Terrorism's Twelve Step Program

Since 9/11, America has learned a lot about combating terrorism—but we’re not using our new knowledge. Here are twelve points Obama can follow to help us in our fight.

1. The fundamental organizing principle of America's struggle against terrorism as a global war has outlived its utility. Although relevant to the challenge that the United States faced in the immediate aftermath of the September 11 attacks, the term global war on terrorism (GWOT) has increasingly alienated our friends and discouraged our allies. This is particularly so in the Muslim world where the GWOT has unfortunately, and however erroneously, nonetheless become synonymous with a war on Islam. Accordingly, it may be more useful to reconceptualize this struggle in terms of a global counterinsurgency (GCOIN). Such an approach would a priori knit together the equally critical political, economic, diplomatic, information and developmental sides inherent to the successful prosecution of counterinsurgency to the existing dominant military side of the equation.

Greater attention to an integration of American capabilities and instruments of U.S. power would provide incontrovertible recognition of the importance of endowing a GCOIN with an overriding and comprehensive, multi-dimensional, policy. Ideally, this policy would embrace several elements: including a clear strategy, a defined structure for implementing it, and a vision of inter-government agency cooperation, and the unified effort to guide it. A more focused and strengthened interagency process would also facilitate the coordination of key themes and messages and the development and execution of long-term "hearts and minds" programs.


2. The central front in the war on terrorism today is not Iraq, but the lawless border region between Afghanistan and Pakistan. America's continued preoccupation with Iraq has exacted a heavy price in terms of mounting instability and growing jihadist strength in both South Asian countries. If 9/11 has taught us anything, it is that al-Qaeda is most dangerous when it has a sanctuary or safe haven from which to operate-as it now indisputably does. Indeed, virtually every major terrorist attack or plot of the past four years has emanated from al-Qaeda's reconstituted sanctuary in Pakistan's Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) or Northwest Frontier Province (NWFP). Perhaps most important, however, is that the broader movement's ability to continue to appeal to its hardcore, political base and thus guarantee a flow of recruits into its ranks, money into its coffers, and support for its aims and objectives, ensures that this struggle will neither abate on its own accord nor be easily-and quickly-defeated.

The problem to date is that the United States has no effective political or military strategy for either Afghanistan or Pakistan and appears to treat them separately and not synergistically. Given that the security challenges in both countries are now ineluctably symbiotic, any serious effort to stabilize and secure Afghanistan must begin with a clear and consistent policy designed to achieve the same in Pakistan. Accordingly, the highest priority for the Obama administration must be to refocus our-and our allies'-attention on Afghanistan and Pakistan, where al-Qaeda began to collapse after 2001, but has now regrouped. This will entail understanding that al-Qaeda and its local militant jihadist allies cannot be defeated by military means alone. Success will require a dual strategy of systematically destroying and weakening enemy capabilities-that is, continuing to kill and capture al-Qaeda commanders and operatives-along with breaking the cycle of terrorist recruitment among radicalized "bunches of guys" as well as more effectively countering al-Qaeda's effective information operations. The United States thus requires a strategy that harnesses the overwhelming kinetic force of the American military as part of a comprehensive vision to transform other, non-kinetic instruments of national power in order to deal more effectively with irregular and unconventional threats.


3. The interagency process is broken and requires fixing. This is as much a matter of a change in mindset as it is bureaucratic reorganization. Success in the campaign against global terrorism and radical jihadism will ultimately depend on how effectively the United States can build bridges and untangle lines of authority, de-conflict overlapping responsibilities and improve the ability to prioritize and synchronize interagency operations in a timely and efficient manner. Organizations will therefore have to do-or be compelled to do-what they have been reluctant to do in the past: reaching across bureaucratic territorial divides and sharing resources in order to defeat terrorists, insurgencies and other emerging threats. Clarifying these expectations and processes is a critical step in efficiently addressing contemporary threats to U.S. security as is creating incentives to more effectively blend diplomacy, justice, development, finance, intelligence, law enforcement, and military capabilities and coherently generating and applying resources to defeat terrorist and insurgent threats.