The following editorial first appeared in the Dallas Morning News:
Pakistan's floods are spreading devastation and human suffering across the very countryside where Islamist extremists are working overtime to portray the West, particularly the United States, as evil. Despite the slow arrival of $200 million in U.S. aid, an important opportunity to win hearts and minds could be slipping away as the extremists seize the initiative.
Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari has sounded the alarm that extremist groups are using disaster aid as a recruitment tool. In Yemen, al-Qaeda is gaining a foothold by providing teachers for rural schools where the government hasn't.
So it bears asking whether the United States can find more effective ways to meet humanitarian needs in such places - and win hearts and minds - before the militants do. Similarly in Somalia, Sudan, southern Lebanon and the Gaza Strip, militants are relying less on coercion to boost support, instead exploiting poverty and an absence of government authority. They typically portray the West as caring only about military dominance, while offering themselves as the benevolent providers.
The United States too often helps solidify that image. As Pakistan assessed its flood damage, the United States continued its campaign of drone attacks on militant hideouts along Pakistan's border with Afghanistan. One such attack occurred Aug. 23 while flooding raged, killing 13. Three days earlier, a strike killed four; one the previous week killed 12. Recent polling indicates that 60 percent of Pakistanis view the United States as an enemy.
Two weeks ago, U.S. officials renewed concerns about security threats posed by the Somali militant group al-Shabab, raising the specter of new U.S. missile and air strikes similar to a series from 2007 to 2009. And in Yemen, where al-Qaeda's presence is growing rapidly, the Obama administration is talking about a "ramp-up" over coming months in U.S. offensive military operations.
Certainly, a military response is necessary when provocations merit it. But terrorism specialists warn that the United States could play into Islamist groups' hands by letting violent actions seize the headlines over other efforts to defang the extremists. Missile strikes and other military action help extremists find followers. Recruiting isn't so easy when the example of "evil" is a donated sack of flour or a new school.
"For an ideology to resonate, there has to be some sort of grievance," says Peter Neumann, a radicalization specialist teaching at Georgetown University. "If you take away the grievance, the ideology won't resonate anymore."
As the extremist network widens and public support for war dwindles, the Obama administration must look harder at other options. A well articulated and publicized plan aimed at addressing humanitarian needs before the extremists arrive could be a more effective long-term strategy to deny them the foothold they seek.