Tag: terrorist

Jervis on Afghanistan

Columbia University IR guru Robert Jervis has a smart post at Foreign Policy’s “Af-Pak” blog.  For those who couldn’t get enough at yesterday’s Cato forum on Afghanistan, Jervis’ post is well worth a look:

JERVIS

Prof. Robert Jervis

Most discussion about Afghanistan has concentrated on whether and how we can defeat the Taliban. Less attention has been paid to the probable consequences of a withdrawal without winning, an option toward which I incline. What is most striking is not that what I take to be the majority view is wrong, but that it has not been adequately defended. This is especially important because the U.S. has embarked on a war that will require great effort with prospects that are uncertain at best. Furthermore, it appears that Obama’s commitment to Afghanistan was less the product of careful analysis than of the political need to find a “tough” pair to his attacks on the war in Iraq during the presidential campaign. It similarly appears that in the months since his election he has devoted much more attention to how to wage the war than to whether we need to wage it.

The claim that this is a “necessary war” invokes two main claims and one subsidiary one. The strongest argument is that we have to fight them there so that we don’t have to fight them here. The fact that Bush said this about Iraq does not make it wrong, and as in Iraq, it matters what we mean by “them.”…

[…]

The second part of the question is exactly what withdrawal means. What would we keep in the region? What could we achieve by airpower? How much intelligence would we lose, and are there ways to minimize this loss? It is often said that we withdrew before 9/11 and it didn’t work. True, but the circumstances have changed so much that I don’t find this history dispositive. While al Qaeda resurgence is a real danger, I am struck by the thinness of the argument that in order to combat it we have to fight the Taliban and try to bring peace if not democracy to Afghanistan.

A second argument, made most recently by Frederick Kagan in the September 5-6 Wall Street Journal, is that, to quote from its headline, “A stable Pakistan needs a stable Afghanistan.” But does it really? Are there reasonable prospects for a stable Afghanistan over the next decade no matter what we do? Isn’t there a good argument that part of the problem in Pakistan stems from our continued presence in Afghanistan?

[…]

A third but subsidiary argument is that withdrawal would undermine American credibility around the world. Again, the fact that this is an echo of Vietnam does not make it wrong, but it does seem to me much less plausible than the other arguments. Who exactly is going to lose faith in us, and what are they going to do differently? Much could depend on the course of events in other countries, especially Iraq, which could yet descend into civil war. But if it does, would American appear more resolute – and wiser – for fighting in Afghanistan? Of course if we withdraw and then we or our allies suffer a major terrorist attack many people will blame Obama, and this is a political argument that must weigh more heavily with the White House than it does with policy analysts…

As I hope my ellipses make clear, Jervis’ post is well worth a read.

Good News: 9/11 Didn’t ‘Change Everything’

On the eighth anniversary of the terrorist attacks on New York and D.C., things are going much better than most of us dared hope in the initial aftermath of that horrible day.  We’re still a secure, prosperous, and relatively free country, and the fear-poisoned atmosphere that governed American politics for years after 9/11 has thankfully receded.

Not everyone’s thankful, however.  Boisterous cable gabber Glenn Beck laments the return to normalcy. The website for Beck’s “9/12 Project” waxes nostalgic for the day after the worst terrorist attack in American history, a time when “We were united as Americans, standing together to protect the greatest nation ever created.” Beck’s purpose with the Project?  “We want to get everyone thinking like it is September 12th, 2001 again.”

My God, why in the world would anyone want that?  Yes, 9/12 brought moving displays of patriotism and a comforting sense of national unity, but that hardly made up for the fear, rage and sorrow that dominated the national mood and at times clouded our vision. 

But Beck’s not alone in seeing a bright side to national tragedy.  Less than a month after people jumped from the World Trade Center’s north tower to avoid burning to death, David Brooks asked, “Does anybody but me feel upbeat, and guilty about it?” “I feel upbeat because the country seems to be a better place than it was a month ago,” Brooks explained, “I feel guilty about it because I should be feeling pain and horror and anger about the recent events. But there’s so much to cheer one up.” 

One of the things that got Brooks giddy was liberals’ newfound bellicosity. That same week, liberal hawk George Packer wrote:

What I dread now is a return to the normality we’re all supposed to seek: instead of public memorials, private consumption; instead of lines to give blood, restaurant lines… ”The only thing needed,” William James wrote in ”The Moral Equivalent of War,” ”is to inflame the civic temper as past history has inflamed the military temper.” I’ve lived through this state, and I like it.

