It’s time to get serious about evaluating America’s counterterrorism strategy.
- By Micah ZenkoMicah Zenko (@MicahZenko) is a senior fellow with the Center for Preventive Action at the Council on Foreign Relations and is the author of Red Team: How to Succeed by Thinking Like the Enemy.
On June 14, when F-15E fighter jets bombed Mokhtar Belmokhtar, an al Qaeda commander in North Africa, the United States expanded the war on terrorism with its first explicit counterterrorism airstrike in Libya. What began with limited airstrikes in Afghanistan on Oct. 7, 2001, to topple the Taliban has expanded to seven other countries — Yemen, Iraq, Pakistan, the Philippines, Somalia, Libya, and Syria — with sustained military or counterterrorism operations against terrorist groups and militant armies, most with no connection to 9/11 or any apparent intention or capability to directly attack the United States.
But while its alleged enemies have evolved, America’s strategy has not. Washington officials conflate local militancy with direct threats to the homeland, refuse to identify the enemy or the prioritization of adversaries, proclaim implausible strategic objectives, and stubbornly demonstrate no meaningful learning or adjustments over the past 13 years. The elements of this strategy remain unquestioned and, subsequently, ineffective.
Meanwhile, the nature of terrorist threats has metastasized. The number of jihadi terrorist groups and their estimated strength, geographic reach, social media influence, and lethality are growing, with 2014 having the most terrorist fatalities in the past 45 years: 32,727 killed. In U.S. President Barack Obama’s first full year in office, 2010, it was 13,186. However, U.S. citizens are overwhelmingly not the victims. Although 28 Americans on average have died per year since 9/11, 80 percent were in Iraq and Afghanistan, where wars were started to prevent terrorism.
The White House and Congress, collectively, are incapable of recognizing how deeply and hopelessly mired the United States has become in the war on terrorism. Officials and members of congress repeat the same politically salient clichés, such as vowing to “defeat” or “destroy” the Taliban, al Qaeda affiliates, and now the Islamic State; adopt recycled assumptions, such as the myth that terrorists need safe havens (they don’t) and thus the United States must bomb suspects in such countries; and then appear surprised when things continue to go poorly. Officials are simply too vested to objectively evaluate current strategies, demonstrate strategic learning, or implement meaningful new policies. It is time to recognize failure and take steps to initiate change.
To overcome this structural constraint, a commission should be established to do what elected and appointed leaders cannot: review, evaluate, and offer new policy recommendations. This National Commission on the War on Terrorism would consist of 10 former officials, diplomats, and experts — with no personal or financial interest in the outcome — empowered to speak with anyone and review any documents. Where the 9/11 Commission investigated the facts and circumstances relating to the al Qaeda attacks, this commission would evaluate and assess America’s responses to those attacks.
Unlike most blue-ribbon panels, the 9/11 Commission succeeded because it provided a bipartisan understanding of the terrorism challenge, a review of U.S. policy failures dating back to President Ronald Reagan’s administration, a unifying framework for thinking about terrorism, and 41 recommendations for confronting it — 78 percent of which had been implemented by 2011. The recommendations that were never adopted, like placing counterterrorism strikes under the control of the military and not the CIA, and streamlining congressional oversight over counterterrorism policies by eliminating redundant committees and subcommittees, are still good ideas and, ideally, should still be pursued and implemented.
As important as its recommendations was the 9/11 Commission’s members and brilliant staffers, who were diligent, unafraid to pursue difficult truths, and highly respected. Recall, Henry Kissinger was initially appointed the commission’s chair by President George W. Bush, but was appropriately dropped after he refused to disclose his clients’ ties to the Middle East, particularly Saudi Arabia. Thankfully, former Gov. Thomas Kean and Rep. Lee Hamilton replaced Kissinger.
This overdue National Commission on the War on Terrorism would focus on four prosaic issues:
First, it would review U.S. counterterrorism strategic documents designed to define objectives, detail plausible courses of action, and provide theories for how America’s terrorist enemies would be defeated. This begins by admitting that these groups are rarely “defeated” and never by bombs and special operations raids alone, but rather by dealing with the underlying causes — something every single official acknowledges the United States and its partners must get better at, but never pursues with seriousness. Washington keeps asking those partners to stop supporting jihadi groups, which they refuse to do: As a State Department official recently said with apparent surprise, “After 9/11, we thought they understood that this was no longer acceptable.… It seems they didn’t get the message.” And Congress keeps appropriating relatively small amounts of foreign aid to programs intended to make it less likely that neutral individuals become terrorists. As Obama acknowledged in March, “We can’t keep on thinking about counterterrorism and security as entirely separate from diplomacy, development, education — all these things that are considered soft, but in fact are vital to our national security, and we do not fund those.” Unfortunately, those are still perceived as entirely separate and given relatively little attention or money.
Second, the commission would evaluate — using the best available data — the effectiveness of the policies that emerged from these strategic documents, pinpointing which policies have been the most and least effective, and why. The Bush and Obama administrations have relied on the same policies, including drone strikes especially, which total 530 (480 of which Obama authorized) and have killed roughly 3,900 people; “building partnership capacity” of uninterested or corrupt partners; and “countering violent extremism.” In a major 2006 strategy document President Bush declared: “We must employ all elements of U.S. national power, including public diplomacy, development, and democracy-building programs, to address the conditions which terrorists exploit and to counter extremist propaganda and recruiting” — that is nearly the same language and approach used by the White House today.
Third, the commission would answer the most essential unresolved question: What are the underlying structural reasons that explain why unaffiliated individuals are motivated to join terrorist groups or are inspired to commit acts of terrorism on their own? This is increasingly important as all four successful jihadi terrorist attacks in the United States since 9/11 were homegrown, and, more broadly, Americans themselves have been responsible for 50 percent of all plots and attacks on domestic soil since 9/11.
Fourth, the commission would finally propose an informed path forward, including a new strategic framework, policy recommendations for federal and local government agencies, and ideas for rearranging the outdated counterterrorism bureaucracy (as the 9/11 Commission did by unifying disparate activities under the Department of Homeland Security and establishing the Office of the Director of National Intelligence).
This commission could be proposed in legislation today, passed as part of an authorization bill, and signed by Obama. Comparable commissions cost $3 million to $4 million, which is negligible given the $4 trillion to $6 trillion that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan will eventually cost. It could be formed in the fall, with its conclusions and recommendations made publicly available in January 2017, just in time to inform Obama’s successor and the 115th Congress.
My Foreign Policy colleague, Rosa Brooks, recently wrote a thoughtful essay, “U.S. Counterterrorism Strategy Is the Definition of Insanity” — i.e., doing the same thing over and over, but expecting different results, is the very definition of the war on terrorism. In December, Lt. Gen. Charles Cleveland, commander of U.S. Army Special Operations Command, made a poignant observation: “We built a great apparatus for terrorism. It has huge advocacy. If someone questions it, you run the risk of taking on an entrenched infrastructure.” Indeed, as I have written, the most dangerous and entrenched apparatus is the rigid and extremist ideology that seemingly everyone in Washington endorses and promotes.
The war on terrorism clearly needs a major review and rethink, unless the American people are comfortable with ensuring that the United States will be at war forever. Nobody currently in power in Washington is capable or willing to do this, given their personal or professional interests that prohibit any serious self-evaluation or criticism of U.S. foreign policy. An empowered National Commission on the War on Terrorism composed of respected members might overcome the inherent biases and pathologies that have frozen U.S. counterterrorism strategies. It’s a small cost to find this out given that the alternative is the certainty of continued failure.
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