Since 9-11, Americans have been rightly concerned about how the numbers stack up in the struggle against terrorism. Whether one calls it a war or something else, a sense of direction is not just necessary but vital.
Along those lines, a new report - "Are We Winning?" - by the bipartisan American Security Project (americansecurityproject.org), presented at a recent Capitol Hill briefing, raises provocative questions and contributes to the discussion in several ways.
First, it helps us understand the threat; indeed, this is where the report provides its best advice. The following points reveal volumes about the terrorism challenge:
- "The threat is very real and likely to endure."
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- "Any progress is likely to be incremental and will require years of prudence and consistency to institutionalize."
- "Our adversaries are strategically savvy and will continually adapt to our actions to achieve their goals. Complacency can quickly turn into catastrophe."
I would describe the situation even more bluntly. The terrorist threat is open-ended and will never entirely disappear. In other words, we can talk about winning in a relative sense, but there will be no final victory. America's best efforts will diminish terrorism, not eradicate it.
Second, "Are We Winning?" examines terrorism in the context of 10 criteria. In four of its categories, color-coded green, the study determines we are making gains against al-Qaeda and associated movements. In four additional categories, color-coded yellow, it finds the data uncertain. And in two other categories, color-coded red, it indicates a lack of progress.
Let us consider them one at a time, starting with the most positive, the green category. Although the report acknowledges that prominent figures such as Osama bin Laden in al-Qaeda and related groups remain free, it cheers the fact that many of those organizations' leaders are on the run. It also notes international cooperation is improving; active state sponsorship of terrorism is at a low; and economic and political improvements are shaping environments that offer alternatives to violence.
Well and good, but it is worth emphasizing that "on the run" does not mean al-Qaeda's leaders lack resolve or the potential to reorganize and rebound. Further, international cooperation still falls far short of what is required. Too many governments wink at terrorist behavior within their borders. And the lingering global recession allows a slower pace of reform.
The report's yellow category then indicates that in areas such as terrorist financing, the status of al-Qaeda associated movements and public attitudes in the Muslim world and the United States, it is hard to determine if progress has occurred. That finding speaks for itself, while suggesting opportunities for Washington to take innovative, proactive steps.
Next, we come to the red category, which bemoans the rise of "Islamist terrorism around the world," along with increases in violence in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Somalia. As if that were not enough, the report also points out the danger of ungoverned spaces in Africa, Asia and elsewhere, in which a lack of government capacity allows terrorist organizations to find sanctuary, gain influence and even establish legitimacy.
Again, opportunity beckons. It is especially important to deal with the virtually limitless danger of ungoverned spaces. We know from past experience in Afghanistan, for example, that failed or failing states provide a breeding ground for violent movements.
Finally, the study makes several recommendations that deserve a place in the U.S. counter-terrorism conversation: that the most effective way to discredit al-Qaeda and its cohorts is to challenge their claim to be defenders of the Muslim world; that America must more measurably transform its foreign policy; and that selective use of direct military action is necessary to pressure the leadership of al-Qaeda and associated groups.
Beyond that, we must maintain a long-term view and insist on perpetual vigilance, for the adversary is persistent and creative. America's sense of direction in the struggle against terrorism should never ignore those realities.