One Insurgent at a Time

How Alcoholics Anonymous can fix Obama's counterterrorism strategy.

President Obama's commencement speech at West Point last Wednesday touched a lot of nerves. From America's already uneasy allies in East Asia to concerned Afghans to a litany of critics who feel he is abrogating the United States' role in the international order, the vision he sketched for U.S. engagement has been a popular target for opprobrium. But in the speech, he also set forth one oft-repeated goal that has generated little discussion: renewing the effort to build partner nations' capacities to combat al-Qaeda and related groups on their own soil.

This is, of course, a laudable goal, at least in theory. It's also one that could hypothetically absolve the U.S. of some of its current and future commitments abroad, which is why this approach has underpinned the long-term U.S. strategies in both Iraq and Afghanistan. The United States has spent billions of dollars and thousands of lives creating indigenous military capabilities to take over the fight against extremists when allied forces leave. But the tactic of building other nations' abilities to address terrorist threats relies on one major assumption: that these nations have the same goals and objectives with regard to these groups as the United States does. Unfortunately, in many cases this has proven far from assured -- and it's time for the architects of U.S. policy to recognize that.

Pakistan presents the most glaring example of this paradigm. Billions of dollars in military and other aid has failed to change that government's fundamental position towards the Taliban and its allies, which remains ambiguous at best. While the Pakistani military has become more effective in certain ways, it has rarely used those capabilities to the ends desired by Washington and its allies. Though there is no evidence that U.S.-trained Pakistani forces have directly aided the Afghan Taliban, the fact that elements of the Pakistani military and intelligence apparatus apparently do provide such support -- against U.S. and NATO forces no less -- brings the divergence of interests quite close to home.

This misalignment of objectives between two ostensible allies highlights a dangerous habit within the U.S. policy apparatus of assuming that they would naturally align. The United States devotes more resources to building up countries' capacities than to convincing them that reducing extremism within their borders might actually benefit them -- not just America -- in the long term. Unfortunately, money, weapons, and training can't change a country's fundamental orientation; only the country itself can do that.

With regard to Afghanistan and U.S. assistance to the Afghan National Security Forces, this problem has come up repeatedly as the Afghans have failed to use their capabilities to pursue objectives aligned with the NATO agenda. The first American reporter to embed with the Afghan Army without the accompaniment of U.S. or NATO military personnel, Luke Mogelson, portrayed a very different state of affairs from what most journalists had seen when working with combined NATO-Afghan teams. The article he published in January 2013 recounted heavy drug use, negotiations with the Taliban and other insurgents, and a general lack of enthusiasm for going after the enemy.

Obama said at West Point that, "sustaining this progress [in Afghanistan] depends on the ability of Afghans to do the job." Mogelson's account, however, implies it depends on a bit more than that -- it demands political will. Hopefully the next Afghan government can repair this problem at the national level, but even if they manage to do that, there remains the problem of individual soldiers and smaller units often having little incentive to go after members of their families and tribes who have joined forces with the Taliban.

Having watched this dynamic repeat itself in countries around the world, I've found there is one philosophy that quite aptly conveys this state of affairs: Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). Admittedly, the comparison might sound hokey at first, but while observing friends and family members work through the 12 steps of AA and its partner program, Narcotics Anonymous, one thing has repeatedly struck me: Trying to convince an addict to get and stay sober looks a whole lot like trying to help another country fight an extremist movement or insurgency. Until the addict, or country, as the case may be, decides on their own to take on their problem, no amount of resources can get them to change their mind.

There are of course examples in which countries have decided for their own reasons to "get sober" or take on whatever threat the U.S. had been training it to combat. In Colombia, for example, U.S. Special Operations Forces trained with the Colombian military and provided them with equipment for years without any real success against the FARC and the National Liberation Army, leftist guerillas that have operated in the country for over 50 years. It was not until President Alvaro Uribe was elected in 2002 and decided that taking on these groups was in the interest of his country did that assistance really start to turn things around, with the Colombians themselves in the lead. As with an alcoholic or addict, it is only when they "hit bottom" or decide that enough is enough that countries can really make this kind of change. As David Rothkopf recently noted, the examples President Obama provided at West Point -- Libya and Yemen, for instance -- do not appear to be at this stage.

