It’s time to get serious about evaluating America’s counterterrorism strategy
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 ...
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