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June 18, 2014

Yes, we can both end the war and fight terrorism.

By John Rodriguez

In yesterday’s Washington Post, columnist Jennifer Rubin criticized those who believe we should not be on a perpetual war footing against terrorism (“Did we ‘end’ the war?”). Yet her article rests on a massive straw man.  The choice is not between leaders who "think we remain at war (albeit an unconventional one) and require appropriate tools to fight it or whether we're 'done' and can dismantle the anti-terrorism architecture that prevented another 9-11 attack."  

No leader advocating an end to perpetual war would renounce the use of force.  Rather, the concept is that military force is only one tool within our toolbox,  appropriate against an imminent threat to American lives.  U.S. forces should capture suspects when they can, as just demonstrated by American military and FBI working together to arrest Abu Khattala, one of the suspects in the deadly attack on the U.S. Embassy in Benghazi.

Rubin’s claim that Khattala should be sent to Guantanamo rests on the false assumption that he can be properly interrogated and tried only in military custody. In fact, experience shows that law enforcement custody creates incentives for cooperation that may be absent in military custody,  and that the federal judicial system is infinitely more competent and reliable than the dysfunctional Guantanamo military commissions. Federal courts have a long history of upholding important principles of due process. They have also completed nearly 500 cases related to international terrorism since 9/11.  Of those, 67 cases have involved individuals captured overseas, according to Department of Justice data obtained by Human Rights First in a Freedom of Information Act request.  Meanwhile, military commissions have convicted only eight individuals since 9/11 and two of those convictions were recently overturned on appeal.  

Rubin also alleges that President Obama is only willing to give "minimal assistance" to allies fighting terrorist threats.  In fact, the exact opposite is true, as shown by the recently announced Counterterrorism Partnerships Fund. Aid has been given, and the U.S. should provide more, to our allies struggling to defeat terrorists in their countries.  However, it must be conditioned to ensure that instead of perpetuating corruption and human rights abuses, it will be used effectively to combat not only terrorism but the underlying social and political problems that allow it to flourish.  John Brennan, while speaking at an intelligence conference at Georgetown University, made the analogy that terrorism is a symptom of an underlying disease and that if we want to solve these problems then we must go “upstream” in a whole of government approach. This is why U.S. military leaders agree that counterterrorism strategy doesn’t lead with the military.

 While Rubin accuses the United States of not providing enough assistance to Iraq, the real problem is that the  $471.3 million it gave (out of a total $590 million in U.S. assistance in FY2014), was not conditioned on political outreach to the Sunni population.  The United States effectively funded Maliki’s sectarian—and often brutal—policies, leading to the political failure that is the proximate cause of Islamic State of Iraq and Syria’s (ISIS) success in Iraq.  

The future is not a choice between either a forever war, with American soldiers having to fight terrorists all over the globe, nor a pure law enforcement model that only reacts to crimes after they have been committed.  By partnering with allies, the United States can support them in the fight against terrorism in their own countries, while simultaneously using our intelligence agencies, military, and law enforcement professionals to target and bring to justice suspected terrorists like Abu Khattala.