Cato Institute Senior Fellow Chris Preble was interviewed by John Amble at warontherocks.com. America’s policy makers should read Chris’s answer to Amble’s question on what the next phase of U.S. counter-terrorism efforts should look like. Amble’s question is in bold, with Preble’s answer below.
3. The administration announced last week that 9,800 American troops will remain in Afghanistan after 2014, when combat operations will come to an end, and that by 2016 it will be reduced further to a small, residual force. As an independent war effort, the U.S. mission is clearly coming to an end. But as just one aspect (albeit a major one) of the broader “war on terrorism,” this will mark a transformation of our comprehensive counterterrorism strategy. How do you think the next, post-Afghanistan chapter of U.S. counterterrorism should look?
I think the next chapter of U.S. counterterrorism should look mostly like the last chapter, absent the costly and quixotic nation-building mission in Afghanistan. If you look at the range of things that have been done to degrade al Qaeda’s ability to carry out another 9/11-style attack – from restrictions on the movement of money, to measures that have made it hard for al Qaeda to attract new recruits, to various efforts to round up or kill senior AQ leaders, including bin Laden himself – very little of this has depended upon a large military presence in Afghanistan. There is no reason to think that the end of the combat mission there will signal an end to U.S. counterterrorism efforts. On the contrary, freeing up resources that are now inordinately focused on just one place should improve such efforts.
Taking a step back, however, I think that we are nearing a point at which senior policymakers can have an adult conversation with the American people about terrorism. Given the trauma that we all felt immediately after 9/11, it was inevitable that some measures would be pushed through that wouldn’t have passed muster otherwise. Concepts such as “never again” and the “1 percent doctrine” prevailed. Many Americans felt that almost anything that was done to fight terrorism was justified.
Now the mood has shifted. Even though fear of terrorism among the public at large remains quite high, there is greater scrutiny over policies ostensibly geared to fighting terrorism. There is considerable opposition to the National Security Agency gathering data on innocent Americans’ phone calls and emails. The Transportation Security Administration is held in low regard. Some even question whether we need a Department of Homeland Security. Most of this public resistance is grounded in subjective notions about privacy and what constitutes unreasonable searches. But we now also have some good empirical data on the actual costs of counterterrorism policies, in dollars spent, and resources allocated or misallocated. I particularly commend the work of my colleague John Mueller, and his frequent collaborator Mark Stewart, on this score.
Lastly, we should try to remember that terrorism works by inducing fear, which, in turn, leads governments to enact policies to try reduce that fear, or otherwise reassure the public. But oftentimes these policies prove costly or counterproductive. If we are not fearful, the terrorists will have failed. If we refused to enact new policies that do not have a measurable impact on reducing the threat of terrorism, or if we rolled back some of the old ones that haven’t worked, then the terrorists also will have failed. Sound counterterrorism policy starts with not terrorizing ourselves.
Before deciding next steps for America’s foreign policy, policy makers should also pick up a copy of Chris’s book, The Power Problem and review it thoroughly.