Politics & Policy

After Bin Laden, Same as Before?

A new book contends that America is losing the War on Terror.

Is the economic crisis a sign that, even after death, Bin Laden stings at us? Counterterrorism researcher Daveed Gartenstein-Ross is the author of the provocative new book Bin Laden’s Legacy: Why We’re Still Losing the War on Terror, and he discusses it here with National Review Online’s Kathryn Jean Lopez.

KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: Ten years later, is our economic crisis evidence that al-Qaeda is winning?

DAVEED GARTENSTEIN-ROSS: The economic crisis is evidence that the massive disparity in power between the United States and al-Qaeda that existed on Sept. 11, 2001, has narrowed. Obviously, the U.S. is still far, far more powerful than al-Qaeda, but it is weakened and beset by multiple problems — both internal and external — that could further erode its ability to project power and to defend itself from terrorist groups. To be clear, the U.S.’s problems are by no means entirely attributable to the fight against Islamist terrorism: For example, al-Qaeda didn’t trigger the subprime-mortgage crisis. But the jihadi group’s strategy has been centered on the U.S. economy from the very outset; it’s a strategy that, coupled with the U.S.’s own missteps and strategic blunders, has had a far more corrosive effect on our economy than many observers would like to admit. Regardless of the fact that it has multiple causes, our weakened state is an undeniable fact.

The collapse of the U.S.’s financial sector in September 2008 made the country seem mortal to its enemies, likely for the first time. In turn, that produced a strategic adaptation by jihadis, toward what they call the “strategy of a thousand cuts.” This strategy emphasizes smaller, more frequent attacks, many of which are designed to drive up security costs for their targets. Al-Qaeda operatives have placed three bombs on passenger planes in the past 22 months: Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab’s underpants bomb in December 2009, and two bombs hidden in ink cartridges that were placed on FedEx and United Parcel Service planes in October 2010. Abdulmutallab’s detonator failed, and the ink-cartridge bombs were found before their timers were set to explode, but al-Qaeda doesn’t necessarily view those attacks as failures. As radical Yemeni-American preacher Anwar al-Awlaki explained, the ink-cartridge plot presented a dilemma for al-Qaeda’s foes. “You either spend billions of dollars to inspect each and every package,” he wrote, “or you do nothing and we keep trying.” The U.S.’s weakened economic condition makes a strategy like this far more harmful to America than it would have been a decade ago.

LOPEZ: You say we’re “still losing the war on terror.” Were we ever winning?

GARTENSTEIN-ROSS: Yes, I think we were winning for a period, albeit a rather brief one. The initial invasion of Afghanistan to dislodge al-Qaeda from the sanctuary it enjoyed there was brilliantly executed. As is well known, the U.S. missed the opportunity to kill or capture Osama bin Laden and other top al-Qaeda leaders when it failed to dedicate additional troops to an operation in the Tora Bora mountains in December 2001. CIA veteran Hank Crumpton, who oversaw the intelligence agency’s operations in Afghanistan, was convinced that bin Laden was holed up in Tora Bora, but Gen. Tommy Franks rebuffed his request for additional troops. Much of al-Qaeda’s leadership, including bin Laden, escaped.

We were winning prior to the Tora Bora operation, and the past ten years could have looked much different had the U.S. devoted the additional troops that Crumpton requested. But though bin Laden and other jihadi leaders escaped, I think we were still doing quite well even after Tora Bora, for the Taliban was out of power and al-Qaeda had been significantly degraded. As journalist Peter Bergen writes in The Longest War, “Bin Laden retreated from the Tora Bora battlefield demoralized, wounded, and contemplating his own death, while the organization he had so carefully nurtured for more than a decade was now on life support.”

Many of the U.S.’s key errors were made shortly thereafter, prominent among them the diversion of resources away from Afghanistan-Pakistan and toward the Iraq theater. Thereafter, with the U.S. presence in South Asia diminished, al-Qaeda went about carving out a safe sphere for itself in Pakistan’s tribal areas.

LOPEZ: Is calling it a “War on Terror” near the top of your problem list? You complain in the book that this name is too broad. What does that mean exactly?

