Counterterrorism 2012: No Drones, No Detention, No Intervention

Counterterrorism after Bin Laden has entered a messy period.  Americans and the international community as a whole have grown tired from more than a decade of war.  The sting of 9/11/2001 has worn off.  Americans desire an end to conflict; regardless of whether the threat of terrorism still remains.  Last week, Frank Cilluffo and I released a follow up discussion on the use of drones in Yemen; a hotly debated topic in recent months and one needing exploration.

Ironically, David Ignatius, whose continuous reporting on drones at The Washington Post has stirred debate about U.S. counterterrorism policy, appeared on Morning Joe and surprisingly Joe Scarborough engaged Ignatius smartly on why we have gotten to our current place in counterterrorism (CT).  Here’s the link to the discussion on Morning Joe between Ignatius and Scarborough.  Scarborough rightly points out that the U.S. has gravitated to drones because so many CT options have been taken off the table – intervention, black sites, rendition, GITMO, etc.  Scarborough brings up good points, gets off base a couple times talking about drone casualties, and gets brought back into reality by Ignatius actually.  Watch this clip for an interesting discussion (6:37 to 17:15):

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U.S. CT operations come in a variety of forms and rarely in isolation.  Over ten years fighting al Qaeda, the U.S. has utilized every option at different times and places.

On the direct military engagement end, the U.S. undertook regime change and large scale counterinsurgency operations to rid safe havens of extremists and their base of popular support.  The results were mixed, the costs were high, and the U.S. has decided post-Afghanistan “Surge” 2009 to move away from this large scale hearts-and-minds approach.

Starting immediately after 9/11/2001, U.S. counterterrorism also undertook a more nimble intelligence approach capturing terrorists around the globe, executing renditions, sending terrorists to black sites and Guantanamo Bay.  In concert with these overseas operations, the U.S. passed the PATRIOT ACT, stepped up domestic law enforcement operations and increased electronic surveillance.  Wow, Americans really hated this!  Renditions, illegal detentions, surveillance and GITMO were declared over – probably a good thing.  Side effect of this:  1) the U.S. has no method for detaining terrorists captured on global battlefields.  Lacking a detention policy, terrorists lacking sufficient evidence for prosecution are turned back to their home countries.  (See this morning’s Eli Lake Daily Beast story on Somalia prisons.)  2) Without the ability to pursue a law enforcement approach (Corrupt/incapable CT partners) or detain those captured, the U.S. reverts to drone warfare to interdict terrorists in safe havens.  Again, critics don’t like drones or returning prisoners to their home countries.

The alternative put forth by CT critics is “smart power” – diplomacy, economic development, information operations, etc.  These non-kinetic options have proven unsuccessful as well.  Diplomacy with corrupt regimes makes backlash.  Diplomacy with inept regimes wastes time and puts the country at risk in the near term.   Development as a CT tool rewards countries for having terrorists.  Likewise, ten years of building girls schools in Afghanistan, while a noble effort, had no impact on al Qaeda’s operations in Pakistan.  Assessing the effectiveness of hearts-and-minds Information operations (PSYOPS, Strategic Communications, etc.) have proven nearly impossible to estimate while being costly to execute – recently being slashed by Congress.

So what remains?  A host of covert actions to include arming and training foreign militaries and building up local militias to undertake CT actions on our behalf.  When all other options are removed, the U.S. will be forced to engage in proxy battles through surrogates to interdict terrorists stowed away in third world safe havens; sacrificing operational control, abdicating responsibility and placating an unknowing American public.  Yes, we’ve done this before, one of these groups was called the mujahideen, some of them were later called al Qaeda.

Counterterrorism remains a challenge and no perfect blend of tools, policy and options can be outlined – for in all scenarios there will be risks, costs and unintended casualties.  But I encourage those critics to ask two questions as they rightfully critique U.S. counterterrorism options:

  1. If you advocate the end of counterterrorism policy, option or tool (drones being only one example), what are the consequences and resulting effects of your objections?
  2. The U.S. should and will pursue terrorists around the world.  The U.S. should protect its values while protecting its citizens.  If you are not comfortable with how the U.S. conducts its counterterrorism, what counterterrorism strategy would you be comfortable with? And would that strategy protect U.S. citizens while suiting your values?

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