President Obama meets with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki during a meeting in the Oval Office, on November 1, 2013.

President Obama meets with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki during a meeting in the Oval Office, on November 1, 2013. Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP

You Can’t Fight Terrorists By Partnering With Guys Like Maliki

The U.S. needs to choose better counterterrorism partners than the likes of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. By Michael J. Quigley

Why do we give credence to those who say, “The war against terrorism is failing—so keep it up”? Critics of President Barack Obama say that the rise of the Islamic State, or IS, in Iraq and Syria is the result of Obama’s attempts to shift United States counterterrorism strategy from one of near unilateral American military action to a new era of partnerships with countries where terrorist networks seek a foothold. 

Some critics—claiming that the rise of IS against al-Qaeda shows that the “war against jihadists” continues—argue that the U.S. should stretch the post-9/11 Authorization for Use of Military Force, or AUMF, to justify fighting terrorists who are fighting other terrorists.

But the insurgency in Iraq does not invalidate the utility of partnerships. On the contrary, it demonstrates the bankruptcy of counterterrorism that disregards human rights.

The U.S. supported Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki after the 2010 Iraqi election despite clear evidence that he was transforming Iraq into a sectarian Shiite state. Making the Iraqi army “the militia of Maliki” is no way to win a counterinsurgency. As Sarah Chayes and Frederic Wehrey of the Carnegie Endowment point out, “Military support, when lent to armies in repressive, authoritarian states, tends to reinforce unpopular government and enable practices that nourish extremism.”

Chayes and Wehrey’s larger point is not that the partnership strategy is flawed per se, but rather that it’s a mistake to provide military aid without regard to the partner’s capacity and intentions. While Obama identified the situation in Iraq as “not solely or primarily a military challenge,” the aid to Iraq since 2011 has primarily been military, and it has not been conditioned on respect for democracy, the rule of law or human rights. 

The U.S. government must do better where it has more willing partners facing threats that fall short of armed conflict. It should invest in the right kind of counterterrorism now to avoid the drift into conflict that elicits calls for a U.S. military response—and threatens the lives and liberties of civilians near and far. Despite proclaiming the need for a “whole of government” approach to counterterrorism, the administration’s efforts have been disproportionately weighted towards defense. In its Overseas Contingency Operations request for “Enabling and Supporting Partners,” the administration seeks $2.5 billion for the Defense Department and $500 million for the State Department. 

A true whole of government approach uses all elements of smart power—development, diplomacy, democracy and defense—and has proven itself from the Philippines to Indonesia to Jordan to Colombia. None of these efforts was perfect; all could have been improved by greater concern for the rights of civilians and the rule of law. All in all, however, much was accomplished and threats to the U.S. were turned back—without war.

This does not mean that military force is never appropriate. But most terrorist groups, though deadly to the people around them, do not pose an imminent threat to the United States. In such cases, the president cannot rely on his Article II war powers and must seek authorization from Congress. As the Brookings Institution’s Daniel Byman pointed out last week, the Islamic State “certainly has the potential to be a threat to the homeland…[but] for now it does not appear focused on the United States and is not prioritizing the struggle against the West.” The 2001 AUMF doesn’t cover the use of military force against IS. If the administration decides to use such force, then a new and separate AUMF—passed by Congress and narrowly tailored to meet the threat posed by IS—is the appropriate course of action, rather than an artificial expansion of the 2001 AUMF.    

Osama bin Laden once said that “all that we have to do is to send two mujahedeen to the furthest point east to raise a piece of cloth on which is written al Qaeda, in order to make generals race there to cause America to suffer human, economic and political losses.” The United States cannot and should not treat every terrorist group in the world equally, and it must move away from a military-centric response. After 2001 our country waged war against al-Qaeda, and after 2011 in Iraq, it sought to stem terrorism by relying on military aid without a viable partner. Instead of falling into the same trap against a new generation of Bin Laden wannabes, let’s get in front of the threat with smart power, not an endless game of whack-a-mole.

Michael J. Quigley is a senior fellow for national security at Human Rights First, and a member of the defense council at the Truman National Security Project. He is a naval intelligence officer and has served two combat tours in Iraq, including one with Joint Special Operations Command. His opinions are his own and are not endorsed by the U.S. Navy Reserve or the Department of Defense.