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Saturday, January 09, 2010

Hearts & Minds

Umar Abdulmutallab's attempted bombing of a flight over Detroit on Christmas day could have been another symbolic message from Al Qaeda.  Al Qaeda works very hard at sending the western world “messages.”  The west, on the other hand, fails miserably in sending clear messages back.  I’m not saying that our message to Al Qaeda isn’t clear.  The “we want you gone” message has been made crystal clear.  However, we know the best way to make that happen, yet we fail to send the right message to the right people.

Look, any terrorist organization that relies on suicide bombers is going to need a zealot to get the job done.  These organizations can train up a zealot, but they’ve got to get some raw material first.  Why does a young person (Abdulmutallab is 23) decide to join a terrorist organization?  There could be several reasons:
  1. They don’t have any better prospects (poverty, oppression)
  2. They hate Americans or westerners in general (maybe had a family member killed)
  3. They have a screw loose (Timothy McVeigh)
There’s not much anyone can do about that last one except early childhood detection and treatment.  But, the first two are situations over which we have some control.  By providing aid and support to poverty stricken or oppressed people, we can let them know that we are with them.  This takes away one more reason to hate westerners.  Anyone in the know will tell you that we do this, but we do it so badly that our efforts are usually wasted.

I am reminded of something that a coworker does.  Every time he sends his grandchildren, who live across the country, a book or a gift, he attaches a picture of him and his wife (grandma) to it.  That way, whenever the grandchildren read the book or play with the toy, they are reminded of who gave it to them.  The U.S. does a crappy job of making sure that the people we help know where it is coming from.  We send millions of dollars to help impoverished people in the same countries whose residents try to blow us up.  We can do better.

Then there’s the matter of killing civilians.  We know that our enemies are going to do everything in their power to make us need to blow up civilians in order to blow them up.  It is their best recruitment tool because they know that if they use the locals as human shields, they can recruit from the survivors after westerners have dropped bombs on the neighborhood.

We are fighting an asymmetrical war.  We’re going about it the old-fashioned way and they’re using modern tactics.  We should be recruiting locals ourselves.  We don’t need a whole army to do it.  Everything could be low key special operations.  It would be a lot cheaper and we would have plausible deniability if anything goes wrong.  Bottom line: we’re fighting the war they want us to fight.  It costs too much, most of our citizens don’t like it, and we’re not winning many hearts and minds.  In this type of war, if you don’t win hearts and minds – you don’t win.

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