Tag: Pakistan

The Zero Percent Doctrine

I was never a fan of Dick Cheney’s one percent doctrine.

According to Ron Suskind, after 9/11 Cheney explained to law enforcement and intelligence officials that they should treat even the one percent chance of a terrorist attack as a mathematical certainty. The particular case was of a Pakistani nuclear scientist helping al-Qaeda to acquire a nuclear bomb, but the standard became a shorthand for U.S. counterterror efforts generally. No scale of effort would be too great. Better to chase down 100 leads, 99 of which turn out to be bogus, because finding just that one nugget would have been worth the level of effort.

Now we have evidence that the federal government is chasing down far more than 99 blind alleys for just one lead. From today’s front-page story in the New York Times, Eric Schmitt explains how the FBI has adapted and evolved since 9/11:

The bureau now ranks fighting terrorism as its No. 1 priority. It has doubled the number of agents assigned to counterterrorism duties to roughly 5,000 people, and has created new squads across the country that focus more on deterring and disrupting terrorism than on solving crimes.

But the manpower costs of this focus are steep, and the benefits not always clear. Of the 5,500 leads that the squad has pursued since it was formed five years ago, only 5 percent have been found credible enough to be sent to permanent F.B.I. squads for longer-term investigations, said Supervisory Special Agent Kristen von KleinSmid, head of the squad. Only a handful of those cases have resulted in criminal prosecutions or other law enforcement action, and none have foiled a specific terrorist plot, the authorities acknowledge. (Emphasis mine.)

So, just to review:

  • 5,500 leads over 5 years
  • 5 percent deemed credible
  • “A handful” technically would mean five or less, but charitably might total a few dozen. Still, that translates to far less than 1 percent of leads investigated resulting in a criminal prosecution.

But, and here’s the kicker,

  • None – zero, zip, nada – foiled a specific terrorist plot.

On the face of it, this seems like a waste of time and resources that should be spent elsewhere.

There are several plausible explanations, however, for why I’m wrong and why those who believe that we are not dedicating sufficient resources to combating terrorism are right.

  • Perhaps other government agencies have been far more effective at disrupting terror plots. (But when the relative comparison is zero, it isn’t very hard to clear that bar.)
  • Perhaps Schmitt got his facts wrong. (Doubtful. He is one of the most experienced and reliable reporters on the beat.)
  • Perhaps the knowledge that 5,000 people chasing down 5,500 leads deters would-be terrorists from even attempting anything. (Or it could simply be helping bin Laden’s plan “to make America bleed profusely to the point of bankruptcy.”)

Two other points bear consideration. First, it is possible that arresting, prosecuting and convicting people of lesser crimes disrupts what might someday become a full-scale terror plot. There is no reason to think that the guy trying to cut down the Brooklyn Bridge with a blowtorch was much smarter than the 15 guys who provided the muscle for the 9/11 attacks. The difference was leadership, which defined a plausible terrorist attack and devised the means to carry it out. That said, there are problems associated with the expansion of federal laws, and the growing power of prosecutors, and I would still much prefer that common criminals be handled in a run-of-the-mill fashion. Local cops, local prosecutors, local jails.

Which leads to the second point. Reflecting the growing federalization of the criminal law, the FBI strayed into a number of areas even before 9/11 that should have been handled by local law enforcement. This expansion of the federal criminal law poses a threat to individual liberty. (Thanks to Tim Lynch for pointing to this source.) But counterterrorism is one of the few legitimate functions for a federal law enforcement agency, and if the FBI is devoting more resources to that than to other crimes, that in and of itself wouldn’t be a bad thing.

I remain unconvinced, however, that what we are seeing is a wise expenditure of resources. And while I understand that zero terrorist plots uncovered is not equal to zero threat of a future attack, it is incumbent on the FBI – and more generally those who think that the problem is too little, as opposed to much, being devoted to counterterrorism – to prove why they need still more resources.

Until that occurs, I think that UCLA’s Amy Zegart, who is quoted in the Times story, should get the last word on this point:

Just chasing leads burns through resources. … You’re really going to get bang for the buck when you chase leads based on a deeper assessment of who threatens us, their capabilities and indicators of impending attack. Right now, there’s more chasing than assessing.

Bringing the States Back In

afghanistanIt’s an annoying, hackneyed trope of foreign policy types to say “if you want to understand X, you have to understand Y.”  That said, let me engage in a little bit of it.

What’s going on in Afghanistan, we’re supposed to believe, is about terrorism, failed states, economic development, counterinsurgency, counterterrorism, human rights, and some other stuff.  And to an extent, it is about each of those things.  But to my mind, if you want to get a handle on what’s driving events over there, and on its historical status as a plaything of regional and extraregional powers, you ought to read this article in today’s Wall Street Journal.