There’s something perverse, if not obscene, in “dreading” the idea that Americans might someday get back to enjoying their own lives.  “Private consumption!”  “Restaurant lines!”  The horror!  The horror!

Like Brooks’s National Greatness Conservatives, a good many progressives thought 9/11’s national crisis brought with it the opportunity for a new politics of meaning, a chance to redirect American life in accordance with “the common good.”  Both camps seemed to think American life was purposeless without a warrior president who could bring us together to fulfill our national destiny. 

That’s why prominent figures on the Right and the Left condemned George W. Bush’s post-9/11 advice to “Enjoy America’s great destination spots.  Get down to Disney World in Florida.  Take your families and enjoy life, the way we want it to be enjoyed.”  As Jeremy Lott notes, “in his laugh riot of a presidential bid,” Joe Biden repeatedly condemned Bush for telling people to “fly and go to the mall!”  A little over a year ago, asked to identify “the greatest moral failure of America” John McCain referenced Bush’s comments when he answered that it was our failure sufficiently to devote ourselves “to causes greater than our self interest.”   

True, Bush’s term “destination spots” is a little redundant; but otherwise, for once, he said exactly the right thing.  And of all the many things to condemn in his post-9/11 leadership, it’s beyond bizarre to lament Bush’s failure to demand more sacrifices from Americans at home: taxes, national service, perhaps scrap-metal drives and War on Terror bond rallies?

National unity has a dark side.  What unity we enjoyed after 9/11 gave rise to unhealthy levels of trust in government, which in turn enabled a radical expansion of executive power and facilitated our entry into a disastrous, unnecessary war. 

In his Inaugural Address, Barack Obama condemned those “who question the scale of our ambitions, who suggest that our system cannot tolerate too many big plans.” “Their memories are short,” he said, “for they have forgotten what this country has already done, what free men and women can achieve when imagination is joined to common purpose and necessity to courage.”

Riffing off of Obama’s remarks, Will Wilkinson wrote:

Can you recall the scale of our recent ambitions? The United States would invade Iraq, refashion it as a democracy and forever transform the Middle East. Remember when President Bush committed the United States to “the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world”? That is ambitious scale.

Not only have some of us forgotten “what this country has already done … when imagination is joined to a common purpose,” it’s as if some of us are trying to erase the memory of our complicity in the last eight years — to forget that in the face of a crisis we did transcend our stale differences and cut the president a blank check that paid for disaster. How can we not question the scale of our leaders’ ambitions? How short would our memories have to be?

Oddly, even Glenn Beck seems to agree, after a fashion.  The 9/12 Project credo celebrates the fact that ”the day after America was attacked, we were not obsessed with Red States, Blue States, or political parties.”  And yet Beck has called on “9/12’ers” to participate in tomorrow’s anti-Obama “tea party” in D.C. 

On the anniversary of 9/11, what’s clear is that, despite the cliche, September 11th didn’t “change everything.”  In the wake of the attacks, various pundits proclaimed “the end of the age of irony” and the dawning of a new era of national unity in the service of government crusades at home and abroad.  Eight years later, Americans go about their lives, waiting in restaurant lines, visiting our ”great destination spots,” enjoying themselves free from fear — with our patriotism undiminished for all that.  And when we turn to politics, we’re still contentious, fractious, wonderfully irreverent toward politicians, and increasingly skeptical toward their grand plans.   In other words,  post-9/11 America looks a lot like pre-9/11 America.  That’s something to be thankful for on the anniversary of a grim day.

The Coast Guard Kerfuffle: Normalcy Breeds Overreaction

Terrorists are weak actors who use violence to induce overreaction on the part of their stronger victims. That lesson was on display today when someone overhearing radio traffic from a routine Potomac River Coast Guard exercise misinterpreted it and alerted the media. Among the results was a 20-minute grounding of planes at Reagan Airport.

The good news is that the country is relatively safe. Americans and the national security establishment are tuned to the threat of terrorism. No attack to rival 9/11 ever occurred, and it’s unlikely that one ever will.

But the 9/11 attacks had a dastardly effect. To match the results of those attacks, we imagined that terrorists had outsized technical skills, support networks, and insights. Vigilance and continued antiterror efforts will ensure that they never do.

