By Brian M. Burton
The future direction of U.S. strategy against violent transnational terrorist groups abroad is increasingly founded on the "indirect approach," a strategy that emphasizes building partnerships to improve the security and governance capacity of at-risk partner states and reduce the incidence of safe havens for militants in ungoverned spaces. The indirect approach has achieved only relatively modest outcomes. While terrorist groups have been degraded and the tactical capabilities of host-nation militaries have been improved, the lasting defeat of militant organizations has remained elusive. Since the use of the indirect approach is likely to continue, policymakers should have a clear understanding of its limitations. Political strategies to leverage security force assistance are insufficiently emphasized by U.S. policymakers, and this failure undermines the legitimacy of U.S. security assistance. Rigorous assessment of outcomes from efforts to build partner capacity should be more extensively completed and disseminated among military and civilian partners. Finally, policymakers should always be cautious about expansions of American involvement that are linked to open-ended objectives and poorly defined outcomes, lest the small-scale indirect approach spiral into the very type of large-scale direct action that it is intended to avoid.
PRISM 3, no. 1: The Promise and Peril of the Indirect Approach