A Counterterrorism Net Assessment: Bin Laden’s Legacy

By Adam Elkus
Fear, Honor, and Interest
August 11, 2011

I have an unpublished paper (one of a growing pile that I’m trying to sort through) on the need for the use of net assessment techniques for the global war on terror. Although net assessment (as practiced by the titular office) is difficult to really sum up, it can best be understood as evaluating a long-term competition (different from a war–more like, say, something comparable to the US vs. Soviet Union) by tallying up all of the Blue (our side) and Red (the enemy) data in one place for an comprehensive diagnostic picture of what the competition looked like.

A diagnostic assessment shows who is ahead in the competition, where the important “markets” are, and where competitors ought to be best positioning themselves to be more competitive than theirs adversaries. Sometimes net assessments are also local in nature–such as exploring the impact of one weapon on the competition or just looking at one military competition (such as the military use of space as a competition itself).

To my knowledge, this method–borne out of the late Cold War–has never been used in counterterrorism. Daveed Gartenstein-Ross’s new book provides a framework for how it can be responsibly done, free of the politicization that is endemic to the post-9/11 CT debate but yet without pulling any punches. Like Andrew Marshall in the late 60s, Gartenstein-Ross is acutely aware of the conflict as a long-term competition. Because of the duration of the competition and its scope, efficient management of resources is crucial–the United States must compete to win and be the most effective competitor that it possibly can be. Marshall (to oversimplify an extremely complex debate) saw that the United States, in its lack of strategic thinking as to how to spend its resources, was pricing itself out of the competition with the Soviet Union particularly in nuclear forces–due a combination of complacency, rigid planning procedures, and the assumption of infinitely flush resources. Marshall (like Boyd) introduced a synthesized methodology–much of it taken from realms ranging from business planning to anthropology–and developed it slowly over 40 years of service for the government.

Counterterrorism is a realm in sore need of a net assessment process. Despite what we have heard in the news, al-Qaeda is not going away anytime soon, and the massive costs we have incurred over the last ten years to counter it are unsustainable. To understand such a massive problem a dispassionate (though certainly opinionated) accounting must be held. This accounting must strike a balance between avoiding the politicization of terrorism discourse while at the same time avoiding reaching for a false objectivity that forgoes actually voicing analysis. Net assessment is a diagnosis of the problem without offering policy solutions, but in this case Garteinstein-Ross’s book–as an entry into the public debate–does so.

The essence of Bin Laden’s Legacy is an argument that we have largely misunderstood the nature of bin Laden’s strategy–which amounts to a “death by a thousand cuts” approach to bleeding the United States to death through targeted disruptions of economic targets and broadening the battlefront as much as possible. Garteinstein-Ross is not merely mirror-imaging a more elaborate strategy onto al-Qaeda’s shell–he draws his conclusions from a rich array of sources. He pays attention to what the jihadis have said themselves, largely in public speeches, published doctrine, and chatroom transcripts, and also skillfully utilizes the opinions of jihadism experts such as Will McCants of the Center for Naval Analyses.

However, Garteinstein-Ross is careful not to make al-Qaeda out to be SPECTRE. He shows the significant friction and chaos that exists within the group, portrayed as a devolved network hierarchy, and Bin Laden’s own delusions of grandeur that informed the crafting of the strategy.

Garteinstein-Ross’s second main argument is that the United States has been a poor competitor. It does not take much to make this case given that everyone now has anecdotal experience of security theater, but Garteinstein-Ross’s set of statistics and arguments about organizational structure and waste are convincing. What sets his discussion of this apart from the pack of CT books is that he ties it to the source: domestic politics. No one wants to be the politician who didn’t invest in security capabilities, and the tendency of national security policies to be used as pawns in the greater political battle over power and resources is a recipe for trouble. Particularly useful is Ross’s service in debunking both the “al-Qaeda is ten foot tall” perspective but also warning against a complacent perspective that the organization is dead, destroyed by the Arab spring, or composed solely of dumb self-starters.

Ross’s suggestions (ranging from de-politicizing homeland security to working on resilient projects) are broad enough to have room for conceptualization and eminently sound. Some of them (especially in reference to Garteinstein-Ross’s chapters on economic targeting and oil targeting) are very much reminiscent of John Robb‘s work. There are also parts (civil service reform) that are wonkish enough to satisfy a serious policy analyst.  Ultimately, a policy expert armed with Ross’s book will be well on the way to making the US a more serious domestic competitor in the strategic competition with “al-Qaeda 2.0.”

See the original article here.