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Sunday, May 07, 2006

Fighting Terrorism as Crime, War or Business

Originally Posted: August 7, 2005 -- 9:05 PM
Fool Boards Link: http://boards.fool.com/Message.asp?mid=22855688

This is probably my favorite "piece" on The Motley Fool.


A common thread in many of the past week's posts involved "failures" on the part of past administrations to treat terrorist attacks as acts of war instead of mere criminal activity. The general themes of many comments involved the following claims:

  • we've been under funding the military for years, crippling
    its ability to fight terror

  • attempts to use crime-fighting approaches to combat terror
    demonstrate weakness on our part that invites further attacks

  • at least GWB finally started fighting terror directly
    since we've been ignoring the problem since 1979

First of all, a point of grammar and logic. It's "terrorism", not "terror" we are fighting. Small point? No. It is important to clearly define the object of our political and military efforts. TERROR is an emotion, a state of perception. TERRORISM is a tactic and modus operandi of otherwise powerless groups to attract attention to their complaints (bogus or otherwise) and/or fight their perceived enemies by attacking innocent, non-military, non-protected people instead of directly attacking a traditional military representative of their enemies.

If you start with a muddled goal, you'll end with at best a muddled result. You can define a coherent strategy for fighting / curtailing terrorism. You CANNOT fight a war on terror.

So what are the choices for tactics in fighting terrorism?


The idea of terrorism as crime has to be reviewed from after-the-fact and prevention perspectives.

Responding to Terrorist Actions with Crime-Solving Techniques

Many conservatives argue the Clinton administration failed to respond in a meaningful military way to the African embassy attacks or the U.S.S. Cole attack. This silence in the face of attack was percieved as weakness by Al Quieda and led to 9/11 and other attacks. Persuing "indictments" or using criminal justice tactics is a limp-wristed approach that invites further attacks.

This is probably not a wise argument to make to support conservative policies since we've faced US-targeted terrorism since 1979 (per one Fool's post) and since that time, we've had 17 years of Republican leadership and 8 years of Democratic leadership at the top. Others have commented about the incidents in the 80s that resulted in US military withdrawals or no military action whatsoever. I won't even get into the issue of the Reagan administration acting as arms dealer to a terrorist nation to produce off-budget funds to support other military actions explicitly prohibited by Congress. Some "law enforcement" sure would have been appropriate there.

This is also not a useful argument when compared with the alternative -- war. Obviously, war itself won't prevent an attack that already happened (the case being addressed here). The real question is whether traditional military responses are likely to

  1. identify / eliminate the direct perpetrators of the attack

  2. identify / eliminate the organization that planned / funded the attack

  3. produce information about the larger methods, organizations
    involved to allow future attacks to be prevented

  4. eliminate conditions that produced the supply of suicide bombers
    or the warped thinking that produced the planners

  5. convince would-be terrorists that they are at risk and should
    not attack us again -- the "Don't Mess with Texas" theory

It seems obvious that military responses (missile strikes, invasions, covert actions) are typically aimed at tit-for-tat destruction (#5) and seldom produce information or insights about methods, personnel involved, or sources of funding and materiel. For after-the-fact situations, it seems obvious that "police"-like tactics involving forensic analysis, investigations into bank accounts, passports, phone calls, etc. are likely to turn up information that identifies the perpetrators and the ties back to the planners.

Doesn't it also seem patently obvious that people who devised plots to fly jets into our buildings weren't daunted by the traditional / nuclear firepower of the world's most advanced military? We are dealing with people who have a martyr complex (or take advantage of younger, brainwashed kids with indoctrinated martyr complexes) who think death and destruction adds to their heavenly reward. Unless you know exactly where THESE people are and can take them out, there doesn't seem much point in involving other innocents in traditional military actions that only support their twisted rationales when recruiting new cannon fodder.

Preventing Terrorist Attacks with Crime-Prevention Techniques

The most obvious argument against crime-prevention techniques as a barrier against terrorism is that the terrorists only have to succeed once, law enforcement must succeed 100% of the time, otherwise the approach has failed.


