Where We Fight

Sonny Bunch responds to my earlier post, arguing that overseas military operations divert potential terrorists from domestic attacks. I think this is pretty unpersuasive:

1.) The most spectacular terrorist attack ever carried out -September 11th – was put together on the cheap. Why can’t a group that supposedly poses an existential threat to the United States simultaneously plan suicide bombings in Baghdad and carry out another hijacking?

2.) The 9/11 hijackers were thoroughly Westernized; your average insurgent probably isn’t. In other words, the people you need to recruit to infiltrate Western countries aren’t drawn from the same pool as the under-educated, radicalized Muslim youth planting IEDs in Iraq.

3.) On a broader level, I think that indiscriminately “taking the fight to the enemy” is a morally questionable approach to international terrorism. Conservative estimates put the Iraqi civilian death toll at around 100,000 casualties, which is roughly thirty times the human cost of September 11th. Our military’s direct culpability for many of these deaths is tenuous, but I’m not willing to accept massive foreign body counts as a necessary trade-off for domestic security.

UPDATE: Sonny Bunch has another response up:

That being said, I think that Will is probably underestimating the importance of “not giving [terrorists] room to breathe, time to plan, or a place to hide.” 9/11 was driven by al Qaeda’s leadership; they provided funding, a timeframe, and the plan, as the 9/11 Commission Report points out. It’s easy to say “Well, how difficult is it really to plan such a simple operation while simultaneously plotting battlefield activities on innumerable fronts in Iraq and Afghanistan and Pakistan, trying to figure out how to circumvent the funding restrictions imposed upon us, and running for our lives every time we see a Predator drone buzzing overhead?” But I think it’s harder than Will makes out; without a safe haven in Afghanistan, I don’t think 9/11 could have happened.

Though I tend to think that international terrorism is increasingly detached from a discrete geographic base of operations, I don’t think we’ve reached a point where you can plan any attack from a hotel room with an Internet connection, so there’s definitely some truth to this.  Basically, invading Afghanistan to kill or capture terrorists who were actually linked to September 11th was a good idea that had all sorts of salutary side-effects, including its disruptive impact on Al Qaeda’s operational planning. That said, I don’t think this experience should be generalized as part of a broader doctrine of invading Muslim countries to “draw out” potential terrorists.

To take this back to my original point, I’d add that despite a difficult campaign in Afghanistan, an Iraqi occupation that is widely credited with radicalizing large segments of the Middle East, a marginally competent Homeland Security establishment, and Al Qaeda’s impressive collection of Afghanistan’s freakiest home videos,  we still haven’t suffered an attack on American soil since September 11th. If you think this is because of the Patriot Act, the Iraq War, or the penumbra of policies emanating from the Bush Administration that I find frankly awful, I think you need to establish some sort of causal link between said approach and terror attacks that were actually averted (which is why a serious public discussion of these issues would be very welcome). Otherwise, I tend to follow Occam’s Razor and assume that Al Qaeda is simply less dangerous than we gave them credit for.

UPDATE II: Incidentally, Julian Sanchez has a very good post on how a successful counter-terrorism operation was mis-attributed to to Bush-era policies.

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12 thoughts on “Where We Fight

  1. “The most spectacular terrorist attack ever carried out -September 11th……”
    Was it really? I think that people in other parts of the world have endured far worse. Maybe it depends on the definition of the words “terrorism” and “spectacular”. I’m not being sarcastic, I’m just really tired of 9/11 being held up as the worst attack ever if it wasn’t. And I suspect it wasn’t.

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  2. Mr. Bunch’s assertion, to be polite, is crap, particularly given that the primary piece of “flypaper” we created had nothing to do with 9/11, or, as far as I can understand, with international terrorism in general. Mr. Bunch also apparently discounts the possibility of the Iraq invasion as a catalyst for radicalization, as your second point implies.

    To address your third point, unless the state in question is a sponsor of terror there is in fact no way – practically OR morally – to “take the fight to the enemy” using “classical” nation-state tools (i.e. regular armed forces). In any event, Iraqi deaths – military as well as civilian, from Saddam Hussein to the kids in the car at the checkpoint – cannot be balanced against our losses to terrorism given Iraq’s irrelevance to 9/11. They get their own balance sheet and we are not the only ones making entries thereon.

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  3. To address susanne’s point, while I don’t have time to do the necessary research I am hard pressed to think of a comparable terrorist attack to one that caused 3000+ fatalities, destroyed two 100+ story buildings, and devastated the immediate vicinity, all in the space of a few hours and without the use of conventional weapons. I truly wish we did not have that distinction.

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  4. Will, excellent response. The “two recruit pools” analysis is spot-on. Going a step further, it seems obvious that the Islamists have managed to gather up forces beyond the direct U.S. military conflicts in any case – in Mogadishu the fighting continues; in Pakistan as well. U.S. operations didn’t prevent the horrible “on the cheap” attack in India last year (the hotel attacks).