The bad news is that the government has never issued any reassuring signals. American society remains on edge and predisposed to overreact when something happens and — in this case — when nothing happened. The “scare” produced by the Coast Guard exercise illustrates how sensitive the country remains to terror fears.

Despite improved rhetoric and the promise of sensible, strategic counterterrorism, the Obama administration has yet to give the country confidence in its security. It has not articulated its counterterrorism plan and it has not created or implemented a terrorism communications plan. Unlike health care and education, these are responsibilities of the federal chief executive.

Without a strategy and communications plan in place, the administration will be at a loss to keep the nation on an even keel if and when any real terror incident occurs. The Obama administration must plan, and must be seen as having planned, if it is to prevent any future terrorism event from needlessly harming the country with panicky overreaction.

Based on what I’ve read, I see no fault in what the Coast Guard did, and I hope their review of the incident produces no changes in their procedures other than perhaps better preparation to quell overreaction.

Sticking Around Afghanistan Forever?

I’ll confess one of the arguments that I’ve never understood is the claim that the U.S. “abandoned” Afghanistan after aiding the Mujahadeen in the latter’s battle against the Soviet Union.  Yet Secretary of Defense Robert Gates apparently is the latest proponent of this view.

Reports the Washington Post:

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said in an interview broadcast this week that the United States would not repeat the mistake of abandoning Afghanistan, vowing that “both Afghanistan and Pakistan can count on us for the long term.”

Just what does he believe we should have done?  Obviously, the Afghans didn’t want us to try to govern them.  Any attempt to impose a regime on them through Kabul would have met the same resistance that defeated the Soviets.  Backing a favored warlord or two would have just involved America in the ensuing conflict. 

Nor would carpet-bombing Afghanistan with dollar bills starting in 1989 after the Soviets withdrew have led to enlightened, liberal Western governance and social transformation.  Humanitarian aid sounds good, but as we’ve (re)discovered recently, building schools doesn’t get you far if there’s little or no security and kids are afraid to attend.  And a half century of foreign experience has demonstrated that recipients almost always take the money and do what they want – principally maintaining power by rewarding friends and punishing enemies.  The likelihood of the U.S doing any better in tribal Afghanistan as its varied peoples shifted from resisting outsiders to fighting each other is a fantasy.

The best thing the U.S. government could do for the long-term is get out of the way.  Washington has eliminated al-Qaeda as an effective transnational terrorist force.  The U.S. should leave nation-building to others, namely the Afghans and Pakistanis.  Only Afghanistan and Pakistan can confront the overwhelming challenges facing both nations.

Making Enemies in Afghanistan

Yaroslav Trofimov’s article in Wednesday’s Wall Street Journal explains how Ghulam Yahya, a former anti-Taliban, Tajik miltia leader from Herat, became an insurgent. The short answer: because the American master plan in Afghanistan required the retirement of warlords. The trouble is that in much of Afghanistan “warlord” is a synonym for “local government.” Attacking local authority structures is a good way to make enemies.  So it went in Herat. Having been fired from a government post, Ghulum Yahya turned his militia against Kabul and now fires rockets at foreign troops, kidnaps their contractors, and brags of welcoming foreign jihadists.  Herat turned redder on the color-coded maps of the “Taliban” insurgency.

That story reminded me of C.J. Chivers’s close-in accounts of firefights he witnessed last spring with an army platoon in Afghanistan’s Korangal Valley. According to Chivers, the Taliban there revolted in part because the Afghan government shut down their timber business. That is an odd reason for us to fight them.

One of the perversions of the branch of technocratic idealism that we now call counterinsurgency doctrine is its hostility to local authority structures.  As articulated on TV by people like General Stanley McChrystal, counterinsurgency is a kind of one-size-fits-all endeavor. You chase off the insurgents, protect the people, and thus provide room for the central government and its foreign backers to provide services, which win the people to the government. The people then turn against the insurgency.  This makes sense, I suppose, for relatively strong central states facing insurgencies, like India, the Philippines or Colombia.  

But where the central state is dysfunctional and essentially foreign to the region being pacified, this model may not fit. Certainly it does not describe the tactic of buying off Sunni sheiks in Anbar province Iraq (a move pioneered by Saddam Hussein, not David Petraeus, by the way). It is even less applicable to the amalgam of fiefdoms labeled on our maps as Afghanistan. From what I can tell, power in much of Afghanistan is really held by headmen — warlords — who control enough men with guns to collect some protection taxes and run the local show. The western idea of government says the central state should replace these mini-states, but that only makes sense as a war strategy if their aims are contrary to ours, which is only the case if they are trying to overthrow the central government or hosting terrorists that go abroad to attack Americans. Few warlords meet those criteria. The way to “pacify” the other areas is to leave them alone. Doing otherwise stirs up needless trouble; it makes us more the revolutionary than the counter-revolutionary.