This is not to say that the international community cannot take steps to convince a country that taking on their internal foes is something that would benefit them in the long term. While nations' hesitance can have all kinds of roots, from corruption to incompetence to philosophical allegiance, in many cases a government will resist deploying its military against these targets because they are hesitant to "poke the hornets' nest" -- especially if they're not confident that they can win, or even really put up a fight. This is hardly an irrational fear. Who wants to take on a bully when you're likely to lose?

To return to the AA analogy, only one method has proven effective in convincing drug and alcohol addicts to join "the program," namely exposing them to success stories and promising them the support of other members of the community if and when the going gets tough. Providing this kind of support to newcomers and giving back to the community is actually the 12th step of AA. Reassurance like this can also help convince governments to use their capabilities against internal enemies, whose retaliation they may fear more than the status quo damage they inflict. Put in the simplest terms, if they, whether an addict or nation, feel they have real, reliable back up, they're more likely to take the plunge.

This is where Obama's speech missed the broader strategic objective behind the tactic of building partners' counterterrorism capacities. Providing training and equipment aren't enough, and alone, can even be counterproductive. To be effective, the United States and its allies must assure countries with extremist groups operating within their borders that the international community, and the United States in particular, has their back if things really start to go South. Giving token aid like walkie-talkies is, in the words of one Syrian rebel, "like coming up to a man who is dying and offering him sunglasses." Without taking these steps to secure countries' trust and political will, building partner nation capacity is all but meaningless.



It's Been a Year Since Snowden, and Nothing's Really Changed

Is the administration blind to the real and tangible harm the NSA surveillance program is doing to America’s credibility?

It's been a year since we woke to media reports on June 5 that the National Security Agency (NSA) has been sweeping up the phone records of everyone in the United States. The news was a shock -- but as it turns out, it was also only the beginning. In the following months, we've seen a mountain of other revelations: of breathtaking data hauls that collect billions of Internet communications from around the world, gag orders that bar companies from warning their customers of privacy violations, spying on world leaders, and even systemic efforts by the U.S. government to break and undermine commercial encryption software.

What we've seen far too little of over the past year is any real change. In the wake of the Edward Snowden leaks, the United States has denied some of the allegations, and disclosed -- under pressure -- a tiny bit of information about some of its programs. But very little has been done to rein in the surveillance itself. The few proposed reforms we have seen have been so watered down that none come close to adequately restraining the government's capacity for mass electronic surveillance.

But first, a brief review: In the past year, we've learned that not only is our telephone data collected, our Internet communications are also under watch. Stunning amounts of data are being collected under the government's interpretation of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). U.S. Internet companies turn over the content of communications like texts, emails, videos, and chat messages under Section 702 of FISA, which authorizes the warrantless collection -- inside American borders -- of communications containing "foreign intelligence information," a term defined to include essentially anything about the foreign affairs of the United States -- so long as at least one person on the end of the communication is located outside the country.

According to a recently disclosed 2011 FISA court opinion, roughly 250 million Internet communications were acquired under Section 702; as of April 5, 2013, there were 117,675 active "targets." Those targets, by the way, don't have to be individuals. Under guidelines previously secret but disclosed by Snowden, they can be "facilities" or "places," too -- meaning each target can potentially rope huge numbers of people into the dragnet. All of this collection has been happening under gag orders that prevent the companies from speaking publicly about it or informing their customers in any meaningful way.

In addition, the government has been making ample use of so-called National Security Letters (NSLs) -- a form of administrative subpoena that gives the FBI and other agencies the power to compel companies to produce, without judicial approval, many of the same records, such as telephone and email subscriber information, that require a FISA court order under other laws. This NSL authority was expanded after September 11, 2001, under the Patriot Act; today, the FBI issues nearly 60 NSLs per day -- all of which place the companies that receive them under gag order. 

