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The Promise and Peril of the Indirect Approach

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Journal Article

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Center for a New American Security Washington United States

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Since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the United States has pursued a wide range of military activities abroad intended to degrade, dismantle, and defeat the al Qaeda organization and its network of loosely affiliated Islamist extremist groups. A disproportionate number of these effortsin terms of manpower, materiel, money, and media attentionfocus on two countries Afghanistan and Iraq. In both instances, the United States toppled existing hostile regimes and is attempting to rebuild institutions of security and governance from the ground up. However, these intensive and expensive efforts at state-building are not necessarily the most important from the standpoint of understanding the future direction of U.S. strategy against violent Islamist extremist groups. Instead, U.S. strategy against transnational terrorist groups abroad is increasingly focused on a concept commonly referred to as the indirect approach. As first publicly elaborated in the 2006 Quadrennial Defense Review QDR, the indirect approach in the campaign against al Qaeda and its affiliates emphasizes working with . . . and through partners using persistent but low-visibility presence to build up the security and governance capacity of at-risk partner states.1 The United States has long used various forms of security assistance as a key instrument of its foreign policy, but the new emphasis for counterterrorism-oriented assistance is on building partner capacity improving the security and governance capabilities of partner states to defeat al Qaedaaffiliated groups and to stabilize weakly governed areas to prevent their being used as safe havens by militants. This indirect approach to building partner capacity against al Qaedaaffiliated groups has beenimplemented in various places as part of the broader war on terror since 2002.

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  • Military Operations, Strategy and Tactics

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