GARTENSTEIN-ROSS: I wouldn’t put the “war on terror” language near the top of my list of problems because I don’t think there’s a phraseology that adequately describes the current conflict. But that being said, I have always disagreed with the “war on terror” phraseology; it’s employed in the book’s subtitle only because it is instantly recognizable to readers, and not because I feel it properly describes the present conflict. There have been costs to defining this as a conflict against “terrorism,” which is of course a tactic and not an opponent.

Before I began this book project, my assumption was that U.S. planners had a poor strategic understanding of al-Qaeda as an opponent. But I was surprised that the official understanding, as reflected in key strategic documents, was in fact far worse than I had assumed. Reviewing key strategic documents — including the “National Military Strategic Plan for the War on Terrorism” (NMSP-WOT) published by the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the White House’s “National Strategy for Combating Terrorism,” and The 9/11 Commission Report — I was unable to find an ends, ways, and means assessment of al-Qaeda. Such an assessment, which is a basic part of military planners’ understanding of an enemy, inquires what the enemy’s goal is, and what the ways and means are by which the enemy will pursue this goal. Tellingly, the NMSP-WOT performs an ends, ways, and means assessment of the United States, but doesn’t perform the same analysis of al-Qaeda.

The typical method of analyzing al-Qaeda in these documents is discussing its goal of reestablishing the caliphate, and then its embrace of the tactic of terrorism. Never do these documents specify how al-Qaeda intends to bring about the caliphate: Clearly random terrorism alone won’t do the trick. There is an unresolved disconnect between al-Qaeda’s goals and the tactics it embraced, as though the unstated assumption is that the group doesn’t think strategically, that its desired end state is a pie-in-the-sky dream, and this adversary has no concept of how its dream can be turned into a reality. But it’s dangerous to begin strategic assessments with the assumptionof an adversary’s incompetence.

This is where the “war on terror” paradigm may be so harmful. Brian Michael Jenkins, senior adviser to the president at the RAND Corporation and an esteemed terrorism expert, told me while I was writing Bin Laden’s Legacy that one reason we haven’t attained a better understanding of this foe is because “we’re trapped by the word terrorism itself.” Jenkins compared the current shallow strategic assessments of al-Qaeda to those performed during World War II and the Cold War, when America’s understanding of Soviet strategy was sophisticated, and American planners carefully examined the writings and thinking of the German generals. In contrast, Jenkins said, in the view of U.S. planners, terrorists “were not worthy foes; they didn’t measure up.”

LOPEZ: With an eye toward al-Qaeda’s own reporting, you write that “the fact that the ink-cartridge plot killed nobody did not mean that it had failed. Rather, [Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s] ability to get the disguised explosives aboard planes, and thus drive up the West’s security costs, made the plot a success.” Are you just buying into terrorist spin there?

GARTENSTEIN-ROSS: There is clearly some spin at work in the third issue of Inspire, which was devoted to the ink-cartridge plot, and which influenced my analysis of the strategic thinking behind that plot. To be clear, my contention is that the plot succeeded within the context of a “strategy of a thousand cuts” paradigm, not that it achieved everything that the perpetrators hoped. The reason I say it succeeded within that paradigm is because the basic argument in Inspire makes sense: A plot that only cost $4,200 succeeded in placing bombs aboard two passenger planes. The cost of defending against a repeat will far exceed the terrorists’ price tag in executing it.

Let’s make no mistake, Inspire is a piece of propaganda, and as such should be read with a skeptical eye. Not everything within it can be taken at face value. Al-Qaeda has a central leadership (though an affiliate, and not the central leadership, produces Inspire), but it also functions as an ideology, and is increasingly trying to encourage sympathizers unaffiliated with the organization to strike on their own. Thus, its propaganda isn’t just intended to frighten us, but also to explain guiding principles to sympathetic ears. We’d be foolish to accept the enemy’s propaganda without questioning it, but so too would we be foolish to simply ignore the strategic lessons that can be drawn from it.

LOPEZ: “By making terrorism a hard-fought partisan issue, we have created a climate that produces posturing, bad policy, and squabbling that weakens the country.” But politics is where these things get hashed out. Is there a realistic remedy?

GARTENSTEIN-ROSS: I honestly don’t know whether there is a remedy that can solve this problem, though I propose what I think is a promising course of action in my book. I should note that despite the fact that terrorism has been such a hard-fought partisan issue, there has actually been continuity between the last two years of the Bush administration and the first three years of the Obama administration on terrorism and national security. Marc Lynch persuasively demonstrates this in an important report he authored for the Center for a New American Security last year. Moreover, bin Laden’s death and the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks may create further space to reevaluate the issues, and reduce their politicization.

