Tag: osama bin laden

Eleven Years after 9/11, Terror Effects Persist

A couple of years ago, Cato published a book, Terrorizing Ourselves, that critically examined American counterterrorism efforts.

Since that time, the United States was able to put Osama bin Laden to rest. But even this dramatic and yearned-for development, already the stuff of fable, hasn’t been able to temper the level of self-terrorization in the American public.

I’ve been sorting through poll data about terrorism from 9/11 to the present day. Although there are some temporary bumps and wiggles in reaction to events during the course of those 11 years, there has been very little, if any, decline in the degree to which Americans express anxiety about terrorism.

That is, for the most part there has been little change since late 2001 in the numbers who say they are worried that they will become a victim of terrorism, consider another major attack in the near future to be likely, are willing to trade civil liberties for security, have confidence in the government’s ability to prevent or to protect them from further terrorism, or think the United States is winning in the war on terrorism.

I have written a fuller account here in Sunday’s Philadelphia Inquirer. And there are some more extensive ruminations on what I call the “terrorism delusion” in the current International Security. That article deals with the exaggerations of the threat presented by terrorism and with the distortions of perspective these exaggerations have inspired—distortions that have in turn inspired a determined and expensive quest to ferret out, and even to create, the nearly nonexistent. It also supplies a quantitative assessment of the costs of the terrorism delusion.

Several of the poll trends I use for my conclusions are posted here.

As the Inquirer piece points out, the lack of change is quite remarkable given that no Islamist terrorist has been able to detonate even the simplest of bombs in the United States, there has been no sizable attack in the country, bin Laden is dead, alarmist hype coming out of Washington has declined (though Harvard continues to give it the old college try), and an American’s chance of being killed by a terrorist is about one in 3.5 million per year.

I conclude in the Inquirer piece that it seems to suggest that the public is

likely to continue uncritically to support extravagant counterterrorism expenditures including incessant security checks, civil liberties intrusions, expanded police powers, harassment at airports, and militarized forays overseas if they can convincingly be associated with the quest to stamp out terrorism.

Both pieces use a quote from anthropologist Scott Atran: “Perhaps never in the history of human conflict have so few people with so few actual means and capabilities frightened so many.” Much of that fright, it appears, has proven to be perpetual.

Romney’s Foreign Policy Opportunity

Barack Obama and Mitt Romney will duel on foreign policy this week as they both address the national convention of the Veterans of Foreign Wars and Romney heads off toBritain,Israel, andPoland to burnish his foreign policy credentials.  It will be difficult for Romney to overcome Obama on this set of issues.  Denizens of neoconservatism scorn the president as a weakling on terrorism and other international issues, but that is not how most Americans see him.  The killing of Osama Bin Laden (as well as dozens of other high-level al Qaeda operatives) has largely inoculated Obama against the “weak on terrorism” allegation, and the public generally gives him decent marks on most other foreign policy issues.

In the two areas where there has been grumbling about the president’s performance—escalating and perpetuating the war in Afghanistan and doing little about the bloated Pentagon budget—Romney’s neoconservative allies advocate measures that most voters dislike even more than they do Obama’s approach.  If Romney is to seize the opportunity to score points against the president on foreign policy, he needs to break with the hawkish extremists in his party and take a very different tack than he has done so far in the campaign.  Unfortunately, his harsh statements toward China and Russia—including describing the latter as America’s principal global adversary—and his alarmingly bellicose rhetoric toward Iran suggest that he is taking his foreign policy positions from George W. Bush’s playbook.  That is a bad move both politically and in terms of good policy.

In his speech to the VFW, Romney should outline a new security strategy built on the foundation of cautious, national-interest realism—a position that once characterized the GOP and still finds some resonance among the party’s rank and file.  That move, though, would require him to challenge the neoconservative conventional wisdom on four major issues.

First, he needs to advocate a prompt withdrawal of U.S.forces from Afghanistan, even faster than the Obama administration’s alleged commitment to have U.S.forces out of that country in 2014.  The intervention in Afghanistanis the poster child for how a limited and justified punitive expedition against a terrorist adversary (al Qaeda) can morph into an open-ended, nation-building crusade on behalf of an inept, corrupt Third Worldgovernment.  Unfortunately, it is difficult to discern whether Romney has a policy regardingAfghanistan.  To the extent he has said anything substantive on the issue, it creates worries that he may want to keep American troops in that snake pit indefinitely.

Adopting a new, smarter position onAfghanistanleads to the second point Romney should emphasize in his VFW speech: a repudiation of nation building as aU.S.foreign policy goal.  It is bitterly ironic that, beginning with the Bush administration, Republicans seem to have become more enthusiastic than Democrats about humanitarian interventions and nation-building ventures.  Republicans rightly used to scorn such crusades as wasteful, utopian schemes.  Condoleezza Rice once remarked that it should not be the mission of theU.S.military to escort children to school in foreign countries.  Romney needs to return the GOP to that wise skepticism.

