13 January 2010

the continuing saga of countering terrorism, strategy session

I've had a number of ongoing battles involving the strategic implications of our tactics and strategies of counter-terrorism globally and in specific elements. So I'd like to draw attention to some key points here.

Prior to 9-11, there were a number of legal and fuzzy legal state actions which were available to the USA and our allies around the globe on this matter which could have been employed against terrorist organisations, their funding sources, and their leaders. For example
1) State military action against suspected terrorist sites unilaterally (ie, US cruise missile strikes in Sudan and Afghanistan or drone and air force strikes in Iraq/Pakistan, or Israeli incursions into Palestinian territories).
2) State Police and intelligence operations to gather information potentially for use in the former mission or to arrest and detain potential threats, with a variety of legal internal methods (such as warrants for wiretapping, etc)
3) Multilateral use and sharing of information and information gathering sources combined with broad international condemnation of non-state terrorism and fairly broad condemnation (although often hypocritical) of state-sponsored terrorism up to and including the sanctioning of military strikes and extradition of suspects by powerful states.
4) Airplane security already had a large list of substances and weapons which were supposedly screened to prevent incidents of airborne terrorism, which was, in the decade leading up to 9-11, remarkably effective around the globe (with zero incidents).
5) The war on drugs had already, in America at least, eroded a large sense of property and privacy restrictions such that comparable investigative techniques for counter-terrorism were easy to enact, not to mention at this point likely symbiotic (that is: counter-terrorism and counter-narcotics investigations were often pushing at some of the same people and forces globally anyway).

So in response to 9-11 here's what we supposedly needed
1) A new form of just war theory which declared that state actors could make wars against other state actors because they had included in their borders non-state actors who could potentially attack other nation-states. Without making sufficient international demonstrations of evidence to support such a claim public.
2) A new range of state police and intelligence assets up to and including the use of torture on suspects, illegal detention programs and extraordinary rendition to foreign governments, along with more advanced surveillance programs domestically.
3) No requirements for multilateral arrangements and coordination and a public declaration that resistance to stated policies was in effect, support of the opposition (that is: you are for the terrorists if you are not with us) and a broadly defined attempt to denigrate previously agreed to international law as binding on state actors (namely US Senate ratified treaties) or to weaken international institutions by only agreeing to participation on the condition of exemption from their decrees (International Criminal Court).
4) Airplane security eventually broadened its scope to include a heightened scrutiny of all passengers, including much increased delays and detainment of randomly searched persons (without evidence of wrong doing), and a list of behaviors which were required in the name of enhanced security without any demonstration of their actual effectiveness in terms of passenger security, such as the removal of shoes and small packages of liquids. This includes present calls for requiring full body scans of all passengers.
5) A wide range of anti-privacy legislation is called for, including immunity for telecommunications corporations who cooperate, wrongly, with government authorities in broad, vague, or warrantless seizures of information of private citizens, the collection of data with no attending requirements that it be purged, or if stored, that it be attached to on-going criminal investigation of terrorism for national security purposes, the abuse of anti-terrorism legislation to pursue more mundane criminal acts (such as drug trafficking), suppression of media information, doublethink wording defining away the concepts of "battlefields" to include anywhere the Pentagon or CIA says a suspect is found, "enhanced interrogation" to replace words like "torture" with clearer meanings, "enemy combatants" replaced by "unlawful enemy combatants", a term which has little legal meaning (and indeed, has been shown to be so through numerous court cases) but which still leaves detained terrorist suspects held without trial or recourse in a nebulous state of legal limbo.

What confuses me about these changes is that it does not seem clear why we needed them. It seemed to me that most of our failures which allowed 9-11 to proceed were simple procedure problems. We did not share intelligence between our state intelligence gathering organs, so it made sense to share intelligence, particularly on counter-terrorism information. We had many of the supposedly required legal tools to monitor international suspects already in place, as well as many to monitor domestic suspects but we required new legislation to broadly expand on those powers. We could strike at terrorist organisations by seizing or freezing financial assets, rounding up suspects criminally or killing them militarily, but we needed to justify invading hostile nations instead of merely striking back against non-state threats to global stability (in a way which frankly, much of the world would have and often did support in the post 9-11 days, including such often at odds sources as Russia and Iran).