This is not to say that all political fights over terrorism and national security can be eliminated, nor should they be. Rather, the two key problems I would like to address are the fact that many political attacks have been irrational grandstanding, intended for partisan gain, and also the downside of the democratization of communication technology. What I mean by the latter point can be seen in the manner that Terry Jones, an obscure Florida pastor, became a major international news story in September 2010 when he threatened to burn a Koran. Even Gen. David Petraeus weighed in on Jones’s threats, arguing that burning Islam’s holy book would endanger U.S. forces. Though Jones didn’t follow through on his threat in 2010, in March 2011 he organized a mock trial of the Koran at which he served as the judge. Jones declared the Koran guilty, and it was set aflame. Less than two weeks later, an angry crowd in Mazar-e-Sharif, Afghanistan, attacked a U.N. compound, and killed at least eight. While rogue individuals like Jones cannot be stopped entirely without compromising our constitutional values, their impact can perhaps be mitigated.

The course I recommend in Bin Laden’s Legacy is strengthening a moderate center on terrorism and national security, a collection of experts and professionals — from the Right, the Left, and those without partisan affiliation — who can gather periodically, discuss pressing issues, and hear official thinking on these matters as well as the views of their colleagues. The purpose of strengthening a moderate center isn’t to squelch anybody’s right to speak, or to ensure absolute agreement on America’s counterterrorism and national-security policies. Rather, one reason to have a strong moderate center is to have a mechanism to rebut wrongheaded or sensationalistic issues that occasionally come to dominate national-security discussions. One example is the Democrats’ partisan attacks on the Bush administration in February 2006 for authorizing Dubai Ports of the United Arab Emirates (DP World) to take over the operation of 21 U.S. seaports. The second reason to have a strong moderate center is that it can be used to create space for serious discussion about how much spending on homeland security and counterterrorism is justified, given that our terrorist foes are now counting on our security spending to make us easier to break.

A favorable review of Bin Laden’s Legacy in Small Wars Journal brushes off this policy recommendation as “whimsical.” Though that may ultimately be correct, I think it’s nonetheless important to try to reduce partisan squabbling.

LOPEZ: Meanwhile, as you complain about politics, you can’t let a president have his Osama bin Laden win, can you?

GARTENSTEIN-ROSS: By all means, President Obama deserves to celebrate finally getting bin Laden. Though some on the right have derided it, I agree with Robert Gates’s description of the bin Laden raid as a “gutsy call” on Obama’s part. But bin Laden’s death doesn’t end the fight against al-Qaeda and its affiliates. Though I’ve noted before that administration officials and analysts are overstating al-Qaeda’s current weakness, even the administration agrees that we’re not finished. So let’s get at it.

LOPEZ: You write about the inefficiencies of our fight against terrorism. Can the Department of Homeland Security, with its mission as broad as it is, ever be effective?

GARTENSTEIN-ROSS: It can be more effective than it is now. I’d take a rather broad view of the inefficiencies of our current fight against terrorism, looking beyond that one department. A good window into our widespread inefficiencies is a two-year investigation by Washington Post reporters Dana Priest and William Arkin, published as “Top Secret America” in the summer of 2010. Their investigation concludes that the security bureaucracy erected after 9/11 “has become so large, so unwieldy and so secretive that no one knows how much money it costs, how many people it employs, how many programs exist within it or exactly how many agencies do the same work.” It’s not easy to implement effective reforms against such a backdrop, and anybody who thinks a perfect solution is achievable is delusional. But we can, and need to, do better.

LOPEZ: Your book paints a picture of policy chaos. Where do we go from here, realistically?

GARTENSTEIN-ROSS: To distill my answer down to a quick talking point, one that rhymes (kinda), we need strategy, efficiency, and resiliency. Above, I outlined our weak strategic understanding of al-Qaeda. This failure to understand the enemy has proven costly. We cannot, of course, undo past mistakes, but we can make sure we don’t repeat the same errors. U.S. officials can start by understanding the evolution of al-Qaeda’s strategy and where it stands as of 2011. One thing the history of the jihadi group makes clear, however, is that al-Qaeda is an adaptive organization; and adaptations will certainly occur in the wake of bin Laden’s death. American planners should understand the group’s strategic history but also carefully watch the ways this strategic outlook will continue to evolve.

