Doing More With Less: How To Optimize U.S. Counterterrorism


Editor’s Note: This is the second installment in “Below the Threshold,” a new column by Stephen Tankel (@stephentankel).

 During a stint in government as a senior advisor at the Defense Department, I frequently heard about the need to “do more with less.” This aphorism struck me as overly optimistic and perhaps even naive. It suggested the problem was purely one of using resources poorly or of ineffective planning, and ignored the impassibility of some problems that were simply outside of U.S. control. More often than not, I would argue to colleagues, a clear-eyed view of the problem would lead us to conclude that a reduction in resources would force us to do less with less. There are exceptions, of course. Ironically, given my penchant for pessimism, an area where I specialize – counterterrorism – is one where the United States actually could do more with less.

According to a recent Stimson Center report, the U.S. government cannot account for how much it has spent on counterterrorism since 9/11. The reasons for this include inconsistencies in the definition of counterterrorism and other relevant terms, discrepancies in data, and poor monitoring efforts. The report estimates the price tag at roughly $2.8 trillion from 2002 to 2017. This figure does not capture other costs: troops killed or wounded in action; the military’s focus on low-intensity warfare at the expense of preparing for a high-intensity conflict with a near-peer competitor; the political and diplomatic emphasis on countries in the Middle East and South Asia at the expense of other regions; and senior officials’ time and attention.

The Stimson report comes on the heels of President Donald Trump’s National Defense Strategy, which declared, “Inter-state strategic competition, not terrorism, is now the primary concern in U.S. national security.” As someone who has spent more than a decade studying terrorism and advising policymakers on how to combat it, I’m heavily in favor of prioritizing conventional security concerns. However, because terrorism will remain a persistent challenge that can warp domestic politics, hijack foreign policy, and destabilize other countries, it also cannot and will not be ignored.

The United States has made considerable strides in its ability to gather and synthesize intelligence, track and target terrorists, and use direct action to eliminate threats. It has also put in place a robust homeland security architecture that, in concert with international protocols, has helped prevent another centrally directed terrorist attack from overseas. These and other unilateral measures could undoubtedly be improved. But to really combat terrorism effectively while prioritizing other security challenges, the United States must also conduct counterterrorism more efficiently. The U.S. government will need to do at least two things: reform the counterterrorism bureaucracy and policymaking process, and get more out of its allies and partners.

Intergovernmental Reforms

Almost 17 years after 9/11, the different U.S. government agencies involved in the fight against terrorism still cannot even agree on a common conception of counterterrorism or the objectives that should define it. There may be agreement at the top of the pyramid in the National Security Council, but get into the trenches at different agencies and it quickly becomes apparent that conceptions and priorities vary. It is also unclear whether anyone but a few senior officials has an accurate picture of what the counterterrorism bureaucracy actually looks like or how the different pieces fit together. It is not uncommon for lines of effort to conflict with one another, either across multiple agencies or sometimes within the same one. The cumulative lack of clarity – on a definition of counterterrorism, objectives and priorities, and areas of responsibility – makes strategic planning difficult.

This incoherence also makes it nearly impossible to allocate resources effectively. Is the United States getting sufficient bang for its buck? Some people may see the $2.8 trillion price tag and declare it is not. Others could point to the small number of Americans killed in terrorist attacks since 9/11 to suggest the expenditure has been worth it. The truth is, no one knows because there has never been a comprehensive, government-wide evaluation of counterterrorism efforts. Moreover, the assessments conducted by individual offices or agencies vary in rigor and are often isolated from one another. They also tend to focus on investments or to measure performance as opposed to effectiveness. Of course, counterterrorism is not the only policy area where the U.S. government struggles to assess whether programs are working as intended. Congress literally had to mandate that the Department of Defense implement an assessment, monitoring, and evaluation framework for security cooperation. Nevertheless, the fact remains that no intergovernmental framework exists for evaluating U.S. counterterrorism programs.