Why I bring this up now is that it appears, in the aftermath of the latest al Qaeda attack, that we're still engaging in a sort of chicken with its head cut off calculus about what we have in the toolbox and what we supposedly need to strike back. It is not necessary to collectively lose our shit every time someone tries to set off a bomb on a plane (which of course, still hasn't happened that often given the amount of flying going on and the amount of bombing going on globally). We should instead figure out how they got into that position and how our systems in place failed before setting out to give them more and more power to invade our lives in the name of security. If we have already given more arsenal to our warriors in the field, then it seems to me that there are a number of strategic problems

1) We have given them too many options, too much data, too many sources from which to comb through to find truly threatening targets. There should be no realistic expectation that we can prevent every possible threat. After all, some wackos with fertilizer, a high powered rifle, or some home made pipe bombs can ruin our day and nobody may have noticed ahead of time at all, unlike most international terrorist incidents where we appear to have a good deal of lead time warning. Planned and executed international attacks (or internationally funded and trained ones) should be relatively easy to detect and deter however.
2) We have given them the wrong tools. It is possible that they might make better use of body scanners than their present surveillance instruments. However, a better question to me would be...
3) Do we have the wrong people in the field as a front line on terrorism? I have some confidence in the military's ability to conduct a counter-insurgency campaign (although I think they started on such a campaign too late in both Afghanistan and Iraq and I don't think it helps the "war on terror"). I have much less confidence in TSA or Homeland Security as agents appointed to protect us than in simple police tactics and intelligence gathering agencies. I have even less confidence in the ability of a half-assed effort to train hundreds of thousands of people in basic security and detection techniques. Securing a free country with freedom of movement is roughly impossible. Our best line of defence is in identifying probable suspects and monitoring them. This does not mean profiling only Arabic sounding names or young Muslim men as Faux News commentators seem to think would help. But it does mean doing some investigation when a Muslim male with a questionable background shows up as a person of interest and wanders off to Yemen for a while for example. Basically I think the problem here is that we have hundreds of thousands of people we're intending a half-trained agency to keep tabs on. The criminal investigations of all manner of crimes in this country in a given year take up virtually the same amount of manpower and investigative aims and with a few exceptions, are largely useful at reducing criminal acts. Rather than appointing new agencies with vague mandates of homeland security, it seemed more appropriate to build up the resources of counter-terrorism divisions of pre-existing bureaucracies and the coordination of them through one single entity. Perhaps the National Security Advisor, or perhaps the figurehead of a Homeland Security Director with no attending bureaucracy directly attributable to that one person but rather a number of divisions with different mandates and tactics available to them coordinating their investigations on persons of high material interest who present a high probability of threatening action to American civilians and military personnel (and, if this is done properly, coordinating with international allies to warn them of possible threats to their citizens in exchange for information helping us with our own dangers).
4) We have given our people the wrong mission. I think it would be fair to say that occupation and nation building are not sensible military aims. It might also be fair to say that countering terrorism by playing whack a mole with other unstable nation states may be inappropriate or that bombing those same nation-states may fuel dissenting rage against American interests. I have no illusions that sometimes terrorists or insurgents may need to be bombed or killed in combat situations. The question must be how necessary it will be relative to the potential cost of creating new bombers next week, radicalized to a vision of America as the unfeeling killing machine in the sky. Deploying a military is a costly action in the diplomatic and financial arenas of nation-states.

It should have occurred to us that doing so would have to achieve the principle aims of a military conflict. That is: that it should defeat in combat by force of arms or maneuver the enemy force, that it should succeed in separating the enemy force from its line of supply and armament and ultimately destroy such arms, and that it should succeed in suppressing the enemy force from its will to resist through future confrontations. I think we can probably achieve one of these three things by using the military routinely against terrorism or rogue state and non-state actors (the first one), but the problem is that we will have to do indefinitely because it does not account for the ability of the enemy to find ways to attack and counter attack, nor to provide for a sufficiency of will to resist and to engineer new and inventive ways to kill American soldiers and civilians (or those of our allies). Effectively we are swinging blindly. Naturally when we connect with something, it will be smashed and destroyed because we have a powerful force out there, even a flexible one at that. But we won't always connect and we thus leave ourselves open to many small pinpricks and counter blows. This is not good strategy.
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