Third, Romney should advocate a complete reassessment ofWashington’s overgrown network of formal and informal security commitments around the world.  It is absurd for theUnited Statesto continue subsidizing the defense of allies in Europe andEast Asiatwo decades after the collapse of the Soviet empire and nearly seven decades after the end of World War II.  Those allies shamelessly free ride on America’s security exertions, choosing to under-invest in their own defenses and refusing to make a serious effort to manage the security affairs in their respective regions.  Even if theU.S.government was cash-rich and running chronic budget surpluses, the current policy toward obsolete alliances would be wasteful and ill-advised.  Maintaining such a policy whenWashingtonhas to borrow money fromChinaand other foreign creditors to do so, borders on insanity.

Reassessing alliances and other security commitments points to the final change that Romney should advocate: a willingness to cut military spending.  The United Statesspends nearly as much on the military as the rest of the world combined.  The House of Representatives just voted to appropriate $606 billion for defense—and that figure does not include $11 billion to pay for the nuclear arsenal, a budget item housed in the Energy Department.  Instead of promising to increase military spending to four percent of GDP—an extra of $2.5 trillion over ten years—Romney should reverse course and support cutting that bureaucracy’s budget as part of an overall austerity program for the federal government.  And as noted, the overseas missions should be trimmed or eliminated to match the capabilities and budget of a smaller force.

Such an agenda might not please the attendees at the VFW convention, and it certainly would not please the junior varsity from the Bush-Cheney administration that Romney has been relying upon thus far for advice on foreign policy.  But it would appeal to a wide swath of American voters and put Barack Obama on the defensive.  Most important, it would be a wise policy alternative for the American republic.

Cross-posted from the Skeptics at the National Interest.

U.S.-Pakistan Relations: The Afridi Affair and Its Aftermath

Yet again, U.S.-Pakistan relations have hit a new low. Days after a deal to reopen NATO supply routes into Afghanistan fell through, and two back-to-back U.S. drone strikes rocked northwest Pakistan in a 24-hour period, tensions flared again after a tribal court sentenced Dr. Shakil Afridi—a Pakistani citizen who helped the United States track-down Osama bin Laden with a fake vaccination program—to 33 years in prison.

Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill were appalled, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called the move “unjust and unwarranted.” Apparently, U.S. officials and lawmakers are surprised that the chasm separating Washington and Islamabad is growing wider after years of papering over their differences.

Yesterday, in response to Dr. Afridi’s 33-year sentence under the Frontier Crimes Regulation, the Senate Appropriations Committee voted to cut aid to Pakistan by a symbolic $33 million. That’s not enough—it represents just 58% of the amount the president requested for Pakistan. Washington should go further and phase out assistance entirely.

Today in the New Jersey Star-Ledger, my coauthor Aimen Khan and I argue that ending aid to Pakistan is the right course for both countries:

The U.S. must carefully calibrate a policy with Pakistan that continues diplomatic relations absent large sums of aid. While cutting aid to Pakistan might be temporarily destabilizing, Pakistan’s support for militant Islamists is arguably more harmful to regional stability. Moreover, while emergency-type humanitarian aid can be beneficial to the Pakistani people, economic development aid intended to promote growth has been detrimental, allowing Islamabad to avoid confronting its rampant corruption and budgetary problems with the necessary urgency.

The Pakistani government and people stand united in their belief that Pakistan does not need the U.S. Phasing out U.S. aid to Pakistan benefits both parties and better reflects strategic realities.

As is common with U.S. military and foreign aid to unstable governments, it typically serves to entrench the prerogatives of military and civilian elites. Quite perversely, in return for the tens of billions of dollars that American taxpayers forked over to Islamabad, many in Pakistan have come to blame Washington for their deteriorating situation. Even well-intentioned assistance under the much-lauded Kerry-Lugar aid package was viewed within Pakistan as an infringement on sovereignty, mainly because it came with intrusive strings attached. Furthermore, U.S. aid and arm-twisting have failed to pressure or persuade Pakistan to go after militants we deem to be a threat to our interests, including the Afghan/Quetta Shura/Karachi Taliban, Hekmatyar, and the Haqqanis.

From the 30,000-foot view, from Islamabad to New Delhi, it appears that Washington is slowly making a long-term pivot in South Asia. But as this author argued years ago, reconciling this pivot in the context of Afghanistan has been nothing short of a failure. The United States and Pakistan do not trust one another, NATO slouches toward an exit, and Pakistan has become more radicalized, destabilized, and encircled by India and militants.

But I digress. Please click here to read the full op-ed. Enjoy!

