The Lessons and Challenges of September 2011 – the New "9/11"
September 9, 2011
Every American has their own story about 9/11. Mine is that I live a mile from the Pentagon, and had a meeting there cancelled the night before the attack. I came into my office in Washington early, and saw the Twin towers collapse before the aircraft hit the Pentagon. I missed the actual attack, but not the smell of electrical fires in the building.
No one can dismiss the grim realities that came out of that day. Nearly 3,000 Americans died: 2,753 in the Twin towers and 184 in the Pentagon. There were no survivors in the four highjacked planes. More than 6,000 other Americans and foreign nationals were injured directly, the attacks cost the US economy billions of dollars in the days that followed, and casualties of the aftereffects of the World Trade Center are still being generated.
A decade has passed since September 11, 2001, however, and the realities of our new “9/11” – September 2011 – are very different. We have been able to avoid attacks on American soil, and we have radically improved our homeland defense capabilities – albeit at an annual cost that OMB estimates has risen to $72 billion a year in federal spending alone. We have made major advances in international cooperation in counterterrorism and we have developed new bilateral programs with virtually all of our friends and allies.
The Cost of 9/11, A Decade Later
At the same time, this has not been the decade of homeland defense or even defensive efforts in international cooperation in counterterrorism. It has been the decade of growing covert and quiet overseas operations against terrorists and terrorist organizations, of armed intervention and counterinsurgency, and a shift from a focus on a “revolution in military affairs” to fight conventional wars, to a focus on asymmetric and hybrid warfare.
We cannot take pride in preventing attacks on our own soil without recognizing that the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 laid the groundwork for two ongoing wars, and a long list of very different kinds of casualties. No one who is in the US military or who is directly involved in national security can be unaware of the other casualties that have come out of the events those attacks triggered.
In the ten years that followed, the Afghan War has cost the lives of nearly 1,700 American military and government civilians, and wounded more than 13,600. The fighting in Iraq has already cost some 4,500 American lives, and wounded over 32,000.
The CRS estimates the direct dollar cost of the Afghan War to the US alone will reach $557 billion in FY2012 and the Iraq War will cost $823 billion. Other security costs will raise the total cost of both wars to at least $1.4 trillion by the end of FY2012, and the indirect and out year costs will bring the total to at least $2 trillion.
All of these figures ignore the sacrifices of our allies in dead, wounded, and expenditures – with nearly 1,000 allied dead in Afghanistan and well over 300 in Iraq. They do not count Afghan, Pakistani, or Iraqi casualties, and these have to total several hundred thousand killed and wounded, with estimates of 50,000 Iraqis killed and similar figures for Afghanistan. They do not take account of casualties among aid workers, diplomats, NGOs and contractors. They do not count the cost of war to other nations, or credit nations that made major contributions in aid.
They also do not include indirect costs that are all too real for much of this audience. No one measures years spent away from a spouse, partner, or children. We do not count divorces, or failed marriages and relationships, as casualties. We do not count the impact of lasting physical injury and stress on careers, or the cost of taking overseas assignments with high risk and little credit on return to the US. Everyone in this room has paid these costs or knows all too many friends who have.
No speech on the 10th anniversary of September 11 can ignore what happened on that day, or the fact that we have been able to prevent new attacks inside the US. But, we need put the events of the last decade in a broader strategic perspective and to focus on the challenges we still face. We need to look beyond 9/11 as a date on the calendar and focus on how the world has changed and how our struggle against terrorism and extremism must change with it.
The Need for Continuing Global Counterterrorism Efforts
Let me stress that we do need to build on the progress we have made in counterterrorism over the last decade. We have created a far more effective mix of civil and military homeland defense efforts, and local, state, and federal structures. We have made major progress in the UN and international organizations, with our traditional allies, and in bilateral and multilateral efforts in many countries. As the Washington Post recently made clear in an article on the JSOC, we have created major new intelligence and special operations capabilities to take the fight directly to the terrorists and extremists throughout the world, and to act on our own and with our friends and allies.
