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The hearts and minds of local populations are the battlegrounds where we will win or lose the fight to stop al-Qaeda.  

Al-Qaeda peddles a violent, totalitarian ideology of subjugation, and our main foreign policy challenge in the coming years will be to confront, contain, and defeat that ideology.  Terror cells and insurgencies depend on their acceptance into the local populations.  They take advantage of the chaos inside a failed or failing state and resentment of U.S. policies to recruit and to proselytize.  Often they insinuate themselves into the good graces of local populations by providing services that governments do not.  

The policies of the current administration have left us ill-equipped to fight on the battlefield of the hearts and minds.  The Bush Administration’s policies around the world have created enormous resentment in the Muslim world.  It’s no wonder that al-Qaeda has seen a bump in terrorist recruiting and fundraising.

Senator Obama has called for renewed public diplomacy and engagement with a major Islamic forum in the next Administration.  He believes, and I agree, that we must make it clear to the Muslim world that we respect their culture, that we do not expect them to be like us, and that we committed to helping them pursue their hopes and dreams.  We should ask them to join us to fight those who seek to subjugate their societies through the use of hate and violence.

Earlier this year, the House Armed Services terrorism subcommittee, which I chair, put a heavy emphasis on what the special operations forces call "indirect action" when we authorized funding for U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM).  Indirect action means working with the local populations to make sure they have basic services and their basic needs met so they are not as susceptible to terrorist "humanitarian" recruitment strategies.  As SOCOM’s Commander Admiral Eric Olson said, "direct action buys you time; indirect action wins the war."

Our administration could stand to learn a few things from Admiral Olson.  We must redouble our efforts to fight the hearts and minds battle.  We need to up our investment in the poorest regions in the world, with the aim of reducing poverty and combating terrorist propaganda.  We need to engage in robust, tough diplomacy with countries that may not be our allies to push them to stop supporting terrorism.  And we need to make it clear to poor and disaffected populations that America is on their side.  

Terrorist groups like al-Qaeda take advantage of the fact that more than a billion people in the world live in extreme poverty.  This was one of many reasons for my introduction of the Global Poverty Act in the U.S. House of Representatives, along with U.S. Rep. Spencer Bachus (R-Ala.).  Not only is the existence of this kind of poverty morally repugnant, but it’s a source of instability, and we have to address it to stop al-Qaeda’s growth.

Indirect action, bold diplomacy, reaching out to those in weak or failing states – these are the components of a successful strategy to halt al-Qaeda’s growth.  There is clearly a military role in the battle against al-Qaeda, but it should not be the sole or even primary part of this battle.

Senator Obama has outlined this kind of approach in various policy speeches. Considerable notoriety was given to the common-sense statement that America would as a very last resort be willing to defend itself against an impending al-Qaeda strike originating in a Pakistani safe haven, but much of his speech focused specifically on the right way to avoid having to make that last, but necessary, hypothetical decision.  He called for active but tough diplomacy with our enemies instead of refusing to talk to them.  He called for funding education in the Muslim world to counter the radical madrasas, for doubling foreign aid, and for ensuring America lives up to our values by utterly rejecting torture and closing Guantánamo.    

The fight against al-Qaeda is the fight against an idea.  The U.S. needs to better understand the true nature of our conflict, and better equip ourselves with the weapons with which to fight it.

Originally posted to US Rep Adam Smith on Fri Aug 17, 2007 at 02:43 PM PDT.

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