Last Days of Rome

Keeping Terrorism at Bay

References to GWOT – as the Rumsfeld-era Pentagon liked to refer to its Global War on Terror – today carry certain freight. Firstly, the misapplication of military force and grand strategy that is the primary foreign policy legacy of the Bush administration has discredited the phrase. With the exception of military and intelligence officials who retired before the writing was on the wall, and a band of dead-ender ideologues like Dick Cheney and John Bolton who argue that the Arab Spring sprung from seeds planted by George W. Appleseed, no serious person uses “Global War on Terror” to describe what the United States is doing to protect itself from international terrorist groups. The phrase symbolized everything that was wrong with the policies that underpinned it: terror is not something which can be defeated on a battlefield; terrorists, however, and the very real problems they manipulate in order to recruit suicide bombers, are a different story.

It is more than Beltway fashion that has banished the phrase  from “Counterstrike: The Untold Story of America’s Secret Campaign Against Al Qaeda,” a new account of the evolution of American counter-terrorism policy since 9/11 by two New York Times military correspondents, Eric Schmitt and Thom Shanker. Indeed, GWOT doesn’t even appear in the index; rather, Schmitt and Shanker make quick work of the the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq and focus instead on the reaction of the gigantic military-intelligence complex when it dawned upon senior Bush administration officials that the U.S. was losing not one but two wars simultaneously.

This realization struck various figures at different moments – indeed, here Rumsfeld, in spite of his culpability, might actually have been ahead of the curve. Given that some of his former Bush administration colleagues remain in denial, it is striking to consider that Rumsfeld, as early as October 2003, was already warning Iraq would be a “long, hard slog.” But, collectively, it would be fair to say that by 2006, with American casualties once again spiking in Afghanistan and Iraq, reassessments of the narrow military strategy applied to both places were underway.

It is here that Schmitt and Shanker shine. The book is filled with amazing and, more importantly, professionally sourced accounts of the exploits of U.S. Special Operations Forces as the pace of their missions picked up in response to the failure of the initial, under-resourced “regime change” approach of earlier years. Following the Sept. 11 attacks, the authors contend, the U.S. performance had been both good and lucky in its war against al Qaeda, which, with its failed shoe and underwear plots and loss of support among Muslims, was unlucky and not so good. Luck, however, could not be the basis of counter-terrorism policy. At some point, the authors say, some equilibrium outside the battlefield had to be sought — something akin to the old successful Cold War policy of deterrence.

The Mutually Assured Destruction version of deterrence could hardly be applied to messianic terrorists who regard suicide as a goal in itself, however. So, in the final days of the Bush administration and then accelerated enormously by Obama, a new definition of deterrence began to take shape mixing muscular counter-insurgency warfare, an increased use of special forces and high-tech drones to target leadership targets and a public stance that consistently stressed the desire of the U.S. to end the war.

The authors carefully avoid portraying this approach as the path to victory – indeed, they allow what neither Bush nor Obama has ever been honest enough to admit: in a war against impoverished ideologues, victory may never happen. But, it turns out, taking steps that undercut the arguments of the terrorists while at the same time targeting their leadership has proven an effective way of keeping al Qaeda at bay.

The heroes of this book, in many ways, are not the brave special operations forces rappelling from helicopters, but rather a small band of wonks in the Pentagon and several intelligence agencies who insisted on asking the harder, long-term questions: How do we deter fanatics? Is there a dialogue possible? Can we turn Muslim opinion against them? A few of these guys I had met before the wars – Michael Vickers, who before 9/11 worked as a scholarly analyst at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessment in Washington; Juan Zarate, who led efforts to cut off financing of Al Qaeda from the Gulf and helped track down Iraqi reserves looted by Saddam Hussein; and others, provided the cloak of anonymity, whose stories lead me to believe I may know them, too.

Before 9/11, as the Clinton administration was leaving office, I had lunch with Schmitt, who had spent the better part of the 1990s covering the Pentagon. The Times had just given him a new beat – Capitol Hill – and he was eager to stretch his legs a bit. It was not to be; as with many of us, 9/11 changed the trajectory of our lives and careers. Schmitt was soon back on the Pentagon beat — and “Counterstrike,” with its unemotional, coolly documented tracing of the way forward in a struggle many Americans would prefer to forget, shows that his editors knew what they were doing.




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