Even Dead, Osama Has a Winning Strategy (Hint: It’s Muhammad Ali’s)
Osama bin Laden is dead. And the Obama administration that killed him is smelling the successful conclusion to the war on terrorism. “There will come a time when they simply can no longer replenish their ranks,” White House counterterrorism chief John Brennan declared. “We’re within reach of strategically defeating al-Qaida,” Defense Secretary Leon Panetta echoed.
Nonsense, says Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, a counterterrorism analyst at the conservative Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. Sure, bin Laden’s dead. But he already prompted the U.S. to spend itself into the economic abyss on endless wars, a bloated surveillance and intelligence apparat, and homeland security measures that are better at showing your asscheeks than catching terrorists. Osama even told us he was going to do that on one of his mixtapes — it’s called his “Bleed to Bankruptcy” strategy. In death, he’s winning.
Gartenstein-Ross, a friend of Danger Room, makes this counterintuitive argument in his forthcoming book, Bin Laden’s Legacy: Why We’re Still Losing the War on Terror. (Its original title was Why al-Qaida Is Winning.)
An alternative title — maybe for the Kindle edition — might be Stop Hitting Yourself. It’s a cri de coeur to realign the U.S.’ security structure into something more affordable — and, now more than ever, to avoid the delusion that al-Qaida is finished. And it owes more than a little insight to one of the greatest boxing matches of all time. Bin Laden’s Legacy won’t be released until September, but Gartenstein-Ross agreed to talk with us about his provocative book.
Danger Room: How many re-writes did you have to do after bin Laden got killed?
Daveed Gartenstein-Ross: Not many at all. The first chapter was significantly changed to incorporate bin Laden’s death and make that a part of the narrative. Near the end of the book, there’s a chapter that talks about why al-Qaida remains a potent foe, in which I incorporated why bin Laden’s death, coupled with the Arab Spring, does not entail the death of al-Qaida, as some pundits have claimed.
DR: So is al-Qaida winning, or is it winning in the sense that Charlie Sheen is winning?
DGR: (Laughs) The subtitle now is “Why We’re Still Losing The War on Terror.” I think that’s a more accurate description. We’ve done a terrible job of structuring our systems of offense and defense. I don’t think it’s so much al-Qaida’s own virtue so much as they’ve had a strategy which happened to play to our own worst instincts, and they did so quite successfully.
DR: So how is the war against al-Qaida like the Rumble in the Jungle?
DGR: The U.S. is much, much stronger than al-Qaida, obviously. So there was this essay published shortly before 9/11 called “How The Weak Win Wars.” (.pdf) The Foreman-Ali fight is its central metaphor: when George Foreman fought Muhammad Ali in 1974, Foreman was heavily favored. He was the strongest, largest fighter of his generation, and he sparred against nimble opponents to train. So Ali employed his famous “rope-a-dope” strategy, where it looked like he was losing, leaning back against the elastic ropes while Foreman rained down hails of blows for round after round while Ali taunted him. Before he realized it, Foreman wore himself out and Ali scored the knockout.
That’s exactly the strategy that al-Qaida’s pursued. Turn the U.S.’ strengths against it. The Iraq war is a great example.
DR: Except that eventually, Ali delivered the knockout blow. What could that possibly be, in al-Qaida’s case? They’re going to cause us to… what, abandon Saudi Arabia? Break up NATO? Decide we don’t need Idaho or North Dakota?
DGR: So, Pakistan, for example. You have very strong extremist views in Pakistan, a nuclear-armed country. Some think Pakistan is like Iran pre-Islamic Revolution. Something like that could be part of a knockout blow.
I don’t think the U.S. will be knocked out by al-Qaida. But one can see that as the national debt increases, as we have to make spending cuts and as al-Qaida gets stronger in multiple countries simultaneously — Somalia, Yemen, Pakistan, maybe Mali — suddenly you’re looking at multiple theaters from where catastrophic strikes can be launched. But the main point isn’t that al-Qaida will knock out the U.S. It’s that we’ve put ourselves in a position where we haven’t just not beaten our foe, but we’re fighting it in more places.
DR: You argue we should understand al-Qaida’s main strategic thrust as an economic one. Why?
DGR: It’s something bin Laden had in mind coming in from his experience fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan. He saw not only the Soviets withdraw in defeat but the Soviet empire collapse. He said subsequently that he played a role in causing that collapse. The only way one can connect Afghanistan to the collapse is through economics. It’s not as though leaving Afghanistan caused it.
So after he carried out 9/11, he explained what he accomplished. The very first thing bin Laden goes to is the economics of the attack. Not just the damage, but also lost work, lost productivity and ends up with an overall $1 trillion price tag. Then comes some strategic adaptations on al-Qaida’s part based on what the U.S. did, including taking advantage of the invasion of Iraq, the ongoing presence in Afghanistan, to embroil the U.S. in bloody wars abroad. He urged attacks on the oil supply, initially something he said was off-limits. And finally, after the economic collapse in 2008, you have a focus on smaller but more frequent attacks that take advantage of our very expensive security apparatus and are designed to continue to drive up those security costs.