It is critical that these efforts continue in this era of budget cuts. It is equally critical that we accept the fact that we will need to continue the use of force, and to ensure that no terrorists that attack or threaten us are ever safe.
We cannot let time blind us to the fact that “soft power” is the partner of “hard power,” and not a substitute. We need violence, covert operations, and the ability to work quietly with the forces of other nations. No form of war is gentle, without innocent casualties, or horrible mistakes. Counterterrorism is no exception.
The Main Threat Lies Outside the US
This means, however, that we need to recognize that our success in preventing new attacks inside the US is only a limited part of our ability to deal with terrorism and asymmetric attacks. Important as homeland defense efforts are, the last decade has shown that the key to effective national security lies in recognizing the fact that we must all deal with the full range of state and non-state threats outside the United States, and react to the broader global challenges posed by terrorism and extremism.
These global challenges are great and they go far beyond our national focus on Al Qaida. As Americans, the events of 9/11 have led many us to see ourselves as the target of global terrorism. Nothing could be further from the truth, If we look at the unclassified figures from the National Counterterrorism Center, they indicate that well over 150,000 citizens of other countries have been killed in terrorist attacks in the decade since 9/11, some 350,000 have been injured, and close to 90,000 have been kidnapped.
While some US officials talk about nearing a strategic defeat of Al Qaida, there is no pattern showing any form of stable reduction in global terrorism – and the NCTC figures I am quoting do not include most acts of terrorism by governments and states. The NCTC figures released this August show that during the peak year in the last five years, terrorism killed over 22,000 people in other countries, injured over 44,000, and kidnapped nearly 16,000.
The total number hurt or killed did drop from some 75,000 in 2006 to 50,000 in 2010, but this drop was driven by drops in terrorism related to intense conflicts like the Iraq War – where such totals dropped from nearly 39,000 to 15,000.
The NCTC also uses very demanding reporting criteria in deciding whether to count an incident or effect. The real totals of direct terrorist acts overseas could be as much as 50% higher. Moreover, the NCTC does not count indirect effects: These include over 10 million displaced persons in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan alone over the last decade. They include massive losses in terms of economic development, and income, education, and hope for the future. They include a high price in fear and intimidation, and a growing price in ethnic, sectarian, religious, tribal, and racial divisions.
We need to recognize the limits of efforts in any given set of countries or that are directly aimed at one movement or set of leaders. Nothing we do in fighting Al Qaida, or in the conflicts in Afghanistan and Pakistan can come close to ending the threat of terrorism.
We may be able to largely protect our homeland and that of our more secure allies. We will be able to help all our friends and allies. But, we have no chance of putting an end to this broader threat of violent extremism – or to the forms of such terrorism that directly threaten the US.
This will be particularly true if we do not recognize that these struggles will be won or lost within given countries far more than they can be won at the level of international terrorism. We need to learn from the experience of other nations, as well as to provide aid and advice. Every nation is a case study. We have seen countries like Saudi Arabia make major progress in dealing with their own threats since 2003 – and like Morocco – find new ways to reintegrate active and potential terrorists back into their societies. We have found that dialog is far better than public pressure and we can learn from friends and allies just as they can benefit from us.
Above all, US officials must stop talking about victory of any kind at the strategic level, and making implied promises that no Administration can keep. Killing Bin Laden and all his closest associates, and defeating Al Qaida in Pakistan and Afghanistan, cannot address the threat from other extremist groups in either country.
Al Qaida did not directly instigate more than a tiny portion of the events that created over 15,000 victims in Iraq in 2010, and 9,000 in Afghanistan – and these totals are extremely conservative.
Success in Pakistan and Afghanistan will not address the continuing threat in Iraq, or the rising threat in Yemen, Somalia, and the Maghreb. Success against Al Qaida will not remove the threat from the over 200 other terrorist groups listed in the NCTC unclassified database.