The themes that permeate the article are familiar: States as the primary actors in international politics, their uncertainty about other states’ intentions, the fundamental zero-sumness of security competition…somebody should cook up a theory or two on this stuff.

Eventually–although in fairness, God only knows when–we’re going to leave Afghanistan.  When that happens, India and Pakistan are still going to live in the neighborhood.  They’d each prefer to have lots of influence in Afghanistan, and to preclude the other from having too much.  Accordingly, they’re both trying to set up structures and relationships that would, in the ideal scenario, let them control Afghanistan.  In a less-than-ideal scenario, they’d like enough influence to undermine the other’s control of the country.  Until you grasp that nettle, you’re really just fumbling around in the dark.

Find a solution for that in your COIN manual.

Pakistani Taliban Commander Dead

While American officials have yet to confirm his death, Baitullah Mehsud, the leader of Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), which operates as Pakistan’s version of the Taliban, may have been killed Wednesday in an American missile attack in South Waziristan. Pakistan viewed Mehsud as its top internal threat. He was blamed for a wave of attacks that killed nearly 2,000 people in the past two years. He was also suspected of killing former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, and of having connections to al Qaeda.

Three things:

Number one, Mehsud’s death may or may not be a big blow to the TTP. Other deputies can easily take his place. In fact, shortly after Mehsud’s purported death, the Taliban Shura (an advisory council meeting) convened to elect a new TTP chief. (Among those being considered are Hakimullah Mehsud, Azmatullah Mehsud and Waliur Rehman Mehsud. The successor might be announced after Friday evening prayers). Any of these new leaders could quickly pick up where Baitullah left off, which means that picking off high-value targets in any insurgency does not guarantee that jihadists will melt away. We could only hope that a leadership void creates a power struggle among rival factions of the group, but that seems unlikely.

Number two, the drone operation shows improved coordination between the United States and Pakistan, which is welcome news. But the strike exemplifies the binary nature of the discussion surrounding the use of aerial drones: On the one hand, U.S. officials point to the successful killing of high-level al-Qaeda militants, such as Abu Laith al-Libi in January 2008, and chemical weapons expert Abu Khabab al Masri in July 2008. On the other hand, drone strikes have triggered collective armed action throughout the tribal agencies and have added more fuel to violent religious radicalism in this unstable, nuclear-armed country. One U.S. military official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to McClatchy Newspaper correspondent Jonathan Landay, called drone operations “a recruiting windfall for the Pakistani Taliban.”

Number three, Pakistan might continue the same policy as before, differentiating between the “good Taliban” (those who attack U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan) and “bad Taliban” (those who attack the Pakistani military and the government). At the strategic level, Pakistan and the United States are still not on the same page.

Rory Stewart on the Deep Confusion Underpinning Our Afghanistan Strategy

Rory Stewart has a terrific piece in the London Review of Books arguing that Beltway foreign-policy thinkers are “minimising differences between cultures, exaggerating our fears, aggrandising our ambitions, inflating a sense of moral obligations and power, and confusing our goals” when it comes to Afghanistan:

Policymakers perceive Afghanistan through the categories of counter-terrorism, counter-insurgency, state-building and economic development. These categories are so closely linked that you can put them in almost any sequence or combination. You need to defeat the Taliban to build a state and you need to build a state to defeat the Taliban. There cannot be security without development, or development without security. If you have the Taliban you have terrorists, if you don’t have development you have terrorists, and as Obama informed the New Yorker, ‘If you have ungoverned spaces, they become havens for terrorists.’

These connections are global: in Obama’s words, ‘our security and prosperity depend on the security and prosperity of others.’ Or, as a British foreign minister recently rephrased it, ‘our security depends on their development.’ Indeed, at times it seems that all these activities – building a state, defeating the Taliban, defeating al-Qaida and eliminating poverty – are the same activity. The new US army and marine corps counter-insurgency doctrine sounds like a World Bank policy document, replete with commitments to the rule of law, economic development, governance, state-building and human rights. In Obama’s words, ‘security and humanitarian concerns are all part of one project.’

This policy rests on misleading ideas about moral obligation, our capacity, the strength of our adversaries, the threat posed by Afghanistan, the relations between our different objectives, and the value of a state…

Stewart’s prognosis is at once dispiriting and fortifying.  On the one hand, “it is unlikely that we will be able to defeat the Taliban.”  More sharply, “30 years of investment might allow its army, police, civil service and economy to approach the levels of Pakistan.  But Osama bin Laden is in Pakistan, not Afghanistan.”  On the other, “the Taliban are very unlikely to take over Afghanistan as a whole.”  Why not?

