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How the US could have won in Afghanistan and elsewhere

How terrorist groups end
Jones & Libicki (2008) How terrorist groups end (RAND)

By Spencer Graves

There is by now substantial evidence that US military operations in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere since 2001 would likely have had much more positive results with the following:

    1. Rule of law,

    2. Community policing, and

    3. Substantive subsidies for a free, adversarial press with a firewall that substantially eliminated the ability of government or corporate bureaucrats to interfere in the content.

Here is a brief overview of the evidence for each of these three claims.

** 1. Rule of law

In late September 2001, the government of Afghanistan offered to consider extraditing Osama bin Laden but asked for evidence of his culpability. The US refused to provide evidence while insisting that the Afghanis were stalling.

Nearly everyone believes in rule of law, even with terrorists. A 2008 study identified 268 terrorist groups that ended between 1968 and 2006: 43 percent ended through negotiations; 40 percent succumbed to law enforcement; 10 percent won; only 7 percent were suppressed by military force.

I’ve seen no serious rebuttal to that study.  That and a substantial body of other research confirm that US foreign and military policies could make nearly everyone safer and more prosperous by strengthening international law and dramatically limiting the use of military force.

On 2016-07-15, President Obama declassified documents indicating that members of the Saudi royal family and employees of the Saudi embassy and consulates in the US were involved in the preparations for the suicide mass murders of September 11, 2001. That helps explain why the Bush administration did not want to provide evidence. It also does NOT explain why the mainstream media has rarely (a) asked for fair trials for the detainees in Guantanamo and (b) questioned US support for Saudi Arabia since 2001.

** 2. Community policing

Scott Mann’s 2017 book Game Changes describes “village stability Operations” in Afghanistan—community policing by another name. This program had US Special Forces units living in rural Afghan villages, getting to know the people and gaining their trust.  After insurgents attacked the village, and the locals saw US soldiers bleeding with them, the locals came to trust the US military. They then provided information that helped the Special Forces eliminate insurgents before they could do more damage. Mann insists that these village stability operations were winning the war. Unfortunately, senior US military and governmental leaders reduced rather than increased those operations.

Mann’s claims sound far-fetched, except that they’re consistent with the evidence that policing in the US has become increasingly militarized in recent years, in spite of evidence that community policing is more effective and less expensive. The beneficiaries of this trend seem to be those who make and sell increasingly sophisticated weapon systems around the world. The argument that “we need the jobs” is morally bankrupt.

** 3. Substantive subsidies for a free, adversarial press with a firewall that substantially eliminates the ability of government or corporate bureaucrats to interfere in the content.

McChesney and Nichols say that the US has had three positive experiences in nation buildingIts own history and in Germany and Japan following World War II. They claim that the US Postal Service Act of 1792 encouraged literacy and limited political corruption, both of which helped the US hang together and grow, while contemporary New Spain /Mexico fractured, shrank, and stagnated economically. Under that act, newspapers were delivered up to 100 miles for a penny when first-class postage was between 6 and 25 cents depending on distance. It was roughly 0.2 percent of national income (Gross Domestic Product, GDP), which is roughly $120 per person per year in today’s money. Similarly, after World War II, Generals Eisenhower in Europe and MacArthur in Japan forced the post-fascist governments to provide substantive subsidies for free, adversarial press with effective firewalls that largely eliminated political interference in the content. Eisenhower told German journalists he wanted them to print whatever they wanted, even if it involved criticizing him personally.

McChesney and Nichols say that after “Mission Accomplished” in Iraq, 2003-05-01, the US demanded absolute censorship of the media.  With solid support for a free, adversarial press in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere since “Mission Accomplished,” there likely would have been substantially less corruption and less opposition to the US-supported governments there, less violence, and faster, more broadly shared economic growth.

However, my research has identified two major obstacles to progress in these areas:

(1) Since the late nineteenth century, advertising has become the dominant source of funding for news, averaging roughly 2 percent of GDP since 1900, forcing media executives to manage their businesses to limit the dissemination of information that might displease major advertisers, and

(2) Massive concentration of ownership of the media has stifled independent voices.

These two recent changes in the structure of the mainstream media in the US (including Facebook and Google) seem adequate to explain the failure of US media to support rule of law and community policing.

Spencer Graves, PhD, is secretary of PeaceWorks-KC and founder of

copyleft 2021 Spencer Graves Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike 4.0 International license

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