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The Known Unknowns of Counterterrorism Ops

When it comes to assessing the success of the war on terror, there's a lot we just don't know.

Last Friday, Navy SEALs reportedly attacked a compound in the coastal city of Barawe, Somalia, with the goal of capturing or killing a senior leader of al-Shabab. According to an Obama administration official: "It did not achieve the objective." Hours later, Army Delta Force commandos were reportedly involved in a mission in Tripoli, Libya, which led to the capture of Abu Anas al-Libi, who was indicted in a U.S. district court for his alleged involvement in the U.S. African embassy bombings in 1998. These twin counterterrorism operations conducted 3,000 miles apart were lauded as "a major blow against the remnants of al Qaeda's core," by Rep. Adam Schiff; as a confirmation of "the unparalleled precision, global reach, and capabilities of the United States military," by Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel; and as "a powerful flex of military muscle aimed at capturing fugitive terrorist suspects," by the New York Times.

Several news reports and analysts also claimed that the operations demonstrated that the Obama administration suddenly prefers capturing suspected terrorists to killing them. Recent evidence would suggest otherwise. In 2013, by one estimate, there have been 45 U.S. drone strikes (in Pakistan and Yemen) that killed approximately 209 people; two raids that captured one person are clearly not the equal. There are assuredly other covert or clandestine capture/kill operations that we do not know about, but it is far too soon to tell if this portends a wholly new policy shift.

The reactions to the African raids remind us that perceptions of success, failure, and trends in preventing terrorism swing wildly based upon public events. Nothing captures public attention, or appears to appraise U.S. counterterrorism effectiveness more than verifiable uses of military force and/or demonstrable terrorist attacks. Someone, it is unclear who, once said: "Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted." Accordingly, assessing U.S. counterterrorism policies based solely on a limited selection of events amplified in the media should be avoided.

The overwhelming majority of counterterrorism operations and tactics are never known, rarely revealed years later, and of debatable effectiveness. For example, after the Saudi Hezbollah bombing of the Khobar Towers housing facility in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, that killed 19 Americans in June 1996, the Clinton White House debated many military and non-military responses against Iran. One that was implemented consisted of a large-scale covert operation that "outed" Iranian agents around the world in order to deter Tehran from threatening U.S. intelligence agents and diplomatic institutions. Among the participants was then-CIA station chief to Saudi Arabia John Brennan, who reportedly knocked on the car window of an Iranian agent, and announced: "Hello, I'm from the U.S. embassy, and I've got something to tell you." Whether this coordinated demonstration of global U.S. surveillance worked, and for how long, is unclear.

Similarly, financial counterterror tools are applied discreetly, in corporate boardrooms and via off-the-record conversations between regulatory officials. In his excellent new book, Treasury's War: The Unleashing of a New Era of Financial Warfare, former Bush administration official Juan Zarate describes how law-enforcement, intelligence, and regulatory agencies developed and refined tools to monitor and constrain international financial transactions that are diverted to support terrorist causes:

This was a new kind of war -- not 'shock and awe,' but more like a creeping financial insurgency. It was a 'hidden war' intended to constrict our enemies' financial lifeblood. And we were succeeding, under the radar.

The book catalogues notable innovations in reducing terrorists' access to global banking networks, and increasing the resources required to securely transfer money. Several intercepted al Qaeda communications -- later selectively released by the U.S. government -- showed how some local affiliates had become primarily fundraising entities, with an aspiration to re-activate plots should they be able to bring in sufficient funding. Yet, as Zarate notes, al Qaeda's affiliates adapted to U.S. pressure, developed self-funding mechanisms, and continue to recruit, train, and plan terrorist attacks, albeit with a predominantly domestic or regional focus.

Since quiet or unreported counterterrorism programs are impossible to evaluate in real-time, they subsequently have little salience in policy debates. On the other hand, drone strikes that occur in plain sight, or widely reported special operation raids, are unmistakable and treated as privileged sources of data for evaluating counterterrorism policies. But while there are three databases that provide estimates of U.S. targeted killing operations and casualties, there is none for covert "influence" operations or for the application of financial tools.