On a related note, I see John Nagl attacking George Will for not getting counterinsurgency doctrine. Insofar as Will seems to understand, unlike Nagl, that counterinsurgency doctrine is a set of best practices that allow more competent execution of foolish endeavors, this is unsurprising. More interesting is Nagl’s statement that we, the United States have not “properly resourced” the Afghan forces.  Nagl does not mention that the United States is already committed to building the Afghan security forces (which are, incidentally, not ours) to a size – roughly 450,000 – that will annually cost about 500% of Afghanistan’s budget (Rory’s Stewart’s calculation), which is another way of saying we will be paying for these forces for the foreseeable future.

It probably goes too far to say this war has become a self-licking ice-cream cone where we create both the enemy and the forces to fight them, but it’s a possibility worth considering.

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.

Maybe Europe Isn’t Lost to Islamic Terrorism

Europe has come into a lot of criticism lately.  Much of it is justified.  For instance, cutting military forces while expecting the U.S. to maintain security guarantees is more than little irritating for Americans facing trillions of dollars in deficits and tens of trillions of dollars in unfunded liabilities for various bail-outs and social programs.

However, predictions of a radical Islamic takeover of Europe look  less realistic these days.   Forecasting the future is always risky.  Nevertheless, the feared growing population of Islamic extremists hasn’t appeared.  Reports the Guardian:

A district of derelict warehouses, red-brick terraces, and vibrant street life on the canals near the centre of Brussels, Molenbeek was once known as Belgium’s “Little Manchester”. These days it is better known as “Little Morocco” since the population is overwhelmingly Muslim and of North African origin.

By day, the scene is one of children kicking balls on busy streets, of very fast, very small cars with very large sound systems. By night, the cafes and tea houses are no strangers to drug-dealers and mafia from the Maghreb.

For the politically active extreme right, and the anti-Islamic bloggers, Molenbeek is the nightmare shape of things to come: an incubator of tension and terrorism in Europe’s capital, part of a wave of “Islamisation” supposedly sweeping Europe, from the great North Sea cities of Amsterdam and Rotterdam to Marseille and the Mediterranean.

The dire predictions of religious and identity-based mayhem reached their peak between 2004 and 2006, when bombs exploded in Madrid and London, a controversial film director was shot and stabbed to death in Amsterdam, and angry demonstrators marched against publication of satirical cartoons about the Prophet Muhammad.

For Bruce Bawer, author of While Europe Slept, the continent’s future was to “tamely resign itself to a gradual transition to absolute sharia law”. By the end of the century, warned Bernard Lewis, the famous American historian of Islam, “Europe will be Islamic”. The Daily Telegraph asked: “Is France on the way to becoming an Islamic state?” The Daily Mail described the riots that shook the nation in the autumn of 2005 as a “Muslim intifada”.

Yet a few years on, though a steady drumbeat of apocalyptic forecasts continues, such fears are beginning to look misplaced. The warnings focus on three elements: the terrorist threat posed by radical Muslim European populations; a cultural “invasion” due to a failure of integration; and demographic “swamping” by Muslim communities with high fertility rates.

A new poll by Gallup, one of the most comprehensive to date, shows that the feared mass radicalisation of the EU’s 20-odd million Muslims has not taken place. Asked if violent attacks on civilians could be justified, 82% of French Muslims and 91% of German Muslims said no. The number who said violence could be used in a “noble cause” was broadly in line with the general population. Crucially, responses were not determined by religious practice - with no difference between devout worshippers and those for whom “religion [was] not important”.

“The numbers have been pretty steady over a number of years,” said Gallup’s Magali Rheault. “It is important to separate the mainstream views from the actions of the fringe groups, who often receive disproportionate attention. Mainstream Muslims do not appear to exhibit extremist behaviour.”

Obviously, the future is uncertain.  Terrorism will remain a threat to both America and Europe.  However, we must reduce the number of those hostile to the the U.S. and allied countries as well as stop those already determined to do us ill.  So far, thankfully, the news from Europe in this regard appears to be good.