I’ve got a new piece up at Foreign Policy on “COIN confusion“, that peculiar merging of counterinsugency and counterterrorism policies in Afghanistan. I was fortunate – if I can make that claim of such a dark issue – in that an individual of questional mental capacity, Faisal Shahzad, had just tried to set off a truck bomb in New York City’s Times Square. You can imagine the snowstorm of punditry that followed, basically calling down the suspected terrorist and others like him as morons (Note: it wasn’t that long ago that there was supposed to be a preponderence of trained engineers among jihadi terrorists. I don’t know if that’s supposed to be a positive for terrorist acumen or a negative for engineer intellect, but I digress…).
The ongoing discussion of the attempted Times Square bombing in New York has been unsurprisingly colorful. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg invoked the old saying that terrorists only need to be lucky once, while their opponents need to be lucky every time — and this time, we were “very lucky.” The New Republic‘s Jonathan Chait and former NYPD Deputy Commissioner for Counterterrorism Michael Sheehan noted the incompetence of most plotters, Chait with the memorable assertion “terrorists are basically dolts,” Sheehan suggesting that “lone wolves” are generally “as incompetent as they are disturbed.”
Always open with a good hook… anyway, that was a useful entree into subsequent commentary about how well the NYPD handled things, and the strides it’s taken since 9/11 to beef up its capacity for dealing with real and potential with terrorism. That’s a bit of a mouthful – “capacity for dealing with real and potential terrorism”. Why not just call it “counterterrorism”? Talking and writing about those capacities gets hung up on a few jurisdictional issues: domestic and foreign policy operate under different guidelines, constraints, beliefs, expectations, and tools. The big ones, when it comes to terrorism, are policing and military measures, and their associated doctrines – one of which, at least the one I’m familiar with, is that there’s a big, well-defined distinction between anti-terrorism and counter-terrorism. Anti is about mitigating risk – policing, preparation, limiting vulnerability to terrorist attack. Counter is about proactively going out and doing something about the terrorists themselves, whether it means putting them on trial and locking them up or launching a brace of Hellfire missiles into a training camp in Pakistan’s Northest Frontier Province.
Whither “anti” terrorism? Gone the way of the dodo, it seems, at least in the way we frame it. Maybe we need to revisit it, as a way past the counterterrorism and counterinsurgency policy tug of war that the University of St. Andrew’s Michael J. Boyle writes about so eloquently and incisively in the March 2010 issue of International Affairs.
Cross-posted from Current Intelligence