America Needs a Counterterrorism Strategy That Won’t Break the Bank

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Has the war on terrorism been worth it? The 17th anniversary of 9/11 last week elicited a flurry of pieces debating this issue, a number of them focused on a recent think-tank report estimating that counterterrorism has cost the U.S. nearly $3 trillion since 2001.

Given that there is still no end to the war on terror in sight, it’s not surprising that many observers consider that investment to have been profligate and unrewarding. That judgment is probably too harsh in view of what U.S. counterterrorism strategy has accomplished. But it’s true that the U.S. will need a more cost-effective strategy in the future.

It’s important to note here that estimates of how much the war on terror has cost vary enormously. A decade ago, Joseph Stiglitz and Linda Bilmes argued that the Iraq War alone would cost $3 trillion once all the long-term, indirect costs were included. Estimates that focus solely on the direct costs of U.S. military operations put the number far lower. The more recent estimate by the Stimson Center strikes a balance, attempting to add up all counterterrorism-related expenditures for homeland security, international programs and conflicts in the greater Middle East from 2002 to 2017.

But there is still some imprecision in that estimate, not least because judgments of what counts as counterterrorism spending are inherently subjective.

Whatever the total figure, that money has not simply been wasted, as the harshest critics allege. The U.S. has now gone 17 years without another catastrophic attack on the homeland — an achievement that almost no one would have predicted in the fall of 2001. Nor has the U.S. suffered sustained, mass-casualty strikes that might have led to a fundamental change in America’s democratic way of life in hopes of purchasing greater safety.

As skeptics point out, of course, the absence of follow-on attacks may also be owed to the incompetence of some aspiring terrorists and to the inherent difficulty of conducting spectacular operations. But insofar as homeland-security programs (even the much-ridiculed ones run by the Transportation Safety Administration) have made America a harder target; insofar as U.S. military operations have killed terrorists and forced others to focus on staying alive; and insofar as U.S. diplomatic, intelligence and law enforcement programs have disrupted key terrorist organizations, these policies have made a huge difference.

The truth is that the U.S. government has become extremely proficient at counterterrorism. Washington has developed a suite of intelligence tools, military capabilities, financial weapons, and intelligence and diplomatic relationships that have allowed it inflict devastating blows on each major terrorist organization that has threatened the nation and its interests. From the severe punishment inflicted on al-Qaeda after 9/11 to the recent dismantling of the Islamic State “caliphate” in Iraq and Syria, the U.S. has given far better than it has received in the war on terror.

What all of these operational successes have not delivered, unfortunately, is anything close to lasting strategic victory. Quite the opposite — that the U.S. has had to take on powerful terrorist groups in succession shows how elusive that victory has proven. The U.S. may have pounded core al-Qaeda in 2001-2002 and after, but it was soon confronted by powerful al-Qaeda affiliates throughout the Middle East and North Africa. By 2009-2010, U.S. forces had pummeled the most powerful affiliate — al-Qaeda in Iraq — only to see it subsequently reconstitute and morph into ISIS. That group is now nearly defeated, at least in Iraq and Syria, but many of its “provinces” remain, while al-Qaeda is making a comeback.

There are a number of reasons for this “Groundhog Day” character of the war on terrorism. The U.S. has made policy errors of both omission and commission: Invading Iraq in 2003 gave the jihadist movement a new lease on life after al-Qaeda had been battered in Afghanistan, while prematurely withdrawing from Iraq in 2010-2011 created (in combination with the Syrian civil war) the vacuum in which ISIS emerged.

More fundamentally, however, the persistence of terrorism is deeply rooted in the political, social and economic pathologies that afflict so many countries in the greater Middle East and Africa; in the vast reservoir of ideological radicalism those pathologies foster; in the weakness or downright malevolence of states that either cannot control their own territory or even actively support jihadist groups; and in the way advanced communications technologies enable terrorists to operate on a global scale.

These conditions would make it hard for the U.S. to achieve a World War II-like victory in the war on terrorism, regardless of what it spent on the task. Yet as the struggle enters its third decade, the resources Washington spends on it will probably continue to decline.

A primary reason for taking a resource-intensive approach to the fight against terrorists after 9/11 — prolonged, manpower-heavy missions in Afghanistan and Iraq — was that the U.S. faced few other pressing security challenges. Today, however, conditions have changed. The past two administrations have sought to withdraw military resources from the Middle East to focus on challenges posed by major-power rivals, while there is profound instability and tension in regions from Europe to East Asia. Counterterrorism will still be a key national security challenge, because terrorist groups are presently the only adversary actively trying to kill Americans on a daily basis. But barring another major homeland attack, the priority counterterrorism receives among other foreign policy goals will continue to recede.

The U.S. will thus need a carefully calibrated strategy. It will require being operationally aggressive — taking the fight to the most dangerous terrorist groups to prevent them from consolidating safe havens and gaining the space and time necessary to mount major attacks — while avoiding unaffordable counterinsurgency or nation-building missions. The counter-ISIS campaign is not a bad model: The U.S. used a manageable commitment of money and military power to defeat ISIS while scrupulously avoiding the slippery slope toward the open-ended commitment of tens of thousands of troops.

Any new strategy should also combine a continuing emphasis on homeland security measures and the diplomatic, intelligence and financial aspects of counterterrorism. And Americans need to react with a bit more resilience — resistance to the temptation to overreact — in the face of the inevitable lone-wolf or other low-grade attacks.

This will not be an easy strategy to execute. It will require patience and persistence, because it recognizes that the best the U.S. can do is aggressively treat the symptoms of the disease rather than curing the disease itself. Put bluntly, this strategy is not designed to produce victory, but simply an acceptable level of security.

Finally, any successful strategy will also require great discipline among U.S. politicians, who must show that they understand the seriousness of the challenge without overpromising or — even worse — hyping the threat for partisan gain. This may sound like a big ask given how President Donald Trump has talked about counterterrorism on the campaign trail and in office. But it is the sort of leadership the U.S. needs to reconcile the demands of national security with the realities of limited resources in a time of enduring terror.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Hal Brands is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is the Henry Kissinger Distinguished Professor at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies and a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. His newest book is "American Grand Strategy in the Age of Trump." 

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