Symposium: 9/11 + 10: Back to the Future?

Posted on Mon 09/12/2011 by


By James Carafano, PhD.

The terrorist threat remains, but much progress has been made over the last ten years. During that period, at least 40 Islamist-inspired terror plots aimed at the United States have been thwarted. And, according to a database maintained by the RAND Corporation, all categories of terrorist attacks against U.S. targets, both at home and overseas, have been trending steadily downward since 2005.

Of course, most of the action has been overseas. Al-Qaeda was defeated in Iraq, flushed from Afghanistan and is being hounded in Pakistan. Osama bin Laden’s poll numbers were way down even before Seal Team Six took him out.

Transnational terrorist networks have been dispersed and disaggregated. Increasingly, their calls to strike against the West are issued openly, online. That’s not a sign of resilience or innovation on the networks’ part; it’s an act of desperation to stay in the game and stay relevant.

There have been countless homeland security upgrades as well. As a result, America is a harder target. Beyond doubt, ten years after 9/11, we are safer.

Before the high-fives commence, however, the caveats need to come out. The successes in the war on terror weren’t produced by any policies introduced by the current administration. Yes, the U.S. has turned back the tide of terror over the last decade. But this administration’s contribution to that progress is largely confined to areas where it has followed through with initiatives started by the previous administration—e.g., sticking it out in Afghanistan and Iraq, going after al-Qaeda in Pakistan, and continuing to detain and interrogate terrorists. How much longer the president will “stay the course” is unknown.

But staying the course is important, because all this progress is reversible. Given any significant easing of pressure, the piece parts of transnational terror could pull themselves back together like the evil robot in the Terminator movies. These include everything from Yemen’s al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and Somalia’s al-Shabaab to the Haqqani Network and Lashkar-e-Taiba, which operate in Pakistan’s backyard.

Additionally, there are the state sponsors of terrorism to worry about. Iran tops the list, along with its terrorist henchmen, Hamas and Hezbollah. Even Russia seems to be getting back in the state sponsorship game, allegedly engineering a string of bombings in the Republic of Georgia last year (including one outside the U.S. embassy in Tbilisi).

Unfortunately, the administration now seems to be eying a more lackadaisical approach to terrorism: one that could let al-Qaeda back into the game in just a few years. This would be the equivalent of a marathon runner with a miles-long lead deciding to lay down and let the rest of the field catch up.

The Obama security strategy team seems largely driven by groupthink. The official line is that the war with al-Qaeda is all but won. Senior folks who disagree with that line are being shown the door. Mike Leiter ably led the National Counterterrorism Center for years. Last spring, he was suddenly dropped from the team. Not long after, the New York Times reported that Leiter believed“that Al Qaeda in Pakistan still posed a serious threat to the United States, and he warned that assessments that Al Qaeda was on the verge of collapse lacked ‘accuracy and precision.’” Such contrarian views are apparently no longer tolerable in the inner sanctum.

Also worrisome is the president’s plan for Afghanistan, which gives the timeline for withdrawal precedence over achievements on the ground. A counterinsurgency plan focused on taking space from the Taliban and building Afghan capacity to hold its own would have worked. But Mr. Obama, having under-resourced the surge from the start, is now anxious to pull the plug. This will let the Taliban back in the game and might give al-Qaeda sufficient breathing space to reconstitute its presence in South Asia.

Just as problematic is the “whack-a-mole” approach to for hunting terror leaders in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Yemen. Mr. Obama relies on a “small-footprint” initiative: a scant commitment on the ground, with heavy use of drone and special forces strikes launched from afar. The problem with the “small footprint” approach is that it substitutes a tactic for strategy. Our enemies will defeat it by becoming “better moles,” harder to find targets. Furthermore, direct action alone does not address all the essential tasks of combating a global insurgency.

A fourth flaw in the administration’s approach is that it has done far too little to stop the “stupid security” elements implemented by its predecessor. These are the useless but “feel good” initiatives that drain resources but accomplish little. An example: installing radiological monitors at U.S. ports. We have spent millions of dollars on this program, designed to detect nuclear weapons being smuggled into the country. That’s an attack scenario that no respected security analyst believes is credible. And even if terrorists were to try such a tactic, there are much better, cheaper ways to track down smuggled nukes.

Having fought terrorism in a serious manner for a full decade, the U.S. now has plenty of evidence about what works and what does not. Yet, too little retrospection has been devoted to stopping the stupid stuff.

Stupid security is doubly costly, because it siphons off scarce resources from security we really do need. The Coast Guard, for example, has ships old enough to qualify for Social Security benefits. Modernizing the Coast Guard is much more important than many of the “initiatives” Washington wastes homeland security dollars on. Sadly, too little has been done to stop the waste.

Add up all these shortfalls, and the potential for backsliding in the war on terrorism is plain to see. A few more years of lackadaisical, wishful-thinking prosecution, and America could wind up right back where it was on September 10, 2001. Contributing Editor James Jay Carafano, Ph.D., is a leading expert in defense affairs, intelligence, strategy, and military operations at the Heritage Foundation.

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