US State Department Deputy Spokesperson Marie Harf is being mocked and ridiculed by critics in every medium for remarks she made in an interview with MSNBC’s Chris Matthews regarding terrorism. She told the host that poor economic conditions are a contributing factor to recruitment for groups such as ISIS, and said “we cannot kill our way out” of these wars. Red State called her a "damn naïve fool." The Daily Caller had their fun, and Allen West of course jumped in.
Though not sufficient an explanation for a topic as complex as terrorism, her point about poverty being a factor that plays into recruitment for terror groups and militias is important. As an infantryman and later an intelligence analyst, I helped capture and process hundreds of detainees in Baghdad and Bābil Province in 2005 and 2007-2008. Virtually none of these men and boys would be considered middle class, even by the minimal standards of a war-torn, already-depressed country.
The dozens of Sunni militias that sprang up in the wake of the invasion were filled with unemployed soldiers and former bureaucrats, recently displaced by the Bush Administration’s decision to de-Baathify the Iraqi government. This is uncontroversial, and cited frequently as being one of the worst strategic moves in an operation that was itself a terrible foreign policy blunder. So basic is this concept that it shouldn’t have to be mentioned, and yet it seems so outlandish to a great deal of editorialists.
In an effort to broker a peace in the country, beginning shortly before the final troop surge in 2007, US forces began paying first Sunni militias, and later Shiite groups, not to attack troops. As part of the Anbar Awakening, the “Sons of Iraq” were constituted all across the western and southern parts of the country, many of whom were former employees or members of al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). Of all the counterinsurgency methods used by General David Petraeus, this is perhaps the least well known, but probably among the most effective in the short term.
One of the draws to AQI had been the paycheck they offered recruits. With few options to feed their families, young Sunnis were promised wages for joining with militias. Some of these individuals were hardcore fighters, trained in small unit tactics, experienced in combat, and dedicated to the cause. Others were simply low-level government employees who lost their jobs during the Coalition Provisional Authority’s reconstruction of Iraq. They were largely ambivalent toward the end-goals of AQI, but were happy to dig a hole for an IED or scout out troop movements if it meant their kids didn’t go hungry.
It was a poor strategy in the long run, good only as a temporary solution that would buy generals and politicians some time, but the underlying conditions made it attractive. With a US-backed government now dominated by Shia, Sunni tribes were mostly shut out of any opportunities related to the military and police forces, to government contracts, or the oil industry. Few alternatives exist in a country split apart in war. This is especially true when the economy has been ravaged by a decade of sanctions and embargoes. All of this, the new government, the war, the sanctions, are the consequences of foreign intervention by the US government, under the leadership of both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.
Looking beyond Iraq, it’s not uncommon for young people in secular, western countries to engage in destructive and violent behavior when under intense economic pressure, ideology notwithstanding. Or, consider the fact that the US military never has a problem meeting its recruitment goals during recessions. Unable to find work elsewhere, recruits enlist to get job training, work experience, and money for college. We shouldn’t expect things to be so different in Muslim countries.
Skeptics will respond that if poverty really were such a big part of terrorism, we ought to expect similar activity to occur in places like sub-Saharan Africa, South America, or other impoverished parts of the world. We only see terrorism in Muslim countries, therefore Islam must be the real cause. Such a simplistic approach ignores the most important factor, which is military intervention itself.
Professor Robert Pape, an expert in suicide terrorism, explains this phenomenon is not unique to Islam or Middle Eastern social norms. His research, which covered terrorism in both Muslim and non-Muslim countries, concludes that occupation, either by foreign armies or domestic forces, is what drives individuals to react violently in general, and with suicide attacks specifically. So despite abject poverty, the sort violence being carried out in Iraq is not common in other parts of the developing world.
Not only can we demonstrate that Islam is not the major cause of such terrorism, this also reveals that simply killing militants will not bring an end to the conflict. Again, critics are confused when they deride Harf and smugly lecture that “killing the enemy is how we win wars.”
Killing enemy soldiers wins wars; killing civilians – both combatants and non-combatants – prolongs wars. Because the US is not engaged in an armed conflict with another nation state leading a uniformed military, there is no defined enemy. The authorizations for the use of military force (AUMF) that serve as the legal basis for the war on terror don’t specify an enemy, except in vague terms such as those who “provide material support” to terror groups and their affiliates.
Because of this, and because militias are interspersed throughout civilian populations, virtually all of the tools at the disposal of US commanders result in civilian deaths. Such tools include air strikes and ground occupation of densely populated urban centers. There is no weapons system that easily discriminates between civilian non-combatants and militants, which appear indistinguishable most of the time. We know from the testimony of convicted terrorists that they are driven to such extremes because of the brutal violence inflicted on civilians, what the military calls collateral damage. Even without such admissions, it follows logically that if you kill innocent people, their survivors – at least some of them – will seek revenge. Recall how so many Americans joined the military or reenlisted to avenge the attacks on 9/11.
Of course this is not an endorsement of terrorism, nor is it any attempt to excuse it, or blame the victims. It’s shameful that such disclaimers have to be provided, but even with them opponents of non-intervention will often dismiss the argument out of hand, without ever considering its merits. To be sure, the State Department has done a terrible job in handling foreign policy in Iraq for decades, and there is no reason to suspect anything will change soon. This should also not be seen as an endorsement of Ms. Harf, who may very well be in over her head. At least on this one point, she is correct.
Undoubtedly, a bad job market is not the only cause of terrorism. Peter van Buren, in his memoir of time spent in Iraq with the State Department, makes it clear that a lack of iPods was not the ultimate cause of terrorism, though it did factor. Critics dismiss economic conditions at their peril, and simply denying any causal relationship does not make it false.
Joel Poindexter is a veteran of the war in Iraq who writes mostly about economics and non-intervention. His work has been published by the Ludwig von Mises Institute and the Tenth Amendment Center, among others. He is the author of a forthcoming memoir of the war.