It would require far fewer international troops and planes than we have today to make it very difficult for the Taliban to gather a conventional army as they did in 1996 and drive tanks and artillery up the main road to Kabul.

Even if – as seems most unlikely – the Taliban were to take the capital, it is not clear how much of a threat this would pose to US or European national security. Would they repeat their error of providing a safe haven to al-Qaida? And how safe would this safe haven be? They could give al-Qaida land for a camp but how would they defend it against predators or US special forces? And does al-Qaida still require large terrorist training camps to organise attacks? Could they not plan in Hamburg and train at flight schools in Florida; or meet in Bradford and build morale on an adventure training course in Wales?

So what on earth are we doing?  “No politician wants to be perceived to have underestimated, or failed to address, a terrorist threat; or to write off the ‘blood and treasure’ that we have sunk into Afghanistan; or to admit defeat. Americans are particularly unwilling to believe that problems are insoluble; Obama’s motto is not ‘no we can’t;’ soldiers are not trained to admit defeat or to say a mission is impossible.”

War without Killing?

The United States is going to cut back on airstrikes in Afghanistan, according to the new commander there, Gen. Stanley McChrystal. This decision comes on the heels of Central Command’s release (late on a Friday afternoon) of the executive summary of a report on the killing of dozens – at least – of civilians in Farah Province in Western Afghanistan. On May 4, a B-1B providing air support to US and Afghan forces there bombed some buildings, thinking that they contained insurgents. The buildings were apparently full of civilians.

Everyone seems to think this is a wise policy shift. The center of gravity in an insurgency, we’re often told, is the population. You need their support to find and defeat insurgents. Killing people undermines their support for the occupier and the government. You often hear the same thing about airstrikes in Pakistan.

This is a sensible argument, but it has some problems.  For one, empirics to support it are hard to come by. Second, it isn’t obvious that people cooperate with occupiers or governments because they like them. Support may come instead from the mix of incentives – coercive and economic – that the population faces.  The power to reward and punish behavior probably matters more in generating cooperation than feelings of loyalty, although they are not mutually exclusive.

You might respond that it is simply immoral to kill innocent people, whatever the strategic effects. That takes us to the real trouble with the critique of airstrikes, which is the idea that you can fight clean wars.

The accidental killing of Afghan civilians is a tragedy we should limit (one way to do so might be to simply stop using bombers for close air support).  It is also an inevitable consequence of fighting a war in Afghanistan. Troops are going to use plentiful and occasionally indiscriminate firepower to defend themselves. This problem can be mitigated but not solved. You should not support the war in Afghanistan if you cannot support killing innocent people in prosecuting it. As Harvey Sapolsky (my professor at MIT) points out on his new blog, the allies killed 50,000 French civilians in the course of liberating France in World War II. Today precision munitions save many civilians, but, along with euphemistic words like state-building, they threaten to delude us into thinking that we can fight antiseptic wars that adhere to liberal norms. (The situation is even worse in Germany, where they are arguing about whether to call what they are doing in Afghanistan a war).

As Sapolsky puts it:

Air power is our advantage, especially in a country where our forces are spread thin and the distances are large. Precautions have limited greatly the number of weapons dropped and how air power is employed. But only a little deception apparently is needed to put this advantage in jeopardy. Soldiers are still dying in Afghanistan. If there is no will to inflict casualties then there should be no will in absorbing them. Try as we may to avoid it, war kills the innocent.

For the source of this post’s title see the first article (pdf) here.

U.S. Presence in Afghanistan Feeds Pakistan’s Insurgency

alg_pakistan_hotelYesterday’s attack on Peshawar’s Pearl Continental Hotel was the latest signal of Pakistan’s growing Islamist insurgency.

Since the raid by the Pakistani government on the Red Mosque (Lal Masjid) in Islamabad in July 2007, a wave of revenge attacks against the army and the government has been launched by loose networks of suicide bombers. It’s possible, depending on the culprit, that the recent attack in Peshawar might have been retribution for the Pakistan army’s month-long offensive against extremists in the country’s northwest districts.

While the United States hopes to eliminate the threat from extremists in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the knock-on effects from U.S.-NATO efforts to stabilize Afghanistan destabilize Pakistan. America’s presence in the region feeds Pakistan’s insurgency. If America’s interests lie in stabilizing Pakistan, and ensuring that the virus of anti-American radicalism does not infect the rest of the country, the fundamental objective should be to get out of Afghanistan in a reasonable time frame.

Week in Review: A Speech in Cairo, an Anniversary in China and a U.S. Bankruptcy

Obama Speaks to the Muslim World

cairoIn Cairo on Thursday, President Obama asked for a “new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world,” and spoke at some length on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Iran, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Cato scholar Christopher Preble comments, “At times, it sounded like a state of the union address, with a litany of promises intended to appeal to particular interest groups. …That said, I thought the president hit the essential points without overpromising.”