In terms of efficiency, as we enter an era of austerity, we need to find ways to maintain our security while expending fewer resources. Some efficiency can be gained at a tactical level. I believe we should be more comfortable employing terrorist profiling — something that is often inaccurately derided as looking for Arabs or other supposedly “threatening” races. In reality, one of the most promising avenues for trying to concentrate resources on those more likely to be terrorists is behavioral detection efforts, such as the Screening of Passengers by Observation Techniques (SPOT) program that was adopted in October 2003. Efforts at better concentrating resources through profiling should be expanded.

As Sheldon Jacobson, a University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign computer-science professor who has studied aviation security since 1996, has argued, “Spending billions of dollars on screening the wrong people uses up finite resources. . . . More screening can actually result in less security by directing security attention and resources (which by definition, are finite) onto people who are not a threat, which in turn moves such attention and resources away from people who are a threat.” Additionally, I believe we should implement analytic reform within the intelligence community, and seriously consider civil-service reform. One reason for our overreliance on costly contractors for national-security needs has been how difficult it is to hire and fire federal employees. Current civil-service protections can make it almost impossible to fire underperforming federal employees. They are often shuffled to other departments, and in some grotesque cases, even promoted. Though civil-service reform has been politically impossible in the past, that may be changing as we move into the age of austerity.

As for resiliency, another terrorist attack may succeed despite our best efforts. We should be building up our societal resilience. As DHS has defined it, resilience is “the ability of systems, infrastructures, government, business, and citizenry to resist, absorb, and recover from or adapt to an adverse occurrence that may cause harm, destruction, or loss of national significance.” Ben Sheppard of the Institute for Alternative Futures has focused on societal resilience in his research. He told me that when one looks at resilience, it is important to look not just at infrastructural resilience but also the psychological aspect. Bolstering resilience is one important prong of a sound strategy.

LOPEZ: If you believe that the invasion was a huge mistake, what would you say to someone whose loved one has died fighting in Iraq?

GARTENSTEIN-ROSS: Determining what military measures have been in our strategic interest is a rather cold, unemotional process. Our soldiers die in wars, and it is tragic; but we cannot afford to refuse to acknowledge our strategic mistakes because we fear that doing so will somehow cheapen soldiers’ deaths. If we fear bluntly acknowledging strategic errors, that makes it more likely that other soldiers will die unnecessarily in the future.

Beyond that, the fact that politicians made strategic mistakes in invading Iraq does not mean that our soldiers served without valor or heroism, nor does it mean they accomplished nothing. I spend a lot of time with our troops, including in current war zones, and get to see their dedication, sacrifice, and professionalism up close. Moreover, though I think the Iraq war has been a costly strategic blunder, the U.S. accomplished a great deal during the troop surge in 2007, which turned around a truly disastrous situation.

LOPEZ: What was done right during the Bush administration? And during the Obama administration thus far?

GARTENSTEIN-ROSS: One unmistakable success over the past decade, spanning both administrations, is the fact that we haven’t been hit by another successful catastrophic attack. If security professionals were placing bets ten years ago on whether another catastrophic attack would occur on U.S. soil between September 2001 and September 2011, most of them would likely say yes. Both administrations deserve credit for the fact that this hasn’t come to pass.

As for the Bush administration, the thing that I give them the most credit for is pursuing the surge in Iraq despite great opposition. The Republicans had been slaughtered in the 2006 midterms, with the Iraq war factoring heavily. As ABC News analyst Gary Langer noted at the time, “Opposition to the war remains the prime issue driving congressional voter preference.” Thus, the Democrats argued that the surge flew in the face of the “mandate” provided by their midterm victory. For example, when they passed House Resolution 157 — which condemned Bush’s decision to send more soldiers to Iraq – Rep. Dale Kildee of Michigan said, “President Bush either did not get or did not understand the message the American people sent last November. Before the end of this year, United States troops should be redeployed and their efforts focused on support and training the Iraqi Security Forces.”

