Rethinking counter-terrorism: lessons from Iraq

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Over the next four weeks, LCHR is partnering with Progress to produce a series of four articles on counter-terrorism and human rights. The series will explore counter-insurgency, drones & targeted killings, tackling terrorism in our own communities, and small wars. The articles will be written by LCHR activists and Labour parliamentarians. The first article, written by our Chair Andrew Noakes, is below. It is also posted here on Progress Online.

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Rethinking counter-terrorism: lessons from Iraq

All being well, in 2015 Labour will return to government and regain control of Britain’s defence policy. Once again the primary threat we face will be from international terrorism – the dangerous, globalised nexus of ideology, networks, and conflict that links wars in places like Syria, Afghanistan, and Nigeria to extremism, radicalisation, and home-grown terrorist plots here at home.

Over the next four weeks on ProgressOnline, the Labour Campaign for Human Rights is releasing a series of articles on counter-terrorism policy. Our aim is to promote debate and encourage Labour to think carefully about how to approach the big questions and challenges in this field. The theme uniting all the articles is the relationship between counter-terrorism and human rights. All of our authors, in their own way, attempt to challenge the idea that effective counter-terrorism and respect for human rights are incompatible. In fact, we show how the two can go hand in hand.

We have asked all our contributors to pick on the subject they feel best exemplifies this unexpected compatibility. The articles will cover issues like the use of drones in counter-terrorism, radicalisation in our own communities, and Britain’s role in ‘small wars’ around the world.

To get the series started, I’ve picked my own example: Iraq, 2006. It was the bloodiest year of that conflict, and contained plenty of important lessons for how (and how not) to do counter-terrorism. British and American soldiers were losing control of the country. In a brutal and desperate attempt to stop the violence, Shia militants were drafted into the Iraqi security forces to crush the Sunni insurgency. Reports emerged of death squads and torture chambers. As the Americans pitted Shia against Sunni, Iraq was sent spinning hopelessly into full-blown civil war. The death toll that year reached 30,000.

It was a classic example of counter-terrorism gone wrong. The brutal sectarian conflict threatened to tear the country apart. Commentators even started talking about partition.

And then everything changed. By 2009, the mass killing had stopped – that year 5,000 people died in the war, a far cry from the 30,000 who lost their lives in 2006. So what changed? Rethinking their strategy, American commanders started building alliances with Sunni tribes who had long felt alienated from the new Iraqi government. They managed to win their trust and enlist their help in tackling Sunni insurgents linked to al-Qaida. This came to be called the ‘Anbar awakening’, and within a few months casualty rates started to plummet. The recent upturn in violence around Fallujah, brought on by the divisive governing style of the current Iraqi leadership, is further evidence that exploiting sectarian tensions and using brutal tactics is no way to beat an insurgency.

The answer to terrorism in Iraq turned out not to be the Shia death squads or the torture chambers. It was internal diplomacy. In fact, repression is rarely – if ever – a good solution for dealing with insurgencies. By their nature, these kinds of wars are asymmetric. One side has the ability to overwhelmingly dominate on the battlefield, and so the other side chooses not to engage them directly. Instead, they carry out small surprise attacks and then hide.

To fight this way, insurgents depend on local support to shelter themselves and their weapons. It’s how the insurgency worked in Iraq, and Afghanistan too. It also explains how Boko Haram in Nigeria continues to thrive despite a heavy-handed military offensive by the Nigerian army over the last few months, and how al-Shabaab continues to defy national and international forces in Somalia.

To win a war like this, you have to gain the support of the local population. You have to get them to flush the insurgents out for you. When the Sunni tribes rose up against al-Qaida in Iraq, there was nowhere left for the insurgency to hide. Conversely, when Shia militants were drafted in, it reinforced Sunni loyalty to al-Qaida and made it harder to win.

The lesson we learned from this can be applied across the board in counter-terrorism, and is central to the other articles in this series: violating human rights aggravates civilians. But you need the support of those civilians if you’re going to defeat the enemy in an unconventional war. To secure their support, you have to engage in a genuine dialogue, build and reinforce a political narrative that persuades them to side with you and not the enemy, and fully commit yourself to their security – often by living alongside them and the threats they face. You have to respect their customs and show evidence of bringing about positive change in their communities by aiding educational, healthcare, and infrastructure development. If you succeed, they will turn away from the insurgents and the terrorists and even build up their own paramilitary capacity to fend them off, which is precisely what happened in Iraq.

The tactical advantages of death squads, night-raids, drone strikes, and torture may seem considerable. But they are often heavily outweighed by the strategic damage they do. If we’re going to win these fights, we must learn the lessons of Iraq – focus on the strategy, avoid alienating people, build alliances. These are the basics.

– Andrew Noakes, Chair of LCHR