Paul Pillar

De Rigueur Counterterrorism

Strategy documents issued by presidential administrations do not shape the execution of policy nearly as much as the label strategy would imply. They are written and promulgated not because they are needed to guide the actions of subordinates but instead because people outside the administration expect them. No chief executive wants to be accused of not having a strategy, and such a document provides something to point to in order to avoid the accusation. They are basically press releases. Their very existence is largely a matter of public expectations, as is much of their content.

A “National Strategy for Counterterrorism” that the Obama White House released this week contains a lot of laudable and sensible stuff. There is recognition that many aspects of foreign policy—such as support for democratization—affect the extent of the threat from international terrorism, at least as much as policy that bears the counterterrorist label. There is a declaration of intent to adhere to fundamental American values, important not just in their own right but because adherence to them aids counterterrorism. There is acknowledgment that short-term gains such as using force to eliminate individual terrorists need to be weighed against possible long-term negative consequences. There is the observation that the United States cooperates on counterterrorism with a wide variety of foreign governments, some of which would be considered friends but others of which would not—a refreshing change from the bifurcated, Manichean way in which the previous administration too often looked at the world. And there is recognition that some terrorist attacks will occur no matter what else we do, and so societal resilience in the face of attacks is important, too. These are all sound principles, although the document stops short of what a true strategy would provide, such as criteria for making those tough decisions between short term results and long term consequences.

As a document that is mostly about what the public expects to hear, the statement evokes many of the old familiar counterterrorist themes, but again without the guidance that an actual strategy would offer. For example, the statement says “we have taken numerous steps to address information sharing shortfalls within the government, strengthen analysis and the integration of intelligence” without giving any clue as to what those steps are, or whether there are even any new ideas for taking any other steps. There is the requisite reference to terrorist safe havens, without any weighing of how important physical havens are in affecting the threat terrorist groups pose, and thus without any sense of how much priority this topic should get compared to other aspects of counterterrorism. No counterterrorist strategy would be considered complete without referring to state sponsorship, and so there is a single sentence that says Iran and Syria are sponsoring terrorism and the United States will endeavor to counter such sponsorship. The paper says nothing about how state sponsorship can or should be countered—is it a matter of inducement to change policies, or something else? Nor does the statement make any reference to the most successful effort in recent years to get a previous state sponsor off the terrorist path—the agreement with Libya eight years ago—or to how joining the effort to overthrow Muammar Qaddafi has negated that agreement and with it any beneficial demonstration effects among other state sponsors.

A major aspect of the strategy document is that it is nearly all about al-Qa'ida, and its “affiliates” and “adherents.” The document is not really a counterterrorist strategy but rather a “war on al-Qa'ida” strategy. All the other terrorists and possible terrorists in the world are acknowledged and dismissed in a couple of paragraphs. This, too, reflects the expectations and perceptions of the public, which commonly but mistakenly equates international terrorism with al-Qa'ida. But this narrow focus on al-Qa'ida has two disadvantages, which were correctly noted by former Bush administration counterterrorist official Juan Zarate. One is that the focus risks overlooking other brewing terrorist threats that have nothing to do with al-Qa'ida. Some future commission that investigates a future major attack by such a brewing threat will have a field day with this document as evidence of failure to recognize the threat. The other problem has to do with al-Qa'ida itself; as Zarate puts it, the narrow focus “inadvertently aggrandizes al-Qa'ida at a time when we want to emphasize its irrelevance.”

The latter problem is exacerbated by that “war” terminology. Here the public's expectation that its government treat terrorism as a serious problem that involves a “war” collides with the Obama administration's effort to distance itself from the unfortunate way the previous administration used that term. So the document states:

The United States deliberately uses the word “war” to describe our relentless campaign against al-Qa‘ida. However, this Administration has made it clear that we are not at war with the tactic of terrorism or the religion of Islam . We are at war with a specific organization—al-Qa‘ida.

And that aggrandizes al-Qa'ida even further—elevating a band of criminal thugs to the same status as a nation-state.