A military approach cannot assure 100% prevention either, so again this argument is nonsense. Terrorists aren't attacking Fort Bragg or Camp Pendleton, they're attacking any one of a hundred train stations or any one of a thousand McDonalds' restaurants. Unless the entire planet becomes a unified national security state under martial law, it is impossible to station enough troops of ANY country to prevent terrorist attacks.

The issue of crime approaches versus military approaches comes down to effectiveness, both from an incident and cost perspective. How many different military operations can we launch and sustain from a human and treasure standpoint? Iraq will likely cost the United States over $400 to $500 BILLION. Who's next? North Korea? Iran? Are we producing $500 billion worth of stability with our operation in Iraq? Was Iraq posing a $500 billion threat to us in 2003?

In contrast, what if 1 percent of the current cost of the war in Iraq had been spent on solving the data integration problems plaguing the FBI, CIA and local/state governments? The average American working for a company that provides email, centralized financial reporting, and other common "IT" functions would be APPALLED to see how poorly our government agencies are integrated at even the basics, much less sophisticated data mining / pattern sniffing stuff glorified on shows like CSI or NCS:Navy Investigator. We were much closer to understanding the organization of Al Quieda and even some of the details on the 9/11 attackers using traditional criminal investigation tactics than many Americans realize. Read either of the following:

"Intelligence Matters" -- Senator Bob Graham
"The Cell" - John Miller

Providing better integration between government agencies is not a justification for renewing the Patriot Act either. I'm talking about basic IT technology to integrate data the government already has under rules of privacy and evidence that existed prior to 9/11.


Is there any productive role for the military in combating terrorism? ABSOLUTELY. When a nation-state is failing not only to meet certain basic needs of its own internal population but is also incapable or uninterested in securing its borders, allowing its territory to be used by rogue factions to stage their own extra-national terrorist actions, it is a legitimate use of the military to secure that nation-state, work with the international community to replace the government with something more representative, and ensure it ceases acting as a base for extra-national forces.

This was the situation in Afghanistan. It is the current situation in Sudan, and maybe a few other countries. However, if troops are going to be deployed for this purpose, YOU HAVE TO DEPLOY ENOUGH TROOPS TO PERFORM THE MISSION. We failed to do this in Afghanistan and now find Taliban factions controlling outlying regions, poppy production returning and many of the longstanding problems that faced Afghanistan prior to the war coming back.

Fighting terrorism as war has been proven in (Israel and Lebanon, most notably) over the past 25 years to be completely ineffective. Not because the terrorists don't deserve to be hunted down and killed but because of the asymmetric nature of the threat. It only takes a couple hundred dollars of readily available chemicals to build a bomb and another few hundred for a plane ticket to position the terrorist in the country being targeted (now even that's a moot point...). Add another $15-20k in living expenses while the attackers infiltrate the local scene. A $200 billion conventional military action doesn't seem to make sense when THOUSANDS of these attacks could be planned for an infinitesimal fraction of what we spend on conventional responses.

Even if you believe traditional military tactics can effectively combat terrorism, it seems clear we have not provided a critical mass of troops to complete the mission we've defined. (BTW, I'd love to see someone define specifically what that mission is, how specifically we measure our progress, and how specifically we can confirm we are done. I can't.)

The NewsHour on PBS had a panel discussion on July 4, 2005 with returning Iraqi War veterans about their experiences and opinion of the future direction of the effort.


The panel was equally split between those that came back thinking we were accomplishing great things in Iraq and those that had doubts or outright believed we were producing more harm by not being able to do the full job. However, to a person, I would trust the most gung ho of the returning vets (some only 25-30 years old) over ANY CIVILIAN in the Bush administration to develop our strategy for managing the mess we made. Look at this quote from Sgt. Benjamin Flanders:

So it was -- we were there to help out as much as we could. And from my experience, you're driving down the road and we're not shooting at anybody. Nobody is our target. We are the target. And in some nights, it was kind of rewarding to see. "Okay, so these are the bad guys, and rather than targeting innocent civilians, why not target me? I'm the one with the gun. I'm the one with the armor. You can shoot at me first." So I really appreciated our role being over there, in that sort of, like, the bad guys, here we are.