Moreover, a narrow focus on terrorist groups and non-state actors cannot address the need to deal with the actions of states that use proxies, the sponsorship of violent extremists, arms transfer, money, covert operations, and asymmetric attacks to support violent extremists or to attack us directly.
We need to recognize the full global scale of violent extremism, and that state and non-state terrorism is often tied to the growth of insurgency and asymmetric warfare. We need to understand that our security is directly linked to the success of a wide range of other states in meeting all of the challenges to their stability and security. We need to concentrate on constantly improving the ways in which we and our allies fight terrorism and the full spectrum of such threats at the ideological, political, demographic, and economic levels as well as through direct efforts at counterterrorism and the use of military force.
Religion and the Clash Within Other Civilizations
One area where we Americans definitely need to make improvements in our approach to such threats is in dealing with the issue of religion. Ten years on, far too many Americans still confuse terrorism with Islam, and a clash between civilizations. In doing so, they risk giving Bin Laden his one enduring victory: fear of one of the world’s great religions when we should recognize that nearly 90% of all the victims of terrorism counted in the NCTC data base are Moslems killed by a tiny minority of other Moslems, and ones that depart so much from the real teachings of the Koran that they are Moslems in name only.
As a part of largely Christian nation, some Americans are still struggling with the fact we have a Judeo-Christian ethic rather than one narrowly based on Christian sects. Many Americans are only beginning to understand that there is a broader Judeo-Christian-Islamic ethic as well.
Our main fight against terrorism over the last decade has actally been to help Moslem states fight a clash within their civilization against their own extremists, and that this same focus on local and largely nationally-driven terrorism and extremism exists in many other parts of the developing world.
We still need to fully learn the lesson that our fight against terrorism and violent extremism will be won or lost by our ability to recognize that it is the stability and security of other peoples – most of whom are not in the West and have a different religion and culture – that will determine the outcome of this struggle.
Important as victories against the world’s worst individual terrorists can sometimes seem, they will have no lasting strategic meaning if we do not continue to look beyond our own borders and prejudices. We need to understand and work with the hundreds of millions of Moslems, and citizens in other nations with different religions and ideologies, who oppose terrorism and extremism as much as we do. We need to recognize that they suffer far more than we do on a day-to-day basis, and that the vast majority shares our core values.
If there is any one lesson the last decade should have taught us, we cannot ensure our security through unilateral action or by trying to impose our values on other states and peoples. If we cannot make Moslems – as well as Buddhists, Hindus, and other faiths -- our lasting partners, we not only will lose the struggle against counterterrorism, we will lose the world.
Dealing with the Underlying Causes of Terrorism and Extremism
Ideology and religion, however, are only part of the challenges we still need to meet. We need to do a far better job of understanding and addressing the other underlying causes of terrorism, violent extremism, and asymmetric threats.
- The actions of governments are sometimes terrorist in character and breed non-state terrorist resistance. We must not make the mistake of focusing on terrorist groups and ignoring state terrorism. State terrorism -- sometimes secular and sometimes in the name of God -- remains a critical problem in nations like Syria, Iran, Libya, Myanmar, North Korea, and far too many other nations in the world.
- The US State Department annual country reports on human rights are not formal reports on state terrorism, but they document the fact that nearly half the countries in the world routinely rely on repression, torture, discrimination, and manipulation of their justice systems to commit acts of state terrorism against at least part of their populations.
- The unrest in the Arab world alone has shown us all too clearly that our struggle against terrorism cannot rely on cooperation in counterterrorism alone. We need to do far more to work with friendly and allied governments to help them evolve and reform their national security structure to keep them from causing extremism and terrorism, and to influence them to find peaceful options for dealing with internal disputes.
- That same unrest in the Arab world has shown us that we cannot ignore the actions of governments that are not or friends or allies simply because they seem to threaten their own peoples and not to threaten us. As Somali piracy alone has demonstrated, the world is already too small a place for such indifference. As Syria’s killings of its own people have shown, state violence and repression can cause levels of unrest that can threaten the entire Levant.
