Developments in U. S. Strategy in War on Terror

The New York Times keeps using the word “deterrence” but, as Dan Drezner points out, the word does not mean what they think it means:

Successful deterrence of Al Qaeda would be taking place if the organization decided not to take action because they feared retaliation by the United States against assets that they held dear. Deterrence works if an actor refrains from attack because they calculate that the cost of the adversary’s response would outweigh any benefit from the initial strike.

But that’s not in the U.S. strategy. Instead, what U.S. officials appears to be doing is decreasing the likelihood of a successful attack — by sowing confuson, interdicting logistical support, and reducing sympathy for the organization. The closest one could come to deterrence is if one defined Al Qaeda’s reputation as a tangible asset that would face devastating consequences after a successful attack. Even here, however, the U.S. strategy is primarily to weaken Al Qaeda by increasing the odds of an unsuccessful attack.

Contra Drezner the best description of the tactic is neither deterrence nor containment but fourth generation warfare. We’re attempting to get into the enemy’s decision-making loop and the NYT article is a very interesting description of that process:

A primary focus has become cyberspace, which is the global safe haven of terrorist networks. To counter efforts by terrorists to plot attacks, raise money and recruit new members on the Internet, the government has mounted a secret campaign to plant bogus e-mail messages and Web site postings, with the intent to sow confusion, dissent and distrust among militant organizations, officials confirm.

At the same time, American diplomats are quietly working behind the scenes with Middle Eastern partners to amplify the speeches and writings of prominent Islamic clerics who are renouncing terrorist violence.

At the local level, the authorities are experimenting with new ways to keep potential terrorists off guard.

The methods described are all excellent method of getting into the enemy’s decision-making process and it’s about damned time. More, please.

I do spot one problem with the NYT’s article. In their description of yet another interesting strategem:

So American officials have spent the last several years trying to identify other types of “territory” that extremists hold dear, and they say they believe that one important aspect may be the terrorists’ reputation and credibility with Muslims.

Under this theory, if the seeds of doubt can be planted in the mind of Al Qaeda’s strategic leadership that an attack would be viewed as a shameful murder of innocents — or, even more effectively, that it would be an embarrassing failure — then the order may not be given, according to this new analysis.

The emphasis is mine. The problem I see with this is that the appeal to honor through highlighting the likelihood of failure is only more effective than an appeal to honor through highlighting the innocence of the victims if you discount a commitment to religious values as a motivator.

Just because you’re a modern secularist doesn’t mean that everybody is and assuming that they are is a serious error.

3 comments… add one
  • Impeding an adversary’s capability to successfully carry out an attack is also a form of deterrence, one that is practiced almost everywhere. The most common example I can think of is home alarm systems or any number of basic security measures taken in virtually any aspect of life. They are all primarily instruments of deterrence.

  • Is that of the same nature as the measures the NYT catalogs? I’m not sure.

  • Some of it, I’d say yes, others, probably not. And it’s very difficult to know for certain if an adversary was actually deterred from taking a certain course of action as opposed to some other explanation.

    However, many of the items the NYT cites are meant to shape the perceptions and options available to our opponents – in that regard it’s not clear if making certain actions more likely by making others more difficult is true deterrence, but I suspect an argument could be made. In any event, deterrence is, by itself, not a strategy and must be combined with many others to form a comprehensive plan. Similarly, deterrence was only one part of our Soviet strategy. So I do think we are using deterrence in our counter-terrorism strategy, but it’s just one part of that strategy.

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