As amazed and encouraged as I am at the bravery, focus and on-the-feet thinking of our troops on the ground, I'm disgusted at the way poor decisions by civilians (and yes, chickenhawks -- people bent on proving their military genius and manhood with other people's sons and daughters when they themselves avoided every possible chance to serve under fire...) in the Pentagon have crippled the troops' ability to produce a useful result from their efforts. Poor planning on basic military issues such as troop levels, equipment and tactics are GUARANTEEING failure. Failure that cannot be blamed on the troops on the ground. Just this week, attacks and counter attacks escalated in western Iraq by the Syrian border after we previously chased out insurgent groups that had focused there 2 or 3 months ago.

Without enough troops to clear and secure an area, we are just squeezing the balloon. Put up a fight in town A, they move to town B, then we declare victory in A then suddenly realize things have gone to pot in town B, better move there. We've been through at least two cycles of this in several parts of Iraq just in 2005.

Conservatives make the argument that our military has been "weakened" and chronically under-funded to fight these kinds of battles. From my perspective, this argument always seems to get mentioned when criticizing the Clinton administration, yet again, I refer you to the 17/8 occupancy of the White House since 1980.

We certainly don't seem to be starving the Pentagon for dollars, so where's the money going? Development of new weapons systems that are ill suited for the challenges posed to a military engaged in non-traditional actions. Instead of the new JSF fighter plane, why don't we fund a $200 million scholarship program to encourage college students to study Arabic and Farsi so we don't have a two year backlog of un-transcribed intelligence intercepts or show up in Fallujah with NO ONE who can speak the local language? These aren't military failures, they are failures of civilian leadership.


The Bush administration has ignored at least two career military officers when setting troop levels in Afghanistan and Iraq. The Bush administration has outsourced an unprecedented dollar amount and variety of military logistical functions to private contractor companies. This leads to one logical conclusion:

The Bush Administration is attempting to maximize the private business value of war at the direct expense of the lives of the troops, the wallets of US taxpayers, and the success of the missions themselves.

Business has made BILLIONS of dollars of wars since rifles with interchangeable parts hit the scene. What is different about the current situation is the extent that actual operations within the war are being outsourced to non-military "contractors". It's almost like they view war in exactly the same way as your corporate IT department deciding whether to outsource development of your Enterprise Resource Planning and payroll systems to Suited Schiesters, LLC.

The idea that outsourcing "non-critical" functions like chow, driving supply trucks, etc. to civilians produces a leaner, more nimble military is nowhere close to being proven. However, we already know it is producing HUGE problems from a chain of command and accountability standpoint:

  • if a convoy driven by civilian contractors gets attacked,
    is the military obligated to defend them?

  • if private security forces protecting civilian supply personnel
    "accidentally" kill innocent civilians, who's responsible?

  • how can the secrecy of military plans be assured when information
    about demands for supplies (quantities / locations) must be
    shared with non-military personnel?

  • are these civilians going to get retirement and health care benefits
    that can cover the expenses they will likely incur from the
    after-effects of war (post-traumatic stress syndrome, effects
    from depleted Uranium shell dust, etc.) that military veterans
    will (hopefully) get?

At a more simple, crass level, is it even saving us any money? I'm not sure how much the average soldier serving in combat makes per year (I'm guessing under $30k...) but I'm pretty sure there aren't any soldiers driving trucks making $100,000 per year. Yet that's how much we pay outside companies like Halliburton to put a civilian in the line of fire to drive a truck.

At a more philosophical level, even if outsourcing the US military is more cost efficient, is it MORAL? Conducting a war is the single most important action a society can undertake. Any actions undertaken within a war instigated by the United States are the moral responsibility of the American people whether you support the war or not. How are we going to hold employees of a potentially international corporation with limited liability accountable for actions of its employees in a theatre of war?

Or maybe this is the goal? Cloud the lines of responsibility, open fronts all over the world, farm some of the work out to companies to delay recognition of the true cost in lives and treasure, and pocket some bucks in the meantime?



At 9:14 PM, Blogger R2K said...

: )


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