U.S. Counterterrorism Strategy Is the Definition of Insanity

Six theories for why Washington keeps doing the same thing over and over again and hoping for a different result.

Show me someone who publicly insists that the United States has an effective counterterrorism strategy, and I’ll show you someone who draws a paycheck from the U.S. government.

“This week we have seen success across a broad spectrum,” Pentagon spokesman Col. Steve Warren told reporters on June 16, commenting on the death of Yemeni al Qaeda leader Nasir al-Wuhayshi, reportedly killed as a result of a U.S. drone strike. “Any time a terrorist is removed from the battlefield, is killed or captured, I think the net gain outweighs any potential loss.”

Loyalty to your employer is a fine thing, especially in a press spokesman, but outside the ranks of officials in President Barack Obama’s administration, experts are far more dubious about the heavy U.S. reliance on air power and targeted strikes. “The tactical, whack-a-mole approach is not having the desired effect,” my Foreign Policy colleague Micah Zenko told the New York Times. “Not having the desired effect” was a polite circumlocution: As Zenko recently noted for FP, State Department figures show a substantial recent uptick in global terrorism. In 2014, terrorist attacks increased 39 percent over the previous year, while the number of fatalities caused by terrorist attacks went up 83 percent.

In Yemen, which the administration inexplicably continues to tout as a counterterrorism “success,” U.S. policy in in shambles. “If you’re looking for logic here, you’re not going to find much,” Stephen Seche, a former U.S. ambassador to Yemen, told the New York Times. In mid-June, the Washington Post reported that “[al]-Qaeda affiliates are significantly expanding their footholds” in both Yemen and Syria. And the Islamic State also continues to gain ground in both countries. Meanwhile, in Libya, it’s “utter chaos,” former U.N. advisor Dirk Vandewalle told the Times: The Islamic State and al Qaeda-linked groups are vying for power, and a recent U.S. drone strike against al Qaeda operative Mokhtar Belmokhtar “shows that we’re still relying on ad hoc measures.” In Iraq, Somalia, and Afghanistan, it’s the same story. The United States continues to rely heavily on airstrikes and targeted killings, while terrorist groups continue to cause mayhem and gain adherents.

Even some of those who do get paid by Uncle Sam have grown more openly skeptical of U.S. counterterrorism policy. Capt. Robert Newson, a Navy SEAL who served as director of the Joint Interagency Task Force-Counter Terrorism, told an interviewer at West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center that “drone strikes, manned airstrikes, and special operations raids … buy space and time. But by themselves they are only a delaying action, and everywhere I have been, in Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, every military person up and down the chain of command acknowledges this. This ‘CT concept’ — the solution that some people champion where the main or whole effort is drone strikes and special operations raids — is a fantasy.”

Like Newson, I haven’t encountered many defenders of U.S. counterterrorism strikes. Last year, I co-chaired a Stimson Center commission on U.S. drone policy with retired Gen. John Abizaid. The commission, which included former senior military and intelligence officials from both Obama’s and George W. Bush’s administrations, concluded in June 2014 that “the Obama administration’s heavy reliance on targeted killings as a pillar of US counterterrorism strategy rests on questionable assumptions, and risks increasing instability and escalating conflicts. While tactical strikes may have helped keep the homeland free of major terrorist attacks, existing evidence indicates that both Sunni and Shia Islamic extremist groups have grown in scope, lethality and influence in the broader area of operations in the Middle East, Africa and South Asia.” In dozens of interviews and conversations with national security experts since June 2014, I have yet to find anyone who won’t admit, off the record, that U.S. counterterrorism policy is flailing badly.

So here’s the question:

If no one except administration press flacks thinks the whack-a-mole approach to counterterrorism is working, why are we still using it?

To me, that’s one of the unsolved mysteries of the universe, right up there with “what is dark matter?” and “why do we yawn?” Why do smart people like Obama and his top advisors continue to rely on counterterrorism policies that aren’t working?

I can think of a few possibilities.

1. They know something we don’t.

This is the most generous hypothesis I can come up with. Maybe there’s secret intelligence information showing that, contrary to all appearances, al Qaeda, the Islamic State, al-Shabab, Boko Haram, and other major terrorist groups have all been fatally weakened and peace on Earth is right around the corner.

Maybe. But not very likely.