 

Ignatius on Pakistan: Actually, We May Have Only Had One Year

In today’s Washington Post, David Ignatius writes that Pakistan is reaping the whirlwind of homegrown terrorism by having “squandered the opportunity presented” with a large-scale U.S. troop presence next door and for refusing to work with Washington to stabilize its mountainous tribal region. Recent history suggests a more complex reality.

Mr. Ignatius is correct when he writes that Pakistan has pursued self-defeating policies, as I have written about extensively and at length. In the seven-year period leading up to 9/11, Islamabad directly armed, funded, and advised the Taliban regime that provided sanctuary to al Qaeda. As former National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice explained in April 2004:

Al-Qaida was both client of and patron to the Taliban, which in turn was supported by Pakistan. Those relationships provided al-Qaida with a powerful umbrella of protection, and we had to sever them. This was not easy.

Indeed, it was not. Years of assistance to select militant groups cemented ideological sympathies for radicalism among elements of that country’s armed forces and civilian political elite. Such sympathies cannot be turned off overnight. After former President-General Pervez Musharraf deployed 70,000 troops to the fractious tribal areas in early March 2004, and ordered the ham-fisted raid on Lal Masjid in July 2007, Pakistan and its porous border with Afghanistan became even more inflamed. Over the past couple of years, this author has become far more pessimistic about Pakistan’s viability as a functioning state, given the continuing devolution of power to incompetent local bodies and the disturbing increase of Punjabi militants.

Given all of this, it is mistaken for Mr. Ignatius to leap to the assumption that by deploying over 100,000 foreign troops to Afghanistan nearly a decade after 9/11, the U.S. and its allies could have miraculously stabilized the region. If anything, right after 9/11, Islamabad and Washington had dropped the ball. Back in 2008 when I was in Lahore, I bumped into a former head of Pakistan’s military-dominated spy agency, the Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence. We had very brief and candid discussion about the forgotten war raging next door. He said quite explicitly that Pakistan was willing to relinquish support for the Taliban, but that after President George W. Bush lost Osama bin Laden and turned his sights on Iraq, the Pakistanis believed (and understandably so) that the United States didn’t care about the region. Pakistan continued to pursue its own objectives since the United States was focused elsewhere. In essence, he said, Washington had one year after the initial invasion to leverage Islamabad and persuade it to alter its strategic policies.

Of course, who knows for sure? Alas, we will never know, but it was immediately after the devastating terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and sadly, it seems, we may never recoup the goodwill we reaped and eventually—and gratuitously—squandered.

Washington Post Defines Worst Fears Down

“Al-Qaeda bombmaker represents CIA’s worst fears.”

That’s the headline of a Washington Post story on Yemeni terrorists’ attempt to down a U.S. bound flight by placing a bomb on the body of an operative that turned out to be a CIA and Saudi agent. By straining to alarm readers about the bomb-maker, Ibrahim Hassan al-Asiri, the story makes three errors.

First, by defining the CIA’s “worst fears” as “a highly skilled terrorist determined to attack the United States,” the Post underestimates the imaginative capacity of intelligence officials and overrates Asiri’s prowess. The article uncritically quotes House Homeland Security Committee chairman Peter King’s claim that “Asiri is an evil genius. He is constantly expanding, he is constantly adjusting.” Whatever King means by “expanding,” “failing” would have been a better choice of words. In just one of the four Asiri plots mentioned in article did his bomb detonate properly. That one killed only its bearer, al-Asiri’s brother. The nearby target, Saudi’s Prince Nayef, suffered only minor wounds.

Second, the article dubiously claims that two of those plots nearly wreaked great damage:

If it were not for a technical problem (Abdulmutallab’s device failed to detonate) or solid intelligence tips (Saudi counterterrorism officials alerted authorities in Dubai and Britain to intercept the cargo planes), Asiri would have succeeded in staging a catastrophic disaster in American skies.

It is, however, questionable whether Abdulmutallab’s bomb, had it properly detonated, was powerful enough to cause his plane to crash. Even if it opened a hole, the plane might not have crashed.

In the second case, where bombs were hidden in printer cartridges on cargo planes, authorities tell us the detonators probably would have worked and could have downed the planes. But there remains a decent chance that detonation would have occurred while the planes were on the ground. Also, one reason that the devices made it on to cargo planes without detection is that they contain few people and thus justify less security. The death of a crew would have been tragic, of course, but “catastrophic disaster” is a stretch.

The likely success of terrorist plots can’t be assessed simply by looking at the stage of the plot that caused its failure. As Jim Harper argues, plots require success in a series of tasks, each of which drives down the odds of overall success. Bombs that are both difficult to detect and easy to detonate are tough to make, and competent bombers are hard to find. Borders have guards. Intelligence services employ double agents.