At the same time that the United States has been forcing companies to turn over data here in the United States at the front end, it has been reportedly collecting their customers' information without their knowledge, by tapping into the main global communication links of Google, Yahoo!, and other companies overseas. The administration is reportedly relying on Executive Order 12333, which authorizes surveillance activities outside the United States, in order to tap into these lines, and is collecting millions of records daily, including metadata, text, audio, and video -- an effort that Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt called "outrageous." It has intercepted packages of technology equipment en route to customers in order to install malware or backdoor-enabling hardware before the equipment reaches its destination, and has been systematically undermining encryption standards and creating backdoors in commercial encryption software.

Finally, in one of the most recent disclosures, in March, we learned that under a program called "Mystic," the NSA records "every single" telephone conversation taking place in an unnamed country. Later reports would reveal that the recording was actually taking place in two countries -- the Bahamas and Afghanistan -- and that Mystic is also collecting metadata in other countries such as Mexico, the Philippines, and Kenya.

This is likely still just the tip of the iceberg. The reporting thus far has only covered about 1 percent of the documents Snowden turned over to reporters, according to the editor of the Guardian. Just a few weeks ago, Glenn Greenwald, who was first to report on the Snowden documents, said many more stories were still to come

What has changed as a result of a year's worth of revelations? Not much. The best of Congress' reform proposals, the USA Freedom Act, is focused on ending the bulk collection of American phone records, not the mass collection and indiscriminate surveillance practices abroad that affect far more people, and include the collection of the actual content of Internet activities and phone calls, not just metadata. This is presumably because lawmakers believe their constituencies are concerned more about their own privacy rights than those of foreigners. But this shortsighted approach ignores the broader global economic implications and backlash that will inevitably result from failing to pay due respect to others' rights outside U.S. borders.

And even the USA Freedom Act was recently so watered down by pressure from the White House, which holds the threat of veto power, and the powerful intelligence community, that it's not clear if even it will actually modify anything. The weakened version, approved by the House last month, changed, among other things, the definition of terms to allow for collection of much more data than what was proposed in the original bill. It is now up to the Senate to restore some of the original bill's stronger provisions.

In January, President Barack Obama announced some measures that would restrain U.S. surveillance practices abroad. These measures were a step in the right direction: They announced plans to put limits on the retention and dissemination of collected data, and to apply these limits equally to all persons, regardless of nationality. However, not only did the White House not explain how or when these measures would be put in place, more importantly, it did not put any real limits on the collection of the data to begin with. The administration seems to have the impression that mere collection of data is not in and of itself a problem and that, with these reforms, which speak only to how the data will be used and shared, it is on the path to redemption. In sum, most of the collection will continue unabated, and the privacy rights of the millions of people who are not Americans will continue to be routinely and indiscriminately invaded.

Prior to these disclosures, the United States was considered a world leader in promoting Internet freedom. It made it a signature part of American foreign policy and spent millions of dollars supporting new tools to protect the digital privacy of human rights activists globally. But the last year has deeply undermined global trust in U.S. leadership in this area, not to mention its commitment to the rule of law and transparency in government.

If this trust continues to erode, it will have huge ramifications for U.S. business and foreign-policy interests. Technology companies are already losing billions of dollars and overseas customers who want their data stored away from the snooping eyes of the U.S. government. Studies estimate a loss of between $35 billion and $180 billon to the U.S. cloud computer industry over the next three years. And U.S. diplomats are now at a distinct disadvantage when negotiating economic and foreign-policy agreements abroad. The leaks have dealt a blow to America's standing when criticizing countries with repressive regimes, who threaten fundamental rights such as freedom of expression and association -- rights that Washington purports to hold dear. Hypocrisy does not sell.

It's time for both the president and Congress to wake up to the damage these programs wreak on U.S. prestige and security and get serious about meaningful reforms. We need reforms that will end mass collection of personal data -- not just for Americans, but for millions of people around the world accused of no wrongdoing.

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