This point by Australian counterinsurgency expert David Kilcullen (via Robert Farley and Matthew Yglesias), about the weakness of targeted airstrikes in combatting insurgency, is a very good one. The one quibble I’d have is over this:
Governments typically make several mistakes when attempting to separate violent extremists from populations in which they hide. First, they often overestimate the degree to which a population harboring an armed actor can influence that actor’s behavior. People don’t tolerate extremists in their midst because they like them, but rather because the extremists intimidate them. Breaking the power of extremists means removing their power to intimidate — something that strikes cannot do.
I think it’s creating a false dichotomy to say that people tolerate extremists not because they like them, but because they’re intimidated. The success of a revolutionary movement, be it Maoist or Islamicist, rests on a mix of popular appeal and coercion. Like the Taliban, the Viet Cong were respected by the local population for their patriotism (or, in the Taliban case, their piety) and for their capacity to dispense rough but honest justice; they were also feared for their capacity to assassinate political enemies. For that matter, successful governance by any government involves elements of popularity (elections) and intimidation (prison).
By all accounts, and according to my one Pakistani friend in the tribal areas, the Taliban are strikingly unsuccessful at sustaining popularity in areas they take control over, so in their case the scale leans towards intimidation. This, it seems to me, may be a good reason to leave them alone, restrict ourselves to a minimal role in that war, and watch them fail.
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