Bear in mind that even counterterrorism operations that we "know" occurred are shrouded in mystery and motivated misinformation. U.S. civilian officials routinely tout the supposed near-infallibility of drones, and their preference for them over massive ground invasions. Meanwhile, targeted groups seek to publicize and promote alleged civilian casualties to magnify grievances among impacted local populations, and to garner support and sympathy from neutral third-parties. Furthermore, we now know (based upon U.S. intelligence community estimates of drone strikes in Pakistan) that even the CIA does not always know who is being targeted, or how many people have been killed.

Successful terrorist attacks can also be marshaled as evidence for the strength of a terrorist organization. The Sept. 11, 2012, terrorist attack against U.S. diplomatic facilities in Benghazi, Libya, was believed to demonstrate that "al Qaeda types are really on steroids," by Sen. Lindsay Graham, and "much stronger than they were a year ago," by terrorism expert Bruce Hoffman. But, even such well-documented attacks can result in conflicting interpretations. Thus, the recent al-Shabab massacre on the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi, Kenya, was either "an effort to send a message to the rest of the world that they're still around," said Rep. Schiff, or proof that "They're not on the decline. They're on the rise," as claimed by Sen. Tom Coburn.

There are scores of major, multi-year counterterrorism operations going on around the world, just as there committed terrorists plotting to conduct international attacks. However, few terrorism or counterterrorism activities ever come to light, and even when those activities do, they usually lack the specificity or comprehensiveness to assess their overall impact. Given this reality of such uncertainty, when thinking about the phenomenon of terrorism, we should be conscious about how little we really know, and refrain from over-interpreting those few public events that appear in the news. 

Kyle Gahlou/DVIDS

Micah Zenko

Threat of Failure

Does coercive diplomacy actually work? Don't let the popular narrative on Syria fool you.

In less than one month -- the blink of an eye in international diplomacy -- Syrian president Bashar al-Assad has apparently agreed to verifiably disarm his country of some 1,000 metric tons of chemical weapons. This strategic capability was developed and improved upon over more than four decades and has been employed perhaps two-dozen times against the armed opposition and civilians during the current civil war. The remarkable and rapid transformation of the Assad regime's stance -- from refusing to acknowledge that it had chemical weapons, to allowing international inspectors to secure and remove them -- occurred after President Barack Obama's Aug. 31 pledge to "take military action against Syrian regime targets." Consequently, it has become a near unanimous matter of faith among U.S. officials and foreign-policy watchers that Assad gave up his chemical weapons arsenal only because of the credible threat of military force.

This is misleading, primarily because it is unknown what role contemporaneous negative and positive inducements from Russia or Iran might have played on Assad's decision-making. It also fails to consider that Assad may have cannily concluded that, given the overwhelming international opposition to his use of poison gases, disarming himself of one military capability (of limited battlefield utility) made his survival as the leader of Syria more likely, if not assured.

Accurately addressing the question of whether military coercion "worked" in Syria is vitally important, in particular because it has implications for how the United States and its partners proceed with their (suddenly accelerated) diplomatic negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program. To do so, it is useful to review what coercive diplomacy actually consists of and what its potential shortcomings are. This review reveals that, given its costs and risks, coercive diplomacy remains a tool to be used sparingly and only in concert with an array of inducements.

Coercive diplomacy, or compellence, is the threat or limited use of force to stop an adversary from doing something or undertake some material change that it otherwise would not have. The coercing state usually makes its demand with a specific deadline or some sense of urgency. Deterrence, on the other hand, attempts to persuade an adversary from taking some action by threatening something that it values. The deterring state often makes its demand with less specificity and over a more open-ended time frame; economist Thomas Schelling characterized this as "we can wait -- preferably forever; that's our purpose."

