Applying Saudi Counterterrorism To The Afghanistan War

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Expert opinion, public opinion, and even the White House are increasingly split between two camps on how we should proceed in Afghanistan: The doves, represented in the White House by Vice President Biden, call for targeted counterterrorism and a scaled down presence; while the hawks, with whom President Obama seems to side, insist that only boots on the ground and a strong counterinsurgency can tame the Taliban and restore stability. Divisions between the two are contentious and a clear path for success remains elusive. But an unusual program in Saudi Arabia may offer a way for both to come together.

Saudi Arabia has a novel approach to terrorism: rehabilitation. The program seeks to reform captured terrorists with religious re-education and even art therapy. Once released, extensive government outreach may purchase them a car or even arrange a wife. In short, the goal is to reincorporate extremist militants into society. Officials say over a thousand terrorists have been reformed. It stands to reason that Saudi Arabia, one of the world's more oppressive regimes, would not be so taken with the program unless it was effective.

The U.S. should apply a similar program in Afghanistan, perhaps jointly with Saudi Arabia. It should appeal to both sides of America's Afghanistan debate. A rehabilitation program would be part of a broad and aggressive counterinsurgency strategy of curbing destabilizing violence, but it would also be a step towards regional involvement from Saudis and thus a reduced American presence further down the line. The Washington Post reported Wednesday that Obama is considering sending some Guantanamo detainees to the Saudi program. The White House must see the merits of the program, then, and would be amenable to applying it elsewhere. More importantly, with the U.S. and Saudi Arabia working together on counterterrorism, a joint Afghanistan program wouldn't be out of the question.

The Saudi program views terrorists as confused and angry young men. It treats their extremism as a social disease bred by poverty, lack of education and xenophobia. They are not, in other words, the comic-book villains Westerners often perceive them to be. By reincorporating them back into society with social programs and reeducation, Saudi Arabia succeeds in curbing terrorism in the short term. In the long term, it understands that jailing or killing a terrorist makes him a martyr, whereas reforming and releasing him makes him a walking refutation to the terrorist zeal. Al Qaeda uses killed compatriots as a recruiting tool, but no one bombs a police station to avenge their cousin being forced to finger-paint.

Saudi Arabia's program's greatest setback did not come until the country's counterterrorism chief invited a terrorist, who claimed to surrender but in fact carried a suicide bomb, into his home without searching him. Clearly this was a mistake. But the fact that the Saudi officials had to do something this obviously irresponsible for the program to fail -- and, indeed, that they felt comfortable taking the risk -- demonstrate just how successful this has been.

The program's success stands in stark contrast to the dubious track record of our Abu Ghraib/Guantanamo counterterrorism, refuting the long-held American treatment of terrorists as "evil-doers." It highlights the difficulty of fighting a subtle social force in a vastly foreign culture half a world away. Whereas we see Muslim terrorists as alien and incomprehensible, the Saudi program treats them more sympathetically, not unlike gang rehabilitation programs in major US cities. Applying a similar program in Afghanistan and Pakistan would not only ease terrorism but it would also address rising anti-American sentiment among the rest of the populace.

American soldiers could set up rehabilitation centers to be run by local officials. This would facilitate the deteriorating connections between the government and citizenry. Captured terrorists and even Taliban insurgents could be reformed and taught useful trades. After all, many Afghans and Pakistanis join the Taliban because, with unemployment at 40%, they have little other choice. Saudi counterterrorist officials could help design or even oversee the programs with Americans providing security, thus promoting Saudi involvement without requiring them to commit troops. If the programs are successful, they could eventually be handed over completely to Saudi control.

In addition to promoting a long-term strategy of making Afghanistan a regional and not an American problem, thus moving our exit further up the horizon, it would ease the populist anti-Americanism bubbling up there. It's true that Afghans, who are ethnically Pashtun and Tajik, could be resentful of Arab involvement, but both Afghans and Saudis are Sunni. Captured terrorists--or even insurgents--are going to find a fellow Sunni much more sympathetic and persuasive than an American interrogator.

No doubt many in America would object to terrorists being coddled by social welfare programs, but they work. Surely buying a car for a reformed terrorist would be less offensive than buying another casket for an American soldier. With the war projected to cost $65 billion this year, and Afghanistan's per capita GDP at $700, it would not take much of our war budget to dramatically improve the lives of angry young militants.

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Max Fisher is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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