DR: Isn’t that crazy solipsistic on al-Qaida’s part? I thought it was the banksters and not the terrorists who’re responsible for the terrible economy.
DGR: Absolutely, al-Qaida didn’t cause it. But it’s both worse and our recovery is going to be much slower due to the fight against terrorism. One can see that with the war in Iraq. It’s an argument economist Joseph Stiglitz makes in The Three Trillion Dollar War. We’ve spent an enormous amount of money on the Iraq war, including the second-order consequences. Iraq, Afghanistan and all these other security policies had an effect on U.S. monetary policy. We probably needed more than the bailouts than we had and we didn’t have the money for it.
DR: Aren’t al-Qaida’s capabilities for attack vastly reduced now?
DGR: In terms of their ability to carry out a catastrophic strike in the west, yes. In part because security has been so raised, it’d be difficult to do another 9/11. But they still have the capacity to every few years try to carry out a catastrophic strike. Look at the 2006 transatlantic air plot, to use liquid explosives on airplanes, something that would’ve been catastrophic if successful, bringing down about seven planes. Then the 2010 plots in Europe for multiple Mumbai-style attacks. That’s coupled with smaller attacks.
DR: But look at the trend there. Their ambitions diminish, and their ability to pull off even those diminished ambitions don’t succeed. Sure, al-Qaida cheers that it can stuff printer cartridges with bombs for only $4,200, but they still fail. What is that, if not losing?
DGR: If you look at the trend line and you end it where we are today, then your argument’s correct. But when I look out into the future, the trend lines are getting worse for us.
First, our security spending isn’t sustainable. If we do the right thing, and make intelligent cuts to our security apparatus, then we can maintain a fairly consistent level of security. The trouble is you can’t look at security spending in an actuarial way. You don’t know the relationship between cost and lives saved.
Second, look at the places where al-Qaida has a significant foothold. Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen. They’re able to mass pretty significant fighting forces. The trend line is in the wrong direction. You have bad governance, coupled with looming environmental catastrophes in these regions. Pakistan’s embroiled in its worst energy crisis ever. You have skyrocketing food prices. All coupled with a fundamentalist presence, it indicates that things are likely to get worse.
Third, most commentators look at the Arab Spring and say, “It’s devastating to al-Qaida!” But it creates more space for them. It’s not just a movement in favor of democracy. You also have material needs to address — unemployment, escalating food prices. Egypt’s seen increased unemployment, its tourist industry is trying up since the Arab Spring. You have these very high expectations. If they’re not met, historically, extreme ideologies can step in to fill the void.
DR: You practically filet the Transportation Security Administration for incompetence and inefficiency. So how come you don’t critique the Afghanistan war, even though the war costs more every month than TSA’s entire annual budget?
DGR: Fair criticism. While I spend a lot of time looking at Afghanistan, actual Afghanistan policy is very, very difficult to craft in any way I’d consider authoritative. I wanted to stay on firmer ground.
DR: The other big omission is the drone wars. Seems tailor-made as an alternative for your argument against a bloated, unsustainable counterterrorism strategy. Why the silence on the drones?
DGR: Turn to Somalia, where we’re escalating drone strikes. What we’re doing there is a tremendous mistake. I’m not against drone strikes writ large. But in Somalia I can’t detect any actual strategy. We’re just escalating drone strikes. And in Somalia, our intelligence is not particularly good.
Look at the history of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula. It found aid and comfort from the tribes in Yemen after U.S. airstrikes ended up killing a number of tribal leaders in the hunt for Anwar al-Awlaki. That’s a result of us not really knowing the terrain. We carry out strikes without knowing the second-and-third order effects of what’ll happen.
The answer to that is to be more strategic in the drone war. Multi-target rather than single-target strikes is the way you gobble up a network. I didn’t get into this in the book because I started getting into what empowers strategic thinking in a government, and it was almost mind-boggingly difficult to isolate who was it who’d be doing the strategic planning for this.
DR: So what’s a sensible endgame for beating al-Qaida?
DGR: You’re not going to be rid of terrorism. But if you can move terrorism to the point where it’s not a strategic threat but one that can be effectively managed, then you’re on the right track. The second thing is you have to have the right systems in place. The threat of nonstate actors isn’t going away. You have more technology that can empower people. Angry people can kill a lot of people. Then there’s a much broader issue. When you’re talking about a security apparatus that can guard against the threat of non-state actors, you get into a serious discussion of where civil liberties meet the need for national security. A system that isn’t an overarching, bloated, expensive bureaucracy; that can provide a level of safety so you’re not facing strategic threats from non-state actors — that’s the endstate you’re looking for.
Photos: Courtesy Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, CNN