Much like debates about the role of credibility in international relations, there is something of an academic-policy gap about the utility of coercive diplomacy. Scholars have concluded that it has limited success as a policy tool. Barry Blechman and Stephen Kaplan determined that in 37 attempts between 1946 and 1975 in which U.S. armed forces attempted to influence another country's behavior through non-kinetic deployments, compellence over the long-term (three years or more) succeeded only 19 percent of the time. Meanwhile, international relations scholars Alexander George (examining seven in-depth cases) and Robert Art (22 cases) have independently found that U.S. coercive diplomacy efforts succeeded roughly 30 percent of the time. 

Finally, Professor Todd Sechser recently compiled the Militarized Compellent Threats dataset, containing 210 interstate compellent threats between the end of World War I and 2001. "Overall, challengers achieved full compliance in 87 of the 210 compellent threat episodes (41.4%)," Sechser found. He also warned of the "Goliath's curse," where having military superiority -- as the United States does -- can actually reduce the effectiveness of compellent threats, since the weaker targeted state, fearing a coercing state will make even greater demands in the future, will fight costly wars sooner in order to deter aggression later.

These numbers should be viewed with some skepticism, since evaluating coercive diplomacy outcomes is difficult and subjective. Consider the debate about why Libya's Muammar al-Qaddafi gave up his fledgling uranium enrichment program and most of his chemical weapons in 2003. Academics Bruce Jentleson and Christopher Whytock argued, "U.S. credibility on the use of force was a factor," though "probably not the most important one," with Western intelligence penetration of Libya's weapons programs and the effect of multilateral sanctions on domestic politics in Libya having a greater impact. Members of the George W. Bush administration, however, incorrectly focused only on the demonstration effect of coercive regime change in Iraq. Former Vice President Dick Cheney claimed Qaddafi's concessions were "one of the great by-products ... of what we did in Iraq and Afghanistan," noting that just "five days after we captured Saddam Hussein ... Qaddafi came forward and announced that he was going to surrender all of his nuclear materials to the United States."

It is also revealing to contrast how U.S. officials embrace the use of coercion for their own objectives, while condemning its use by others. In the East China Sea and South China Sea territorial disputes, Washington consistently tells Beijing that it must solely rely upon a rules-based diplomatic approach. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel declared at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore earlier this year, "The United States stands firmly against any coercive attempts to alter the status quo." Similarly, Hagel's deputy, Ashton Carter, noted in reference to the Asia-Pacific, "We oppose provocation. We oppose coercion. We oppose the use of force," adding a U.S. preference for "peaceful resolution of disputes in a manner consistent with international law." Of course, resorting to coercion and the use of force to change the status quo are defining characteristics of U.S. foreign policy, and -- as the reactions to Syria demonstrate -- they are widely embraced among pundits and officials. The defining questions of East Asian relations in the coming decades is whether China emulates the U.S. military by embracing coercion, or follows U.S. guidelines as to how local disputes should be resolved.

While running for president in 2008, then-Senator Hillary Clinton repeatedly justified her 2002 vote authorizing the use of force to threaten the removal of Saddam Hussein from power by proclaiming, "I believe in coercive diplomacy.... We have used the threat of force to try to make somebody change their behavior." Clinton then added, "What no one could have fully appreciated is how obsessed this president was with this particular mission."

Therein lies the great risk of coercive diplomacy: The coercing state publicly demands that another state change its behavior -- a strategy that fails most of the time. Then, with its reputation on the line, the coercing state can back down, as Obama has done recently, or plunge headlong into war, as Bush did in 2003.

This risk is worth bearing in mind as one of the longest coercive diplomacy experiments in the world continues to play out: The United States and Israel are demanding that Iran abandon or accept significant restrictions on its uranium-enrichment and plutonium-producing facilities, or else face a military attack. If Iran actually believes that this is the final demand that outside military powers will make, it might accept verifiable limits on its nuclear program. Or, having learned from the coercive regime changes in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya, it might just flatly refuse.

JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images