- Economics, demographics, and social change will continue to present massive challenges for well beyond the next decade. Virtually every country where terrorism or violent extremism exists shows that we need to find better ways to help other nations deal with the more material causes of terrorism, extremism, and unrest. The last decade has taught us that there are no purely military solutions to counterinsurgency. We are still learning that there are no counterterrorism solutions to terrorism
- The current wave of unrest in the Middle East and Islamic world is a warning that many nations economic, demographic, and social pressures that help breed terrorism.
o Sheer population pressure creates tensions and exacerbates existing ethnic, sectarian, and tribal tensions. The Census Bureau and UN estimate population of most countries is 3 to 4 times higher than it was in 1950 and will double again by 2050. No country or society can easily adapt to such change.
o A combination of population pressure and poor economic policies often make things far worse. Real unemployment and underemployment is often in excess of 20% and youth unemployment is in excess of 30% in nations where the mean age is often only 24 or below. This severely limits the prospects for marriage, and form of career, and hope and safety for a nation’s children.
o Income disparity -- and the lowering of the status of the middle class, professionals, and the military -- has grown faster than the GDP in a world where the CIA estimates that national poverty levels can range from 10% to over 30% of the population.
o Population pressure, technological change, and global competition are destroying traditional agriculture and manufacturing sectors, while creating rates of urbanization so high that a nation like Saudi Arabia has gone from 8% in 1950 to 82% in 2010.
o Satellites, the Internet, and other media are providing instant communication, putting an end to effective censorship, and showing the living standards available to other nations and peoples.
o “Globalism” has not brought prosperity with any equity to the nations of the world, or to the peoples within them. If anything, it has made economic pressures worse in many countries.
We need to continuously reexamine all of these causes of instability and extremism throughout the world. Terrorism and instability do have many causes, and the mix varies sharply by country, but we need to fully understand have these forces affect given nations far better than we do today.
Political legitimacy and effective governance is lacking or uncertain
We also need to pay more attention to political legitimacy. Nations that do not offer legitimate forms of dissent or political opposition can create a climate where force can seem the only option. This is made worse by counterterrorism and internal security forces that repress legitimate complaints and make ethnic, sectarian, and regional tensions worse.
Static regimes fail to expand key services, health, and education to match the population; do not invest in infrastructure, limit economic growth, and are seen as corrupt, and tied to power brokers, cronies, and nepotism. The rule of law is the rule of power, economic abuse, and corrupt courts.
We have already seen how quickly all of these causes of unrest became violent in Algeria, Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Syria, Pakistan, Gaza, the West Bank, and Bahrain. At the same time, we have seen how difficult it is to create true political legitimacy and the demographic and economic pressures involved are so great that no new regime can quickly meet popular expectations.
It is critical that we work with friendly Arab and Moslem states, and with our other allies, to address the full range of these “hot spots.” They give a false legitimacy to terrorism. Their tensions are increasingly being exploited international along sectarian and ethnic lines, and the failings of “secular” governments are increasingly being exploited in the Internet and extremist propaganda.
We can expect extremist and terrorist groups to attempt to do far more exploit the failures of governments that have cause so much unrest in the Middle East in the future. We can already see new lines of political and ideological attack being added to terrorist and extremist efforts to exploit the Arab-Israeli conflict and charges of American imperialism and crusades.
Facing a “Long Struggle,” Whether or Not We Want to Call It a “Long War”
Moreover, we need to fully acknowledge that this will be a “long struggle,” even if we feel it is not politically correct to call it a “long war.” When we look at the full mix of problems in governance, politic, economics, and demographics It is virtually certain that we face at least a decade of upheavals in the developing world – and many cases where political change will fail, and new waves of violence will occur. They will sometimes breed terrorism, and sometimes breed revolution. They will often threaten US strategic and security interests.
These also are not threats we can simply wait out or that we can stand aside from. Our economy is critically dependent on exports and imports and this dependence grows every year. Energy imports are just the most obvious example of our vulnerability, and they are also an area where the Department of Energy does not project any meaningful reduction in our strategic dependence through 2035 – the furthest it attempts to make estimates.