These failings are partly a function of the fact that the United States was thrust into the fight after 9/11. Policymakers and practitioners immediately began adding on to the existing counterterrorism infrastructure without first drawing up the blueprints for how to do it. It’s beyond time, however, to find ways to make U.S. counterterrorism both more effective and efficient.

Above all, the government needs to outline common criteria for what constitutes counterterrorism. This would enable policymakers to map the existing U.S. counterterrorism infrastructure and identify gaps and redundancies. Additionally, a common picture would improve oversight of how money for counterterrorism is spent, allowing for more transparency and providing a baseline for assessment, monitoring, and evaluation.

Congress could help drive reforms by mandating evaluations for all counterterrorism-related programs similar to the way it did for security cooperation and assistance. The House Armed Services Committee, recognizing the need for effective evaluation, has taken the initial step of directing the military’s Special Operations Command to support a counterterrorism effectiveness research agenda like the one at The National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism at the University of Maryland. This is a good start and Special Operations Command is a key player in the counterterrorism effort, but truly effective evaluations would be intergovernmental and civilian-led. Ideally, Congress would devote more money to research, promote the development of a menu of common metrics to enable better interagency coordination, and devote 3 to 5 percent (the internationally accepted best practice) of any program budget to assessment, monitoring, and evaluation.

Getting More from U.S. Partners

President Barack Obama sought to make counterterrorism more sustainable by emphasizing the need to work by, with, and through partner nations. This emphasis on sharing the costs and risks of counterterrorism in order to reduce the strain on the United States is one of the few areas in foreign policy where Trump has not broken with his predecessor. As I describe in a new book about counterterrorism cooperation – With Us and Against Us: How America’s Partners Help and Hinder the War on Terrorthere are three major problems with the current U.S. approach. The first two are longstanding, whereas the third is unique to Trump.

First, U.S. policies often fail to account for how partners prioritize the shared terrorism threat relative to other challenges. For years, the United States has emphasized shared threats as a reason why partner nations should cooperate with it. Trump’s counterterrorism strategy is missing in action, almost a year after news reports that a draft was close to complete; however, early drafts suggest it maintains this emphasis. All things being equal, countries are most willing to take action when a terrorist group threatens them directly. Of course, other things are not always equal. Local partners often face other, greater threats from a variety of sources, including regional competitors, domestic opposition movements, or separatist movements. For example, Saudi Arabia faces the same jihadist threat from al-Qaeda and ISIL as the United States does, but views Iran as a greater threat. This contributed to the Saudi intervention in Yemen, where the kingdom has targeted the Iranian-backed Houthis at the expense of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and thereby created space for group to expand its zones of support.

Second, American officials have been overly optimistic about their ability to change a partner’s calculus, or at least secure cooperation, as a result of America’s reputation or the provision of security assistance. Incentives are most useful for obtaining transactional cooperation, such as military access, which can be critical for disrupting terrorist attacks but typically are insufficient to defeat a terrorist group. They are considerably less useful for getting a country to conduct robust counterterrorism operations, address the risk factors for terrorism, or contribute to diplomatic initiatives. For evidence of this, look no further than Pakistan. In return for security assistance, it provided the Unites States access to resupply forces in Afghanistan and conduct drone strikes. But no reasonable amount of aid could change Pakistan’s strategic calculus when it came to supporting the Taliban-led insurgency in Afghanistan or thwarting efforts to negotiate a political solution to the conflict there that was not in its interests.

Third, although Trump has embraced burden-sharing, he is pursuing a highly transactional and overwhelmingly militarized approach to it that seeks only to outsource military operations to other countries or secure agreement for the United States to conduct its own operations on their territory. Obama’s reliance on partners was not only intended to share the costs and risks of counterterrorism, it was also supposed to make gains more sustainable by giving partners ownership of the fight, building patterns of cooperation with them, and marrying military efforts with diplomacy and development. Trump’s departure from this strategy is evident in his engagements with America’s democratic allies — especially in NATO — who he has attempted to bully into greater burden sharing by threatening to limit U.S. protection if they don’t do (and pay) their fair share. It is also apparent in Trump’s decisions to freeze hundreds of millions of dollars in stabilization aid for areas in Syria liberated from the Islamic State and to instruct the military to begin planning for a full withdrawal. Pursuing counterterrorism cooperation in this manner fails to account for the myriad ways that partners can directly and indirectly help or hinder U.S. efforts. It also risks alienating some partners and reinforcing the worst impulses of others.