Preble goes on to say:

He did not ignore that which divides the United States from the world at large, and many Muslims in particular, nor was he afraid to address squarely the lies and distortions — including the implication that 9/11 never happened, or was not the product of al Qaeda — that have made the situation worse than it should be. He stressed the common interests that should draw people to support U.S. policies rather than oppose them: these include our opposition to the use of violence against innocents; our support for democracy and self-government; and our hostility toward racial, ethnic or religious intolerance. All good.

David Boaz contends that there are a number of other nations the president could have chosen to deliver his address:

Americans forget that the Muslim world and the Arab world are not synonymous. In fact, only 15 to 20 percent of Muslims live in Arab countries, barely more than the number in Indonesia alone and far fewer than the number in the Indian subcontinent. It seems to me that Obama would be better off delivering his message to the Muslim world somewhere closer to where most Muslims live. Perhaps even in his own childhood home of Indonesia.

Not only are there more Muslims in Asia than in the Middle East, the Muslim countries of south and southeast Asia have done a better job of integrating Islam and modern democratic capitalism…. Egypt is a fine place for a speech on the Arab-Israeli conflict. But in Indonesia, Malaysia, India, or Pakistan he could give a speech on America and the Muslim world surrounded by rival political leaders in a democratic country and by internationally recognized business leaders. It would be good for the president to draw attention to this more moderate version of Islam.

Tiananmen Square: 20 Years Later

tsquare1It has been 20 years since the tragic deaths of pro-democracy protesters in Tiananmen Square in June 1989, and 30 years since Deng Xiaoping embarked on economic reform in China. Cato scholar James A. Dorn comments, “After 20 years China has made substantial economic progress, but the ghosts of Tiananmen are restless and will continue to be so until the Goddess of Liberty is restored.”

In Thursday’s Cato Daily Podcast, Dorn discusses the perception of human rights in China since the Tiananmen Square massacre, saying that many young people are beginning to accept the existence of human rights independent of the state.

A few days before the anniversary, social media Web sites like Twitter and YouTube were blocked in China. Cato scholar Jim Harper says that it’s going to take a lot more than tanks to shut down the message of freedom in today’s online world:

In 1989, when a nascent pro-democracy movement wanted to communicate its vitality and prepare to take on the state, meeting en masse was vital. But that made it fairly easy for the CCP to roll in and crush the dream of democracy.

Twenty years later, the Internet is the place where mass movements for liberty can take root. While the CCP is attempting to use the electronic equivalent of an armored division to prevent change, reform today is a question of when, not if. Shutting down open dialogue will only slow the democratic transition to freedom, which the Chinese government cannot ultimately prevent.

Taxpayers Acquire Failing Auto Company

After billions of dollars were spent over the course of two presidential administrations to keep General Motors afloat, the American car company filed for bankruptcy this week anyway.

Last year Cato trade expert Daniel J. Ikenson appeared on dozens of radio and television programs and wrote op-eds in newspapers and magazines explaining why automakers should file for bankruptcy—before spending billions in taxpayer dollars.

Which leaves Ikenson asking one very important question: “What was the point of that?

In November, GM turned to the federal government for a bailout loan — the one final alternative to bankruptcy. After a lot of discussion and some rich debate, Congress voted against a bailout, seemingly foreclosing all options except bankruptcy. But before GM could avail itself of bankruptcy protection, President Bush took the fateful decision of circumventing Congress and diverting $15.4 billion from Troubled Asset Relief Program funds to GM (in the chummy spirit of avoiding tough news around the holidays).

That was the original sin. George W. Bush is very much complicit in the nationalization of GM and the cascade of similar interventions that may follow. Had Bush not funded GM in December (under questionable authority, no less), the company probably would have filed for bankruptcy on Jan. 1, at which point prospective buyers, both foreign and domestic, would have surfaced and made bids for spin-off assets or equity stakes in the “New GM,” just as is happening now.

Meanwhile, the government takeover of GM puts the fate of Ford Motors, a company that didn’t take any bailout money, into question:

Thus, what’s going to happen to Ford? With the public aware that the administration will go to bat for GM, who will want to own Ford stock? Who will lend Ford money (particularly in light of the way GM’s and Chrysler’s bondholders were treated). Who wants to compete against an entity backed by an unrestrained national treasury?

Ultimately, if I’m a member of Ford management or a large shareholder, I’m thinking that my biggest competitors, who’ve made terrible business decisions over the years, just got their debts erased and their downsides covered. Thus, even if my balance sheet is healthy enough to go it alone, why bother? And that calculation presents the specter of another taxpayer bailout to the tunes of tens of billions of dollars, and another government-run auto company.