The Need for Honest and Effective Strategic Triage, and to Let Them Do It Their Way
At the same time, the last decade has shown us the need to be far more modest about what we can do in most cases. We need far better and more honest estimates of the resources required to deal with the causes and act of terrorism, and the difficulties in using them, the time and level of US presence that is required. We need to be far more sensitive to the dangers of seeking quick solutions based on trying to impose our outside values.
We need to develop more effective forms of strategic triage to determine where our priorities lie, and we need better civil-military operations in those cases where we act. There are at least nineteen countries in the Middle East and North Africa alone, and nearly 200 countries in the world. Virtually all of the countries in the MENA, and at least 80 other countries in the world, have severe demographic, economic and governance problems.
We need to recognize we only have the resources to intervene directly in a very few states. We need to recognize that we should have learned the hard way during the last decade that even massive intervention may not buy us anything approaching stability and security on a lasting basis.
The SIGIR estimates that we allocated some $11 billion on trying to develop and reconstruct the Iraqi economy as of July 2011, and our allies spent some $13 billion more. We spent another $20.5 billion building up Iraqi forces, and we effectively shaped the spending of some $107 billion in Iraqi funds. This is a total of over $182 billion spent in seeking to reshape Iraq and solve the problems in its security and stability.
If we look at the SIGAR estimates of aid to Afghanistan, we allocated some $28 billion to development and civil programs in Afghanistan through FY2011, and more than $33 billion to building up Afghan forces, for a total of nearly $62 billion. Other donors pledged some $4.7 billion more for development and additional funds for security.
If you examine the total costs of both wars, we have already allocated $39 billion to aid and development and $53 billion to build up Afghan and Iraqi forces.
The results, to say the least, have been mixed. We have had some limited successes, but SIGIR, SIGAR, the GAO, and countless official and think tank studies have shown our efforts involved vast amounts of waste and mistakes in both countries, and did much to corrupt and distort their economies.
Recent press articles have talk about some $60 billion in wasteful and failed contracts. To put it mildly, this is the tip of the iceberg. The work of SIGIR, SIGAR, our other inspector generals, and efforts like the recent contract reviews led by Brigadier General McMasters indicate that something like 40% of our aid efforts have ended in failure, waste, or the wrong areas.
Our failure to develop effective tools for the fiscal management of our war efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq have almost certainly increased the cost of these wars by more than 20%, as well as made effective program management extraordinarily difficult for military, government civilian, and contractor alike.
Massive military spending may have raised the GDP of Afghanistan and Iraq, but it also distorted and corrupted their economies, raised prices, and now greatly complicates their problems in governance and development as we withdraw of forces and phase out our aid.
We cannot afford to spend in this way to try to fix other nations in the future, much less attempt to fix the world. We cannot afford to try another set of quick, American, ideologically driven fixes -– whether Neocon or liberal. We cannot afford to spend without proper planning, fiscal controls, contracting procedures, and measures of effectiveness. We cannot waste time and resources trying to impose what other nations and peoples do not want or cannot accept, and continue to ignore the need to do it their way and help them help themselves.
Yet, we also cannot afford to stand aside, and this means turning to different kinds of effort. We need to develop, patient, and integrated civil-military efforts by US Embassy country teams to handle aid and the military advisory and cooperation effort. We need to focus on using aid only to catalyze real progress in nations that can use that aid to help themselves. We must accept the fact this side of our counterterrorism and stability efforts must generally focus on helping nations help themselves in their way and at their pace – and not our way at our pace.
In each case, we will need to make far more realistic cost-benefit and risk calculations at time our nation is in a grave economic crisis, and has many competing domestic and international security needs.
We are going to have to learn the art of strategic neglect as part of this strategic triage; and face the fact that some problems are too difficult to solve or even heavily influence. We will need to rethink the where, why, and when of being a global power. We will need to put as much effort into analyzing what problems we can safely ignore as we currently put into find new risks and potential solutions.
