Don’t Let the Terrorists Win

Struggles to achieve peace and defend inclusive liberal political orders never end

Waging peace is sometimes as difficult as waging war.  Those arguing for U.S. diplomacy to help other countries achieve political solutions need to be realistic and have some humility about how difficult it is for outsiders to bring about durable compromises. 

Hold up a mirror on today’s America to get a sense of the vibe that divides many countries.  In places like Afghanistan, Yemen, Syria, and Libya, the political schisms are far wider and death tolls far greater than America’s own isolated instances of politically-motivated violence that culminated in the violent mob sacking the U.S. Capitol last month. 

But there is some overlap in the tasks of ending conflicts in other countries and maintaining functional, inclusive liberal political orders in our own democracies.  First, leaders need to condemn and deter acts of political violence aimed at weakening the institutions and undercutting the rules that govern.  Second, leaders should reach out and try to make deals with those movements willing to play by the rules.  Otherwise, extremists can overrun their own societies. 

Hedge on violent acts or waiver in the commitment to building a more inclusive order, and extremism multiplies.  It’s like failing to wear a mask or wash your hands over the past year – the virus spreads, mutates, and changes life as we know it. 

The events of that January afternoon will continue to hang like a dark cloud over America’s democracy for years to come. But America’s battered institutions still function, and violent political extremism only lurks on the margins – at least for now. 

The same can’t be said for many other countries around the world where political violence and physical threats posed by armed extremist groups with distorted ideologies are deeply embedded in societies with weak institutions. 

Look at Afghanistan today – a country that barely registers on America’s radar screen.  Extremists are conducting a campaign of assassinations targeting judges, civil society figures and female political leaders; this campaign is happening just as the United States is involved in diplomatic efforts to help Afghans achieve a political solution to the country’s decades-long conflict. The negotiation includes the Taliban, the retrograde group that led the country before the 2001 U.S.-led war – and many Afghanistan point the finger at the Taliban and like-minded groups for the current campaign of violence

Debates in America about Afghanistan today too often fail to stray beyond the media headlines like “the longest war” or advocacy-driven slogans of “ending endless wars” - this actually impedes clearer and deeper thinking, as Peter Juul argued in these pages.  What this debate usually fails to wrestle with: how to deal with political elements that align with extremism and seek to build their power base by tolerating and stoking that extremism. 

The taboo against engaging groups like the Taliban in diplomacy was broken years ago by both Republican and Democratic administrations, and a majority of Americans support the idea of engaging the Taliban in diplomacy to try to end the conflict in Afghanistan.  Let’s give it a shot, most Americans say, and I largely share that view.

But as we do so, we need to keep important questions in the back of our minds.  Is the “political solution” a worthy resolution of the conflict if it risks the lives of those who support a free and open society?  Is a diplomatic deal actually a moral and strategic victory or defeat in the long run if it empowers political extremists who want to overthrow the existing order and don’t respect the rules?

These questions aren’t an argument for keeping America in wars with no end in sight – they simply represent questions that dig deeper into the challenges of how societies create new political orders and what, if any, role America plays in that effort through its foreign policy and diplomacy.

When the United States surged thousands more troops into Iraq in 2007 to quell the country’s civil war, one of the rationales was to create the space for a political solution.  Nice idea in theory – but in practice the effect politically inside of Iraq was to freeze sharp divisions into place, achieving a temporary equilibrium that came undone even before the rise of the Islamic State in 2013 drew another U.S. administration back into the conflict zone - an administration that came into office vowing to end wars.

This issue matters for the evolving Biden foreign policy which has stated it wants to puts values higher up on the U.S. foreign policy agenda as it works to end wars. The administration has taken some positive early steps in places like Myanmar and sent signals on Russia. But violent challenges to the existing orders by political extremists deserve closer scrutiny – the battle for values takes place in conflict zones like Syria in ways that are too often ignored.

In today’s Iraq, for instance, militias backed by Iran are executing an aggressive campaign to target Iraqi civil society leaders and other liberals in a campaign similar to what’s happening in Afghanistan.  The murder of Lokman Slim, a prominent Lebanese political researcher and activist who criticized Hezbollah, raises important questions about how the United States should engage Lebanon’s shaky political system.  Condemning authoritarians is easier than finding ways to support the narrow beachheads for freedom and open thinking that exist around the world – especially in those countries suffering from widespread violence.

Today’s America is nowhere close to those difficult political situations in conflict-ridden countries around the world.  Violence targeting politics like the 2011 attack on Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and the 2017 shootings of several members of Congress remain rare exceptions.  But this week’s second impeachment of Trump has once again laid bare the threats posed by violent political extremism in America.  A mob tried to hunt down and do harm to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Vice President Mike Pence as part of an effort to undercut the rules of the game that govern America’s democracy. 

After the 9/11 attacks, “don’t let the terrorists win” was a slogan by those who argued for returning to normal life as quickly as possible. Nearly two decades later, a new form of terrorism has hit America – one that won’t be addressed after all the votes are cast in Trump’s second impeachment trial.  This political extremism won’t be defeated unless leaders work more actively to push extremism to the margins by calling out the violence and isolating the radical ideologies, rather than using those factors as fuel to further their own narrow political ambitions at the expense of the whole country. 

True leadership means standing up for the rules and sending a message that tactics that seek to terrorize through violence and intimidation have no place in our democracy.  Leaders have to lead.