The Trouble With Counter-Terrorism Partnerships: Tackling the Toughest Cases


Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt from “Book Review Roundtable: America’s Hot and Cold Relationship with Its Counterterrorism Partners from our sister publication, the Texas National Security Review. Be sure to check out the full roundtable.

With many Americans — led by the current occupant of the White House — questioning the value of global partnerships and talking as though the United States would be better off going it alone, there is no better time to assess the role other countries play in achieving U.S. counter-terrorism objectives. Anyone who has been involved in crafting U.S. counter-terrorism policy inside the government knows the essential importance of these relationships. But they also are soberly aware of how troubling they can be.

America’s fight against terror has been the subject of a mountain of books over the nearly two decades since 9/11. Most have been inside-accounts of policymaking from Washington’s bureaucratic trenches or dramatic tales of counter-terrorism missions. Yet few have made a systematic assessment, benefitting from the latest scholarship, of the ways counter-terrorism cooperation actually works, showing how and why success is often so elusive. That’s what makes Stephen Tankel’s latest book, With Us and Against Us, so timely. It combines his solid grounding in the academic literature on alliances and international cooperation with his first-hand experience in sausage-making policy at the Pentagon to give readers a comprehensive and thought-provoking tour through some of the toughest — and certainly most frustrating — counter-terrorism relationships in recent U.S. history.

The fight against terrorism is usually discussed simplistically as one in which there are only friends and enemies, best summarized by the “with us or against us” statement of President George W. Bush just a week after the September 11 attacks. Yet the reality is far more complex, and the countries that take up the most time for policymakers are those that fall in between the categories of ally or foe — especially Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Mali, and Pakistan. In many ways, when it comes to tackling terrorist threats, these countries are both firefighters and arsonists. And while cooperation with them is crucial, it has been exceedingly difficult, whether because of state weakness, conflicting interests, or outright duplicity.

Tankel takes a deep-dive into the toughest cases, detailing the recent history of Washington’s approach toward these “frenemies” and providing a useful analytical framework for understanding when and why success is possible or not. It is an unflinching account of how difficult these partners can be. He also reveals the difficulties that the United States itself brings to the table, whether it is unrealistic expectations that cooperation will be easier or leverage more effective, over-reliance on military tools, sending mixed messages, or misunderstanding threat perceptions. Any aspiring policymaker will benefit from this book, as well as by following the debate and discussion it provokes, illustrated by the three insightful contributions to this roundtable.

In a comprehensive overview of Tankel’s book, Stanford’s Martha Crenshaw supports his core arguments, highlighting the value of his conceptualization of the challenge and his clear and informative case studies. At the same time, she also proposes several interesting avenues of research that are worth further exploration. For example, Crenshaw highlights the fact that, despite trillions of dollars spent on a variety of counter-terrorism activities during the past 15 years, the United States still has difficulty accounting for where the money goes and what precisely the impact has been. She also makes the intriguing suggestion that there is something to learn from U.S. efforts to cooperate with other countries in other security areas, such as with Mexico in counter-narcotics efforts and law enforcement.

Finally, Crenshaw echoes a point Tankel stresses: The United States will never be able to get more out of its partnerships with these difficult states unless it develops a comprehensive, clearly articulated counter-terrorism policy with improved integration of policy tools. Tankel’s concluding chapter offers some pragmatic suggestions, but the subject is so knotted it warrants a book of its own.

Jacob Shapiro, professor of politics and international affairs at Princeton, seems to agree with many of Tankel’s and Crenshaw’s assessments and policy recommendations, but focuses mainly on the theoretical foundations of Tankel’s work, offering an alternative academic literature, which he argues provides a more compelling way to understand the problem. (Crenshaw makes a similar point, but spends far less time on the subject.) Instead of seeing these counter-terrorism partnerships as interstate security relationships relying on the logic of alliances, Shapiro contends that they are better described as interdependent relationships with only partially-aligned interests, and, therefore, are better understood through the frameworks of agency theory and organizational economics.

To make his case, Shapiro highlights the work of other scholars working in these traditions, going into detail about theoretical arguments that will be unfamiliar to many non-academic readers, including this one. His explanation of competing conceptual arguments is informative and adds some nuance to Tankel’s analysis. But despite the differences in theoretical approach, the bottom-line remains essentially the same: If interests diverge and threats to punish partner states — such as curtailing engagement or withholding assistance — don’t generate meaningful costs, then cooperation will be limited.

Policymakers fully understand this point, as Christine Abizaid’s thoughtful and revealing response to Tankel makes clear. Abizaid spent several years during the Obama administration shaping the Pentagon’s approach toward Pakistan. Her account reinforces Tankel’s narrative about the difficulties in dealing with that deeply troubled but essential counter-terrorism partner. She reviews the tangled recent history of Washington’s attempts to influence Islamabad’s behavior to make it a more “strategic partner,” from pouring in civilian and security assistance to threatening to withhold it. These efforts achieved narrow results where interests overlapped — such as the disruption of al-Qaeda and Tehrik-e-Taliban — but not the kind of strategic shift anyone hoped for. Creating and using leverage has proven to be much easier in theory than it is in practice.

So where does this leave things? Taken together, Tankel’s book and the responses to it in this roundtable explain the limits of American power, even when it comes to addressing an issue that is at the core of U.S. national security. All these authors suggest ways the United States could be more effective in getting what it wants — such as by better understanding America’s partners, adjusting expectations, sending a consistent message about goals and redlines, and having greater balance among U.S. military, diplomatic, and development tools. These are hard to achieve even in the best of times. With the current administration, progress in any of these areas seems unlikely.

Although none of these authors offer a silver bullet — or assert that any are available — policymakers and citizens alike will benefit from thinking about the post-9/11 counter-terrorism challenge, soon entering its third decade, with a clearer analytical framework and a dispassionate understanding of recent history. And in this respect, Tankel’s With Us or Against Us, and the essays it inspired in this roundtable, are a terrific place to start.


Derek Chollet is Executive Vice President of The German Marshall Fund of the United States. A former U.S. Assistant Secretary of Defense, his latest book is The Long Game: How Obama Defied Washington and Redefined America’s Role in the World.

Image: AFRICOM/Loren Bonser

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