We must also recognize that the cost of effective country teams and limited, carefully focused civil and military aid efforts has to be lower than the cost of new terrorist attacks, instability and violence. Remember the costs I have already quoted for Afghanistan and Iraq. Consider what the cost of even one future military contingency will be if we are penny wise and blood foolish.
Counterterrorism, Counterinsurgency, and Containment
Regardless of our success in preventing attacks on our own homeland, we need to recognize the fact that we face major challenges in terminating our existing wars, and are on the thin edge of either grand strategic failure or a lack of grand strategic success in both conflicts.
Winning optional wars of this kind does not consist of the tactical defeat of the enemy, or even its lasting destruction. It comes from creating a stable state that is secure, meets the needs of its own peoples, is at least friendly and capable of defending itself, or -- more practically -- that becomes a lasting strategic partner. These are the goals we set in both our current conflicts and we have tried to achieve with the best of intentions.
One war –- the Afghan conflict -- is a direct product of 9/11, and the last decade has been filled with grim lessons about the need to plan for conflict termination, for stability efforts, and to act quickly and decisively to prevent a threat from recovering and become a major counter insurgency threat.
Even if all of our combat forces do leave Afghanistan in 2014, it will be a 13-year war, and it is likely that any hope of real strategic success requires a substantial US civil and military aid program through 2020. We are talking about direct US dollar costs that are certain to eventually total over $1 trillion dollars for one war in a country that currently has a total national GDP of only $27.4 billion a year.
It is far easier to talk about a successful transition than it is to achieve one. It is all too unclear that we can create the kind of strategic relationship we will need from whatever new Afghan government emerges out of the war and the election in 2014. It is equally unclear that we will have the time, patience, and resources to create effective Afghan forces, or avoid creating a massive recession or depression as we phase down our spending and aid. Moreover, we currently have extremely uncertain prospects for a stable strategic relationship with Pakistan.
Similar uncertainties are all too clear in our efforts to create a successful grand strategic outcome to the Iraq War – a conflict that in theory was caused by the risk of proliferation but would never have occurred if it has not been for the fears created by 9/11.
The Iraq War alone will also come to cost over a $1 trillion dollars if we are to have any success in creating a strong Strategic Framework Agreement with Iraq. It is now uncertain such success is possible, but it is equally clear that it is critical in creating a stable and secure Iraq and containing Iran.
A decade after 9/11, we face the prospect that we may well win both wars tactically and fail to win them strategically. For all our very real military successes, we have not shown we have the combination of civil and military tools that can shape states that we can count on to be effective partners once we leave – and this, and this alone, is the only test of victory in fighting such wars.
Even if we do forge successful strategic partners as a result of both wars, and we can somehow create a real strategic partnership with Pakistan, it is also brutally clear from our official studies and reports that that we will have done so after making military and civil mistakes over the last decade that we should never repeat.
Both Afghanistan and Iraq have been wars that have involved almost constant learning curves – many of which could have been avoided. Our problems in fighting and terminating these wars have been grossly exacerbated by the failure to make realistic conflict termination and stability plans from the start. This situation was then made far worse by our failure to properly assess host country needs and desires, and our failure to effectively structure the way we cooperated with our allies.
This aspect of the legacy of 9/11 raises critical challenges to US policy planners, the State Department, and the Defense Department that we have only begun to address. We need far better transition plans for both Afghanistan and Iraq, but we also need far more realistic assessments of what we did wrong in both wars.
We need to develop a much clearer picture of the tradeoffs between counterterrorism focused on direct terrorist threats, broad counterinsurgency, short-term stability operations, nation building, and containment from the outside.
We need to stop saying such wars do not involve nation building --- when this has been a clear goal in all our actions. We need to ask ourselves why we spent more than 96% of our dollars during FY2002-FY2011 in support of the Department of Defense and less than 4% on the State Department and USAID.
