistan. Nipping and al Qaeda generated problem in the bud before it becomes a 9/11-type strategic threat is a clear preference. Encouraging and supporting killer NGOs is one more tool that we can add to our strategic kit that is both inexpensive and of low risk to American service personnel.
Gary Anderson is a retired Marine Corps officer. He teaches a class on alternative analysis at the George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs. He currently is on sabbatical in Afghanistan.
Thomas E. Ricks is a former contributing editor to Foreign Policy. Twitter: @tomricks1
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