The article’s third error is its assertion that the Yemeni branch of al Qaeda has “taken advantage of Yemen’s political turmoil and seized large swaths of territory in the south.” That language conflates the terrorist group with a broader insurgency, confuses their goals, and overstates the group’s potency. The misperception invites a broad U.S. campaign against Yemen’s southern Islamists, which could heighten their enthusiasm for attacking Americans, creating the menace we feared.

Let’s review the record of the bombmaker who is labeled our “worst fear.” His organization has made no discernible progress towards its murky political objectives—though its Islamist protectors have gained territory amid a power vacuum. He has never produced mass violence nor apparently come close, and his most successful act of terrorism was to help his brother blow himself up. His next best effort resulted in a severe crotch burn for the bomber, who survived, talked to U.S. authorities for months, and is serving a life sentence.

That is “success” only under an exceedingly capacious definition. Bin Laden and his acolytes are being grandiose when they talk about bankrupting us. But their boasts show that “terrorism” remains a good label for their misbegotten efforts. They sustain their endeavors by imagining that violence, by generating fear and cost, will cause their enemy to fold and to accommodate their goals. By hyping their menace, we help them cling to that fantasy.

Cross-posted from the Skeptics at the National Interest.

Obama Visits Afghanistan, Perpetuates Misguided Policy

President Obama’s surprise visit to Afghanistan shows that he is determined to use the bin Laden killing to his political advantage. He also hopes to win points for ending two unpopular wars.

That is understandable. If nothing else, it allows him to draw distinctions between both his predecessor, who failed to find bin Laden, and the eventual GOP nominee, Mitt Romney, who argues against withdrawing U.S. troops from Afghanistan.

But the policy that President Obama is pursuing in Afghanistan is still at odds with what most Americans desire. The strategic partnership agreement signed by Obama and President Hamid Karzai embodies this policy.  He chose to expand the U.S. presence in Afghanistan in 2009, and will now draw down to levels at or near those when he took office. That doesn’t go far enough: a majority of Americans want all U.S. troops out of Afghanistan within a year, and a large-scale military presence isn’t needed to continue to hunt al Qaeda. The organization is a shadow of its former self, and has shifted its operations and tactics to many other places. We are still spending tens of billions of dollars in a desperate nation-building mission; this money could be spent much more effectively elsewhere, including here in the United States.

Moreover, President Obama lacks the authority to make the promises that he has extended to the Afghan government and people. For example, he pledges to leave some unspecified number of troops in the country until well past the end of his second term (if there is a second term), but Congress determines funding for overseas military operations, including troop deployments, and there is no reason to believe that future Congresses (or future presidents) will feel bound by Barack Obama’s promises.

After 9/11, the American people rightly demanded that the U.S. government hunt down Osama bin Laden, and perhaps even to move heaven and earth to do it. It made sense to punish al Qaeda and degrade the organization’s ability to carry out another attack. Those tasks have been fulfilled. The mission of preventing the Taliban from rising again in Afghanistan is a hopelessly quixotic crusade, and one that we would be wise to abandon.

Bin Laden’s Death, One Year On

The killing of Osama bin Laden marked a significant achievement in America’s long war against al Qaeda. Yet, following last year’s Navy SEAL raid in Abbottabad, Pakistan, it became clear that disrupting, dismantling, and defeating al Qaeda did not require the occupation of distant lands. Indeed, even in the absence of the terrorist leader’s death, the sad and simple truth was that the protracted wars of occupation waged in 9/11’s name were an enormous drain on American taxpayers and counterproductive to the goal of stopping terrorism.

Certainly, bin Laden’s killing does not mean the end of al Qaeda, but it does provide another reason to bring our ongoing sacrifice in blood and treasure in Afghanistan to a swift end. Moreover, Americans should be circumspect about planners in Washington expanding the War on Terror to distant enemies in Pakistan, Yemen, the Horn of Africa, and elsewhere. Al Qaeda and its associates have always been manageable security problems, not existential threats to America that require endless war by remote control.

The lesson of 9/11 and its Saudi terrorist financier is that would-be terrorists have reduced their dependence on specific base camps and physical havens. They can plan, organize, and train from virtually anywhere in the world, from Kandahar and Hamburg to Malaysia and Los Angeles. Indeed, the very al Qaeda terrorists responsible for 9/11 not only found sanctuary in poverty-stricken Afghanistan, but also in politically free and economically prosperous countries like Germany, Spain, and the United States. In this respect, policymakers and prominent opinion leaders must stop conflating the punishment of al Qaeda with the creation of stable societies, particularly when propping up corrupt and illegitimate foreign governments and waging counterinsurgency campaigns distracts from the conceptually simpler task of targeted counterterrorism measures to find and eliminate terrorist threats.

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