Carrots or Sticks? Rethinking the Future of Counter-terrorism Strategy

In the global context of state strategies to combat terrorism, the attack on September 11 2001 created a trend of armed retaliation against terrorism. 20 years later, domestic terrorism has surged through political discourse after the attack on the US Capitol in January 2021. However, after the fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban following the US’ contentious policy to withdraw soldiers – One that paralled the fall of Saigon in 1975. It may be time to reconsider the future of counter-terrorism strategy in a post-Afghanistan landscape. 

From a foreign policy perspective, counter-terrorism strategy can be described through the metaphor “Carrots or Sticks.” In politics, the phrase represents a choice between hard and soft power, in which the ‘carrot’ is a promise of economic/diplomatic aid and ‘sticks’ resemble the choice of military retaliation. 

In this sense, the rise of the Taliban can go one of three ways: Firstly, if the Taliban respect the previous government’s policy aims, will the West be less reluctant to retaliate? Secondly, could a newly formed Taliban Government prevent further attacks from outside organisations such as ISIS-K? And finally, is the fall of Afghanistan just a part of the ‘forever war’ that begun 20 years ago? 

Whilst some claim that counter-terrorism strategy should reshift its focus onto terrorist organisations, others argue that terrorism is part of modern life and a more relaxed approach to Afghanistan should be considered. Both China and Russia’s common interest in Afghanistan highlight their acceptance of sovereignty and ‘non-interference foreign policy. 

Despite the West’s tolerance against terrorist organisations, speaking to the enemy is not a new concept to political negotiations, and thus the prospect of diplomatic relations is possible. The Good Friday Agreement signed in 1998 highlighted how through a multilateral process, the desire for peace is a common goal amongst states. 

So what happens when peace doesn’t work? The “recent events in Afghanistan will have emboldened extremists,” says MI5 Director-General Ken McCallum. So, with the rise of North Korea as a rogue state and China in conflict with the West, it can be said that our counter-terrorism strategy should be stiff and the threat kept severe. 

America’s abrupt removal of soldiers has left Afghanistan with the same inhabitants that were overthrown 20 years ago. For terrorist organisations, Afghanistan will become a haven for training camps and radicalisation centres due to a lack of US intelligence in the country. Some would argue that military intervention is required. Yet after a financial cost of $2.3 trillion to the department of defence, it is not in America’s best economic interest to retaliate. 

Biden is projected to rely on drone surveillance due to a lack of US intelligence regarding Islamic state affiliate organisations. However, for counter-terrorism efforts, a more passive approach should be considered. 

The Campbell Systematic Review of Counter-Terrorism, a review of prevention strategies, found that aggressive tactics such as retaliation or changes in political governance created unintended harmful effects that often lead to more terrorist activity. Rather, findings suggest that increased security at airports provides degrees of success despite a lack of overarching evidence.  

To some level, all prevention systems caused displacement effects that have perpetuated terrorist activity. As Bruce Hoffman stated in his 2011 research paper, “The necessity for change in order to stay one step ahead of the Counter-Terrorism curve compels terrorists to change… The better, more determined, and more sophisticated terrorists will therefore always find a way to carry on their struggle”. 

Terrorism has become an eventuality of the 21st-century political landscape and the fall of Afghanistan will become a catalyst for new international terrorist networks to form. Biden must not demote counter-terrorism after fleeing Afghanistan. The question we can ask is, is it possible to contain the potential threat of attack and the rise of China as a superpower? 

One possible solution would be a bilateral agreement with the newly formed Taliban Government -that will prevent a return of Al-Qaeda or expansion of the Islamic state. Both China and Russia’s urge to use more carrots than sticks allow the US to join suit and collectively contain the threat of terrorism networks. Yet conceding to China and Russia’s geopolitical clout will prove difficult for US officials. 

America needs to reconsider their notion of ‘American Exceptionalism’; to take into account the failure of military intervention in Afghanistan. Whilst the war was not started with the goal to nation-build. The clear failure to gather intelligence, and a policy goal in mind, shows how “America – World Police” is no longer an accurate representation of the world order. 

Future Counter-Terrorism strategy needs to consider the failures of past military intervention and look towards diplomatic reasoning to help deter potential terrorist threats. The era of American Exceptionalism is over and in a world where a drone strike is an answer to all the world’s problems – sometimes all it takes is a few carrots.

Header Image Credit: EurAsian Times