    No, it seems to me that international cooperation in more police-like, investigative fashion, coupled with financial investigations, cutting off resources, etc. is a far better strategy – and one we employed at the same time as our wars. Funny that people grant so much success to two wars that have cost so much blood and treasure when the real gains made against terrorism have been carried out by international intelligence and financial operations.

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  5. “Funny that people grant so much success to two wars that have cost so much blood and treasure when the real gains made against terrorism have been carried out by international intelligence and financial operations.”

    Good point E.D. It kind of echos the intelligence gained the old fashioned way vs. the water board.

    The puzzle remains though. Could it be that the extremists are also losing the media battle? How do car bombs and market slaughters affect the ability to recruit in Westernized countries? Has the insurgency lost its romantic veneer for all sides involved?

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  6. Our southern border is wide open. How likely is it that we could tell the difference between brown people coming to kill us and brown people coming to pick lettuce? Any time that they want to, they can cross and come kill. They also have the option of recruiting in Europe.

    In the case of al Qaeda, there is little motivation. They hoped to trap us in endless war in Afghanistan. Most other organizations are fairly small and better targeted by police type operations.

    Steve

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  7. al-qaeda is a trans-national terrorist organization. to the degree they therefore want to launch attacks outside Af-Pak, then each one has to be more spectacularly bloody and fear-inducing than the previous one. There is a diminishing return on the violence. bin Laden also has a proclivity for the big hit. So they would have to do something causing more damage than 9/11. That’s a large part of the reason they have not had another attack on US soil since 9/11. Not because we invaded Iraq (WTF?).

    There is no real US homegrown al-Qaeda affiliate terrorist networks. Those groups unlike AQ-Central are not bound by the logic of having to have more and more spectacular attacks to keep themselves in the jihadi-media game. Fortunately that is not a real problem in the US. American Muslims are far more integrated into society and possess far more freedom (though not without social stigma and some illegal wiretapping to be sure) in the US than basically anywhere else. The few attempts there have been at homegrown terror have been from not the best and brightest shall we say.

    The revolutionary cadre as Will pointed out always come from the educated classes and then become disillusioned/alienated from that world. Same with the communists and the fascists. A place like Britain has more of that than the US, but they have had success using police measures (treating this as criminal enterprise as ED points out).

    Then lastly the rest of the insurgencies around the globe are local/regional in nature. They are nationalistic/ethnic insurgencies against an (perceived or real) occupying force. Those pose threats in the immediate vicinity but not to the US. Getting involved in those can certainly create more terrorists (of any variety) or they may help in the local conflict, but they sure as hell have nothing to do with fighting “them there so we don’t have to fight them here.”

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  8. In the last graf I meant localized insurgencies do not cause a threat to the US homeland. They obviously pose a threat to the US military if we are the occupying force. But again this is not fighting the people who attacked us. There will always be an unlimited pool of recruits for an insurgent jihad against an occupying power. The pool of trans-national full on caliphate-seeking ideological terrorists who want to attack the far enemy first (the US) as bin Laden does is really really really small. And always will be.

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  9. Thanks for your post; it seemed well on target to me. Our blame for the Iraqi deaths isn’t about what we DID, but what we DIDN’T do. I was following Iraqi blogs, and time after time read about extremist gangs killing, looting, and doing, well, whatever they wanted, just like gangs everywhere wherever the police isn’t up to stopping them. And it kept getting worse. Of course, the Iraqi Police have been put out of business by the invasion. The civilized expectation, for millenia now, has been for the invader to provide replacement internal security. Except, we couldn’t be bugged to do that until Petraeus got command.

    The attempted attacks got smaller over time, I think, because alot of their money, and even more of their best guys and training resources got deglobalized the way E.D sez. Having run a distributed organization, I can tell you it’s harder than it looks if you don’t travel; the nerve and caring get weak, a bad biz for a suicide outfit…. So, to me, the things that’ve worked are the foreign phone and money tracing, in the latter of which we’ve alienated many involved, endangering one of our most effective methods.

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  10. 3.) On a broader level, I think that indiscriminately “taking the fight to the enemy” is a morally questionable approach to international terrorism. Conservative estimates put the Iraqi civilian death toll at around 100,000 casualties, which is roughly thirty times the human cost of September 11th. Our military’s direct culpability for many of these deaths is tenuous, but I’m not willing to accept massive foreign body counts as a necessary trade-off for domestic security.

    One of the strongest arguments that can be made against the idea of “kill them over there so they can’t come over here”, in my opinion – but I strongly suspect that you’re among the minority of Americans in that opinion. The idea that it’s worth 100,000 Iraqi lives to prevent another 3000 American deaths (setting aside, for a moment, the fact that there’s really no evidence Iraq did anything to make America safer and did a good bit to make it the reverse) is, I suspect, at least implicity accepted by most.

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