We need to address the limits to our ability to intervene, the need to address cost-benefits and risks more realistically, and accept the fact other nations and cultures do not really want to become us. Both our present strategic doctrine and our practice for making these decisions remain a triumph of hope over experience.
Finding the right ways to make this form of strategic triage remains a critical test of our national security community. Unfortunately, it is a test our national strategy, our QDRs and QDDRs, and most of our senior civil and military policy makers have so far failed to meet.
The Threat of Proliferation and Technological Change
Finally, let me add yet another dimension to the challenges we face. It is somewhat ironic that on September 10th, 2001, we were still largely focused on a “revolution in military affairs” designed to win quick, surgical conventional wars. We were seeking to use technology as a substitute for skills, have little or no focus on integrated civil-military affairs, and our main goal was to persuade our NATO allies and Japan to modernize along with us.
Ten years later, that technology has been put to use supporting counterterrorism and counterinsurgency in “person-power” intensive civil-military operations. We have had to reinvent our capabilities for counterinsurgency and stability operations from the field manual level up.
Our new focus has shifted to become one on creating hybrid warfare capabilities to allow us to deal with the spectrum of threats from counterterrorism to counterinsurgency to asymmetric/irregular warfare, to conventional warfare, to nuclear conflict. We have learned to live in a very different world of IEDs, MRAPs, Blue Force Tracker, and UCAVs.
We also, however, need to recognize that we live in a world where the risk of nuclear proliferation in Iran is now more real that it was in Iraq in 2003. We live in a world where cyberwarfare and terrorism are day-to-day hobbies as well as growing serious threats. We live in a world where advances in biological technology and manufacturing mean most nations in the world – and some independent labs – will be able to create generically modified biological weapons. We face a growing threat that some state or group will create effective radiological or dirty bombs, and fourth generation chemical weapons.
At a different level, we live in a world where the vulnerability of critical infrastructure grows each year, along with the cost in terms of damage to that infrastructure. We live in a world where both states and non-state actors are acquiring a growing range of their own sensors, precision weapons, and more lethal explosives. If we consider the cost of successful attacks or sabotage on Gulf desalination facilities as just one example of weapons of mass effectiveness, we can understand that advancing the quality of terrorist and asymmetric attacks can be as lethal as advancing the use of weapons of mass destruction.
These are not genies we can keep in a bottle over the coming decade. We cannot halt the growth of such threats any more than medieval kings could ban the crossbow. We do not simply face the continuing risk of the past kinds of terrorism, extremism, asymmetric warfare, and counterinsurgency in the next decade after 9/11. We face the certainty we must deal with more lethal risks and attacks. We are not headed towards a world of normal embassies and conventional forces, and changes in terrorism and asymmetric warfare will be only part of the changes technology will make in the threats to the US next decade.
Recognizing that History is Still Beginning and Not Ending
Let me close with a caution. I realize that it is impossible to list the scale of the challenges we now face without seeming to be bleak. I realize the desire to focus on celebrating our successes since 9/11 instead of the challenges to come. No one can spend five decades in international risk analysis, strategic studies, intelligence reporting, and policy planning without being aware that we all want to hear positive news and quick solutions.
But, look around at the people beside you. You have all dealt with the realities of national security over the last decade in different capacities. You all have seen the cost of trying to rely on quick and simple answers. You all know from practice that history is not approaching some global consensus or some form of “end.” You have all learned the hard way that ideology, good intentions, and new concepts are not a substitute for steadily improving competence.
Ours is a profession where you cannot afford to celebrate the past or to accept the present. Like all of the other challenges to our security we already see, or the new ones that will emerge in the next decade, success in dealing with terrorism and extremism is going to be directly proportionate to how soon – and how honestly -- we recognize them and how quickly and effectively we act. We have come a long way in the last decade, but we must never forget that we still have an entire future still to come.
Anthony H. Cordesman is the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.
This commentary was originally delivered as an address to the Industrial College of the Armed Forces on September 9, 2011.
Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).
© 2011 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.