Counterinsurgency Isn’t the Answer

Insurrectionists at the U.S. Capitol on January 6.
Samuel Corum / Getty

Okay, let’s put an end to this silliness before it gets out of hand: We do not need a counterinsurgency strategy to defeat right-wing extremism in the United States of America.

Say it with me once more, for the people in the back: We do not need a counterinsurgency strategy to defeat right-wing extremism in the United States of America.

Not only that, but we shouldn’t listen to those who seek to apply the lessons of our failed campaigns abroad to our political challenges here.

In the past several weeks, some folks who are, like me, veterans of the campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan have suggested that some of the extremists we face in the United States are akin to the forces we struggled to defeat abroad. On NPR Tuesday afternoon, for example, Robert Grenier, a former senior intelligence officer, made this argument (with—surprise—more nuance than social media gave him credit for).

As someone who wrote his doctoral dissertation on Hezbollah and then helped oversee the campaign to defeat the Islamic State, I have been more than a little unnerved to see so many of my fellow Americans radicalized by apocalyptic cults such as QAnon.

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Many of us who have sworn to defend the Constitution were particularly horrified to watch a violent mob sack the Capitol as Congress met to declare Joe Biden the rightfully elected president of the United States—to say nothing of the worrying number of military veterans and police officers who participated in the attack.

But I feel confident saying that the worst thing we could do right now is overreact—like we did two decades ago by invading two countries, one of which famously had nothing to do with the September 11 attacks. We should, if anything, err on the side of caution.

At the end of a terrible year for so many of us, the country nonetheless pulled off something that we should all take pride in: We held free and fair elections that resulted in a peace—okay, a nearly peaceful transition of power. Record numbers of Americans cast their ballots. Here in Texas, one of the hardest places to vote out of anywhere in the nation, we witnessed record turnout. The most important thing we can do to defeat the forces of extremism is continue holding elections, stay true to our commitment to democracy, and keep voting in numbers that leave antidemocratic forces no other option but to concede defeat.

But what should we do about the people who attempt to interfere in the democratic process? The solution seems to be prosecuting such people under the very good laws we already have on the books. We don’t need to pass new legislation that further empowers law enforcement to take action against domestic terrorists—which, again, even most of those arguing for a counterinsurgency approach seem to concede.

Prosecuting those who interfere in the democratic process will require a sustained effort. Our federal, state, and local law-enforcement entities will need to work together, which is always a logistically tough thing to do in a nation as spread out and appropriately federalized as ours.

And we also need to be honest about the kind of people who would use violence or the threat of violence to achieve a political end in our society. We have labels that apply to such people—labels we seem more ready to use on people of color than on white folks such as myself. But terrorism perpetrated by white people to undermine democracy has a long history in this country, running through Reconstruction and the Jim Crow era to the present. We once excused that behavior in the name of preserving comity—comity among white people, that is—but we should not do so now.

And a final note of caution: Be wary of anyone—myself very much included—who has bright ideas about how to apply lessons learned overseas here at home. In case you haven’t noticed, we weren’t all that successful overseas. Some of us were perhaps a bit cleverer than others, true, but collectively, we largely failed in our objectives in both Iraq and Afghanistan. What success we did achieve came at an astronomical cost: in dollars, yes, but also in the lives lost by Iraqis, Afghans, and American and allied forces.

The American democratic experiment has been going strong for 245 years. That experiment has also been costly, and we have shed plenty of blood to ensure it will continue. But in America, at least we can say that the struggle has been well worth it.