Khaled Diab, Washington Post, February 22, 2021
If the attack on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 had a sense of the unreal about it, some reactions since have been even stranger. Take Robert Grenier, a former CIA officer who served in Afghanistan and Iraq and was the director of counterterrorism from 2004 to 2006, the height of the “war on terror.”
“We may be witnessing the dawn of a sustained wave of violent insurgency within our own country, perpetrated by our own countrymen,” Grenier wrote in the New York Times. “Three weeks ago, it would have been unthinkable that the United States might be a candidate for a comprehensive counterinsurgency program. But that is where we are.”
After two decades of the United States futilely and destructively chasing the phantom of violent Islamism across the globe, it is welcome to see Americans finally waking up to the greater threat to their security and well-being posed by homegrown White and Christian extremism — which I, like others, have been warning about for many years.
But the idea that the practices the United States has pursued in the Middle East for 20 years should now be deployed domestically fills me with a chilling sense of unease and trepidation. The United States could be on the brink of committing similar catastrophic errors at home as it did abroad.
The very fact that Grenier is presenting the war on terror positively as a template for action should set alarm bells ringing. U.S. intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq cost trillions of dollars, which could have been far more productively invested in nation-building at home, and it cost those countries untold thousands of civilian lives, unleashed endless conflict, and accelerated or deepened state collapse. It also led to broad human rights abuses — epitomized by the Guantánamo Bay detention camp — and the massive growth of the surveillance state.
If the United States were to use similarly militarized tactics at home, even if toned down compared with the heavy firepower mobilized abroad, it could turn an already bad situation into an outright catastrophe. Treating the situation in America as an insurgency carries grave risks. It encourages the kind of security-centric approach that erodes civil rights and creates a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Although I don’t doubt that Donald Trump was attempting to foment a coup — one that I had been expecting since his defeat in November — America is not (yet) in the throes of an actual insurgency. But with the wrong handling, that could easily and quickly change.
A sudden lurch from ignoring or underplaying the threat of right-wing extremism to treating White crusaders like Islamist militants and QAnon like al-Qaeda will set off the time bomb rather than defuse it.
Launching a counterinsurgency campaign in the war-on-terror mold against right-wing extremists will not defeat the tiny and disparate bands of armed groups across the country. Instead, if the U.S. experience in the rest of the world is any guide, it will transform these zeros into heroes. It will embolden them and strengthen their resolve. And it will enable them to excel in their favorite role, that of persecuted martyr.
Rather than seeing the situation through the narrow security prism of insurgency, it is far more useful to look at the rising tide of violent extremism and fascism not as an isolated problem but a symptom of the deeper malaise of deepening state failure.
Without democratic, economic and social reform, conflict and tribalism will thrive as people struggle to survive. The United States needs to move beyond its obsession with identity politics and identify the real problems and challenges it faces.