2. We know something they don’t.

Back in 2003, many of us were skeptical of the Bush administration’s claims about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, but told ourselves that senior officials probably knew something we didn’t. Not so, as it turned out. Internal and external critics were ignored or silenced, and everyone from Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to Secretary of State Colin Powell convinced themselves that dubious intelligence was the gospel truth. Had they paid more attention to critics, the United States might never have launched its misguided war in Iraq — the same war that became an inspiration and training ground for many of the terrorist leaders who continue to plague the region today. The critics were right.

There’s no particular reason to think that today’s senior U.S. officials are any less prone to self-delusional groupthink. Maybe they’re trapped in their own little bubble; maybe they’ve started to believe their own hype.

3. They don’t know what they don’t know.

Or maybe they don’t — and can’t — know that they don’t know what the rest of us know. Maybe no one draws their attention to critical reports. Maybe the internal critics — of whom there are clearly many — censor themselves when they’re around the president and his inner circle.

I sometimes think that the U.S. government is a giant machine designed to prevent senior decision-makers from every getting any useful information. For one thing, it’s a vast and sprawling bureaucracy, and the right hand is frequently oblivious to the machinations of the left hand. In a sense, there’s just no “there” there: The State Department doesn’t always share important information with the Defense Department, the Defense Department doesn’t always share important information with Department of Homeland Security, and the intelligence community generally doesn’t share important information with anyone.

Within agencies, it’s no different.

Central Command doesn’t necessarily know what Special Operations Command knows, and Africa Command may not know what either knows.

Central Command doesn’t necessarily know what Special Operations Command knows, and Africa Command may not know what either knows. Military intelligence and surveillance assets are concentrated in the Central Command area or responsibility, leaving commanders elsewhere with less ability to monitor and understand what’s going on. Meanwhile, the CIA’s shift toward paramilitary operations has left it less able to gain vital human intelligence. Put all this together, and you get a situation in which U.S. officials can see millions of trees, but almost no one can spot any forests.

Add to this the natural desire to bring good news rather than bad news to the boss — and combine it with a bureaucratic culture that insists that everything be boiled down to a few slides or a page of bullet points before it goes to senior officials. Maybe, at the end of the day, Obama can’t be expected to know whether his approach to counterterrorism is succeeding or failing, because the structure and incentives of the players in his own government make it impossible for him to know.

4. They don’t want to know.

Maybe that’s too generous. Bush used to boast that he never read the newspaper. Maybe Obama has stopped reading the news too. Or maybe he skips articles that look critical or negative and goes straight to the sports section.

It will be many years before current intelligence assessments are declassified, but so far, journalistic reports of leaked documents and comments by former officials suggest that there’s no shortage of internal evidence that U.S. counterterrorism policy is failing. According to the BBC, leaked CIA reports concluded that targeting killings of Taliban leaders were ineffective, for instance. Other internal documents reportedly acknowledge that U.S. officials are often uncertain whom they’re killing in the first place. But maybe senior officials find reasons to avoid reading such reports.

Taking such information fully on board — or grappling with the full implications of the recent rise in global terrorism — would require senior officials to admit (to themselves, even if not to the general public) that a counterterrorism strategy centered on air power and targeted killings isn’t working. Not fun.

5. They know, but don’t care.

Perhaps I’m still being too generous. Maybe senior administration officials know perfectly well that their approach to counterterrorism is failing, but simply have no incentive to change it. Why bother? In less than two years, this administration will be gone, and the next crew will have to clean up the mess — which won’t be easy, since no one has any magic solutions. In the meantime, politics trumps policy. The experts, analysts, and pundits can yap all they want, but airstrikes and targeted killings scratch the itch to “do something” and look tough while doing it. The long-term efficacy of this approach is immaterial.

6. They’re just really conflicted and confused.

It’s definitely possible. In May 2013, Obama told an audience at the National Defense University that counterterrorist drone strikes raise “profound questions” and that “the use of force must be seen as part of a larger discussion we need to have about a comprehensive counterterrorism strategy.” In May 2014, he repeated his commitment to having that discussion and added, “I also believe we must be more transparent about both the basis of our counterterrorism actions and the manner in which they are carried out.… When we cannot explain our efforts clearly and publicly, we face terrorist propaganda and international suspicion.” In September 2014, he admitted, “We don’t have a strategy yet” for dealing with the rise of the Islamic State.” A few weeks ago, he amended this to “we don’t yet have a complete strategy.”

It shows.

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