This kind of rhetoric was common from the Democratic side, and one of the surge’s most consistent critics was Illinois senator Barack Obama. On January 10, 2007, as the surge was announced, Obama said, “I am not persuaded that 20,000 additional troops in Iraq is going to solve the sectarian violence there. In fact, I think it will do the reverse.” In May 2007, Obama introduced a plan to begin redeploying troops out of Iraq, with all combat troops to be removed by March 31, 2008. Ultimately, the surge was given the funding it needed, and it worked. Obama himself conceded this in a September 2008 interview with Bill O’Reilly: “I think that the surge has succeeded in ways that nobody anticipated. . . . It’s succeeded beyond our wildest dreams.”

And I’d give the Obama administration great credit for two things. One is the fact that though Obama campaigned against the Bush administration largely across the board on counterterrorism issues, he didn’t end up taking the courses of action he advocated on the campaign trail that would have diminished U.S. security. He has been far more prudent in office than many of his critics feared. Second, the raid that killed Osama bin Laden. Any way you look at it, the Abbottabad raid was a major success for the administration.

LOPEZ: What would you advise Congress to do right now? What would you advise the president to do right now?

GARTENSTEIN-ROSS: I’d suggest that both of these branches of government should pursue policies supporting the three prongs of sound counterterrorism strategy that I outlined above: strategy, efficiency, and resiliency. Bin Laden’s Legacy outlines specific policies that can support each of these prongs. To name a few: bolster our terrorist profiling efforts, pass civil-service reform, support educational programs to empower citizens to play a constructive role in the wake of a natural disaster or terrorist attack, pass the Open Fuel Standard Act to address our addiction to oil, and seriously examine the prospects for analytic reform in the intelligence community.

LOPEZ: How would you advise a Republican presidential candidate who needs to win?

GARTENSTEIN-ROSS: As is clear from my discussion of the politicization of terrorism/national security, as well as the Obama administration’s performance thus far, I think it’s counterproductive to paint in too broad brushstrokes on this issue. Every time one of our major parties triumphed by using terrorism/national security as a major part of its campaign strategy between 2002 and 2008, there were significant problems with the way they framed and argued their case. Nonetheless, I think there are two significant issues where a Republican challenger could make a compelling case to the voting public that would enhance rather than detract from our overall security.

One issue is the Libya intervention. While there is currently a great deal of romanticization of what we accomplished there, a Republican nominee could challenge Obama’s decision to launch a new military adventure in that theater on the grounds that there was an insufficient national interest. Not all U.S. foreign policy should be conducted through the lens of our fight against al-Qaeda and other jihadi groups, but America’s various foreign-policy decisions should at least be undertaken with an awareness of the areas of the world where our enemies are strong, and where we therefore have a legitimate national interest.

Al-Qaeda and its affiliates are a significant player in multiple regions — including Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Yemen, the Sahel, and the Horn of Africa — thus giving the United States a real national interest in all of these places. Because America’s resources are limited, it is critical that there be a legitimate national interest at stake in military operations. Because the U.S. had so little at stake in Libya, I think a Republican challenger could persuasively argue that we need to reject the doctrine of liberal interventionism and instead conserve our military might for cases where the national interest is high. These arguments will look even more persuasive if things aren’t going well in Libya at this time next year (though I’m certainly hoping for the best there).

A second issue is the need to increase the efficiency of our anti-terrorism policing efforts — including, as I said before, being willing to better allocate our resources through the use of profiling tools. Though the administration has continued the U.S.’s experimentation with behavioral detection at airports, this is really only another “layer” of security rather than a tool that can help conserve scarce resources.

LOPEZ: If only one lesson can be learned from the past ten years, what do you hope it will be?

GARTENSTEIN-ROSS: In Bin Laden’s Legacy, the takeaway lesson I offer for the past decade is that we cannot respond with full vigor to every perceived threat, or we won’t have the resources left over to address those that are in fact most pressing. Lives will be lost in other parts of the world, and we won’t be able to do anything about it. This should give us no comfort, but we must be realistic. When we’re facing a crushing national debt, the interest payments for which are projected to eclipse our current defense budget by 2019, we cannot afford to overreact to every terrorist threat and to intervene in every conflict. The course to maintaining American power in the 21st century begins with conserving our resources. I honestly wish this were a cheerier lesson. 

— Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online.

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