Calls Renewed for Better U.S. Counter-Terrorism Strategies
LIANE HANSEN, host:
The Bush administration has made combating terrorism one of its highest priorities. But according to a recently declassified portion of the National Intelligence Estimate, the global Jihadist movement, which includes al-Qaida and other terrorist groups, is spreading and adapting to U.S. counter-terrorism tactics. NPR's national security correspondent Jackie Northam examines those tactics.
JACKIE NORTHAM: Since 9/11, the administration has introduced some far-reaching and controversial tactics, for example warrantless wiretapping, detaining prisoners at Guantanamo, and tough interrogation methods. But five years after 9/11, terrorism remains a threat. A recent damning national intelligence report warns that new terrorist networks will continue to emerge. The combination of that report and the fifth anniversary of 9/11 has prompted calls for new strategies. James Dobbins with the Rand Corporation and a former special envoy to Afghanistan from 2001 to 2002 says the first thing the administration needs to do is stop calling it a war on terrorism.
Mr. JAMES DOBBINS (Rand Corporation): It's not a military threat, and it's not a threat to which a military response is, in most cases, the most effective. And therefore the use of martial terminology - Islamo-fascist, war on terrorism - these are analogies that are inexact and misleading.
NORTHAM: The need for an approach other than military force was emphasized in the National Strategy for Combating Terrorism, a report recently released by the White House. Bruce Hoffman, a professor of security studies at Georgetown University, says there's a philosophical shift in the document.
Mr. BRUCE HOFFMAN (Georgetown University): It was enormously self-reflective in saying, look, we can't just win this by relying exclusively on military force, that this is a war of ideas and therefore there has to be a much richer approach of diplomacy, information operations, political reform, economic development.
NORTHAM: Federal agencies involving counter-terrorism have had some success. Analysts say the Treasury Department has disrupted financial structures for terrorism networks. Intelligence agencies have improved eavesdropping technology, and in its latest four-year strategy review, the U.S. military addresses the need to reorient itself, making it more agile to fight an unconventional enemy. Ryan Henry is a principal deputy undersecretary of defense for policy.
Mr. RYAN HENRY (Deputy Undersecretary of Defense for Policy): A lot of emphasis on special operating capabilities, but also taking our general purpose forces - Army, Navy, Air Force - and having them - giving them an ability to be a viable contributor in this irregular warfare.
NORTHAM: James Townsend, who spent more than two decades in the policy area of the office of the secretary of defense, says even though each of the agencies has a viable plan for combating terrorism, that doesn't necessarily mean all sides will come together smoothly to develop a master strategy.
Mr. JAMES TOWNSEND (Former Civilian Pentagon Official): It can take a long time. It can be difficult. And it is particularly frustrating if those parts of the bureaucracy don't agree with each other.
NORTHAM: Already the bureaucracy can drown out creative thinking, says Michael Rubin with the American Enterprise Institute. Rubin, who worked at the Pentagon from 2002 to 2004 as an Iran/Iraq staff adviser, says for years there haven't been any new ideas about how to combat terrorism.
Mr. MICHAEL RUBIN (American Enterprise Institute): Whatever one's politics, people inside government have become so risk-adverse that you seldom get a really bold or fresh or groundbreaking idea. To get an idea floated in front of a meeting, it takes maybe seven or eight different people in your own bureaucracy signing off on it.
NORTHAM: Rubin says some government agencies look towards think tanks and academic forums for new ideas in curbing the rise of extremism. Yet some of the newest ideas are in reality old ideas: opening dialogue with local religious leaders, working with local governments to provide better security, creating better roads and schools, and cementing relations with local people.
These are the strategies the State Department has started focusing on. But usually these grassroots tactics do not produce results overnight; it takes time. And the U.S. is way behind in one key area, says Georgetown University's Bruce Hoffman, and that is the propaganda battle.
Mr. BRUCE HOFFMAN (Georgetown University): We really haven't even started in terms of the information operations. In terms of contesting some of the more base conspiracy theories made on, for instance, Jihadi Web sites. Their version of events and their interpretations of developments are taking hold and are being communicated throughout the world with absolutely no pushback from us.
NORTHAM: But U.S. foreign policy is a hard sell to many people in the Middle East and elsewhere. The war in Iraq hasn't helped that. The recently declassified portion of the National Intelligence Estimate says the Iraq conflict has become a cause célèbre for Jihadists, breeding a deep resentment in the Arab world. Earlier this month, President Bush suggested the U.S. might rethink some of its tactics in Iraq, but reiterated that the U.S. military will stay the course.
Jackie Northam, NPR News, Washington.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.