In March President Obama stated the goal of the U.S. campaign in Afghanistan: "to disrupt, dismantle and defeat al Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and to prevent their return to either country in the future." "Disrupting, dismantling and defeating" al Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan is a means to an end, not an end in itself, at least as it pertains to protecting the U.S. homeland. Since al Qaeda does not possess intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), al Qaeda members in "Af-Pak" who wish to attack the U.S. homeland must either get on an airplane and attempt to get onto U.S. territory or they must attempt to communicate electronically, by old-fashioned mail, or by courier with co-conspirators already inside the U.S. Since 2001, the thing that has most probably prevented al Qaeda or its affiliates from achieving another significant success inside the U.S. is The Database. When pondering how to best protect the U.S. homeland from terrorism, the first question policymakers should ask is: "What does the proposed course of action do to improve The Database?" Thus, what is the Afghan war doing, if anything, for The Database?
What is The Database? The 9/11 Commission concluded that al Qaeda succeeded in 2001 because various parts of the U.S. government mismanaged, failed to creatively use, and failed to share their databases of terror suspects. The U.S. government has presumably fixed that problem by empowering the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC), successor to the Terrorist Threat Integration Center (TTIC), to establish and maintain The Database, formally known as the Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment (TIDE). As of January 2009, TIDE had 564,000 names in it, 95% of which are non-U.S. persons. According to NCTC, more than 30 intelligence, military, law enforcement and homeland security networks contribute to TIDE. TIDE then distributes information back to the intelligence community, military commands, State Department consular offices, DHS, TSA, FBI, state and local police, etc. The result is "no-fly" lists, watch lists, surveillance of suspected financial transactions, and much, much more.
So what are the activities enabled by The Database that have thus far prevented al Qaeda or its like from again striking the U.S. homeland?
1) The Database prevents terror suspects from getting past passport control, or even getting on an airplane.
2) Analysts use the Database to prompt various forms of electronic surveillance.
3) Analysts employ The Database to monitor global financial transactions by terror suspects.
4) Analysts use The Database and other forms of analysis techniques to watch for domestic terror conspiracies. At a recent event at CSIS, John Brennan, President Obama's assistant for homeland security and counterterrorism, did not deny using The Database for domestic surveillance when he was director of NCTC (see page 18 of this transcript).
Since 95% of the names in The Database are non-U.S. persons, non-U.S. sources, most importantly foreign governments, are vital for improving The Database. What contribution does Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) make to improving The Database? Does intelligence gathered up from raids (computers, cell phones, notebooks, financial records, pocket litter, interrogations, etc.) make significant contributions to The Database, contributions relevant to U.S. homeland security?
What about all of the other aspects of the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan? Does that presence significantly help The Database? Have U.S. military operations in Afghanistan foiled any specific conspiracies to attack the U.S. homeland? If the U.S. presence in Afghanistan significantly improves The Database and thus U.S. homeland security, does it then make sense for the U.S. to establish a military presence in other poorly governed spaces (such as Somalia) in order to improve The Database?
Should the U.S. campaign in Afghanistan result in a reasonably effective Afghan central government, hardly anyone disputes that there will remain spaces inside Afghanistan unsupervised by the Afghan government or forces friendly to the U.S. The government in Pakistan is unable to achieve such supervision over all of its territory. Even a successful end to OEF will result in the possibility of terror sanctuaries remaining. Terror suspects from these possible sanctuaries would theoretically attempt to travel to Kabul or Islamabad and attempt to get a visa and airplane ticket to the West. It will be up to The Database to prevent this. Thus, success in Afghanistan will not diminish the need for a robust and even intrusive Database and surveillance programs.
It is The Database and its exploitation by a wide variety of agencies and techniques that has thus far prevented a repetition of 9/11. Al Qaeda has no ICBMs; it must outmaneuver The Database in order to get to the U.S. homeland. In order to continue to be useful, The Database requires continuous improvement from high-quality sources. Is the U.S. campaign in Afghanistan resulting in important improvements to The Database? Are these improvements, if they exist, worth the cost of the campaign?