Americans are conflicted over what to make of our 10-year struggle against al-Qaeda. The secretary of defense insists we’re within reach of victory, the recent director of our main counterterrorism center believes enemy cellsstill pose a serious threat, and one of the five U.S. directors of national intelligence since 2005 says the fight against al-Qaeda is counterproductive and should largely be abandoned.
Now comes an assessment by two seasoned New York Times correspondents, Eric Schmitt and Thom Shanker. In “Counterstrike,” they explore what the United States has done right against al-Qaeda, what it has done wrong and how well the country is positioned to face what is likely to come in this “age of violent, religious extremism.” A key question raised throughout the book is whether strategies that were deployed against the Soviet Union in the Cold War can deter terrorist movements today.
The authors begin with a gripping profile of Tom Schelling, the Nobel Prize-winning economist who, in the late 1950s, brilliantly applied game theory to the nuclear superpower faceoff. Schmitt and Shanker believe that the U.S. approach to counterterrorism has been imbued with a similar sense of imagination. In ensuing chapters, they lay out how the thinking on terrorism has evolved. They take us through the floundering years immediately after 9/11 when counterterrorism “was a matter of military action solely.” They show how Afghanistan became “a forgotten war” once Washington got excited about Iraq. And they outline the later, shrewder uses of intelligence, propaganda andcomputers (the latter to detect patterns of personal relationships among our enemies).
Five years after 9/11, the authors explain, the Bush administration was finally putting in place what it called a “new deterrence calculus.” The United States would counter al-Qaeda’s actions and ideology not by threatening territory, as it did during the Cold War, but by disrupting terrorists’ internal workings, such as their recruitment efforts, their ability to trust one another, and their portrayal of themselves as heroes and martyrs. U.S. strategy, the authors say, has also included assisting “national armies and security forces to fight their own insurgencies so American troops do not have to.”
Schmitt and Shanker provide new details, including the U.S. government’s grim anticipation in the spring of 2010 that al-Qaeda would release ricin, a highly lethal toxin, into the subway systems of American cities; tales of U.S. commando raids; and a secret attempt by the Bush administration to engage Osama bin Laden in dialogue through his relatives.
The writers strive for dramatic language: Action occurs “under cloak of darkness”; air is “filled with tension.” Profiles of counterterrorism specialists abound, sometimes told with exaggeration. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who we hear yet again eats only once every 24 hours, is presented as “commanding missions that captured and killed more of America’s adversaries than any other living officer.” It takes nothing away from him to observe that any U.S. Army corps commander during the Vietnam War accounted for more enemy casualties than has McChrystal, and one of these veterans is still with us.
The authors write as if the world was mostly remade on 9/11, a perspective they share with many of the officials they feature. For instance, they suggest that helping allies to deal with their own terrorist insurgencies is an approach that arose only in the past decade. But confronting Viet Cong “terrorism” was President John F. Kennedy’s objective when he dispatched Green Berets and other advisers to uphold a shaky regime in Saigon.
They also overlook new evidence of ineptitude on the way to 9/11.For example, the CIA decided in 1996 to dismiss all its agents within the world’s banks and financial ministries. The result was that getting agents into position to track terrorist financing couldn’t begin until Sept. 12, 2001. It’s unlikely that operational weakness in the U.S. national security establishment has been overcome in the past decade as broadly as the authors indicate. On the one hand, drone strikes and “the new network warfare” may appear effective. But fluency in Arabic, Pashto or even French remains rare outside the National Security Agency and Army Special Forces.
“Counterstrike” offers solid reporting of the wins and losses in a 10-year campaign. But it falls short on its promise to illuminate some creative U.S. strategies. In their analysis of the calculus of deterrence, Schmitt and Shanker neglect to assess the costs to one’s own side. The American dead of the Afghan and Iraq wars go uncounted; the consequences to the U.S. economy of the trillions of dollars spent on what is considered deterrence are untallied; and the authors mention only in passing the systemic costs of what they gloss over as “harsh interrogation.” They note President Obama’s speech in Cairo in 2009 pledging “A New Beginning” but avoid addressing the complications of the unconditional U.S. support of Israel. Yet that might be a key point in light of the comment by Gen. David Petraeus, now director of the CIA, that the endless Israeli-Palestinian antagonism “foments anti-American sentiment [in the Muslim world] due to a perception of U.S. favoritism toward Israel.”
The authors focus on the tactics used by various star players among the nation’s counterterrorism elites at the expense of exploring the larger questions of the campaign. I wanted to hear more on whether torture might be renewed under a future president and whether U.S. attempts to fine-tune the destinies of Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and other nations may have unintended consequences. These are the kind of policy problems that most need to be solved, for they are certain to confront us should the United States be struck again.
The Untold Story of America’s Secret Campaign Against al Qaeda
By Eric Schmitt and Thom Shanker
Times. 324 pp. $27