Beyond Trump abandoning his solipsistic approach to foreign policy, which is unlikely, there are multiple actions that policymakers in Congress and at the working level in the executive branch can take to get more out of America’s counterterrorism partnerships. I detail many of them in With Us and Against Us, and highlight two here because of their relevance to doing more with less and managing the risks that come with that.

First, policymakers must pay more attention to the motivations and political compulsions of U.S. counterterrorism partners. This does not mean kowtowing to partner nations. But since 9/11, the real or potential threat a terrorist group presents to the United States has been the critical variable determining U.S. counterterrorism policy toward a given country. Knowing when to pursue maximalist objectives, put enough skin in the game to mobilize partners, deploy assistance or coercion, or emphasize the use of direct action requires understanding as much about the partner in question as it does about the threat America is attempting to combat. Because many U.S. counterterrorism partners both help and hinder Washington’s efforts to some degree, recognizing what the United States can reasonably expect from them is also essential for consolidating cooperation where it is good and mitigating risks where it is bad.

Second, security assistance will remain a critical instrument for eliciting counterterrorism cooperation and building partners’ capacity to provide it. The amount of assistance spent to achieve counterterrorism objectives has skyrocketed since 9/11, and it is highly questionable whether the United States is getting a reasonable return on its investment. As outlined earlier, part of the problem is that policymakers have overestimated the leverage assistance provides. Paying more attention to partners would help ensure security assistance is used more effectively. But there are additional steps to be taken.

A disproportionate amount has gone to building partner nations’ military capacity at the expense of security-sector reforms. If Trump has his way, the chasm is likely to grow, as will the gap between security and economic assistance. Congress must continue to hold the line and ensure more is invested in stabilization activities, development, and efforts to build civilian institutions. Trump may not like the idea of spending money on anything other than a partner’s military, but stronger rule of law and higher bureaucratic capacity both correlate with lower instances of terrorism. And even military capacity-building is likely to be more effective if the recipient practices good governance. In addition to the military-centric focus, most security assistance is still dispensed bilaterally, whereas terrorist groups increasingly operate across national borders. The executive and legislative branches should work together to develop more regional security assistance programs to account for this dynamic. The two branches should also coordinate on expanding the use of positive conditionality, which promises assistance in return for “good behavior” defined ahead of time, instead of authorizing aid and then withholding it in the hopes of bullying partners into acting against their own interests.

Gearing Up for the Long Haul

The United States faces far-flung threats from the Islamic State, al-Qaeda, their respective affiliates, and sundry other jihadist groups. International terrorism consistently tops the list of threats that Americans worry about most. Whether or not one believes these concerns are overblown, policymakers nevertheless must respond to them. Counterterrorism is likely to remain a major national security priority for years to come. However, it should not be the top U.S. national security priority.

Taking a more parsimonious approach requires determining how to use resources efficiently and exert influence with partners more effectively. Even if the United States is able to make the necessary adjustments, it will also need to assume additional risk in some cases. The key is to recognize potential costs, determine where to accept more risk, and then plan accordingly. Both of these adaptations – doing more with less and knowing where to accept risk – require the United States to get its own house in order and to take a more clear-eyed approach to its partnerships.


Stephen Tankel is an assistant professor at American University, an adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New America Security, a senior editor and War on the Rocks, and the author of With Us and Against Us: How America’s Partners Help and Hinder the War on Terror.

Image: U.S. Army/Chief Petty Officer Eric A. Clement

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