Small Wars Journal

Deterrence 2.0: How the spirit of a Cold War policy guided the counterstrike against Al Qaeda

Share this Post

Download the Full Article

Octavian Manea interviews with former CNAS Writers in Residence Eric Schmitt and Thom Shanker, the authors of “Counterstrike: The Untold Story of America's Secret Campaign Against Al Qaeda” and Matthew Kroenig, a key intellectual architect of the post 9/11 GWOT policy.  

SWJ: In the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 moment there was a major emphasize on preemption and prevention as the preferred logics to govern the answers against Al Qaeda. Not on deterrence. How and why did the deterrence logic reclaim its status as the core strategic philosophy to guide the whole of government answer against Al Qaeda? Does deterrence really work against terrorism?

Eric Schmitt and Thom Shanker: In the horror that followed the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, there was an understandable, if clumsy, monopoly focus on kill-capture as the sole response. Although deterrence strategies had kept a tense nuclear peace with the Communist leadership of the Kremlin for more than four grim decades of the Cold War, it was several years after 9/11 before analysts within the Pentagon began asking whether they might they also offer guidance for how America could protect itself and its allies during this long war against violent religious extremists. The central problem in attempting to apply Cold War deterrence theories to the age of violent religious extremism is that terrorists hold no territory and thus hold no territory dear. They offer no large and obvious high-value targets for American attack comparable to the national treasures the Soviets knew were at risk: populous cities, critical factories, dachas of the elite, military bases, or silos protecting the Kremlin’s own nuclear force. Then there is the question of attribution: A nuclear warhead hurled toward American soil by intercontinental ballistic missile has a return address. The attacking nation and its leaders can be identified and held responsible, and with certainty. Not so with a weapon of mass destruction smuggled into America and set off by a shadowy, stateless terrorist organization. Finally, there are the millennial, aspirational, otherworldly goals of the jihadists. The Politburo pursued its clear self-interest, which required the survival of the Kremlin leadership. What can you threaten that will deter a suicide terrorist so obviously —to give up his life in pursuit of holy war against the United States? But a set of thinkers within the Pentagon’s policy bureaucracy and across the global combatant commands began developing a more nuanced understanding of how terror networks operate and found ways, indeed, to identify valuable “territory” extremists cells hold dear – and began to put them at risk.  Interviews with captured terrorist suspects and intercepted emails and cell-phone conversations indicate these deterrence measures have delayed or disrupted some attacks, or forced the terrorists to abandon other plots altogether.  

Matthew Kroenig: It takes some time to comprehend a new threat and develop an appropriate response to counter it.  Thomas Schelling’s Arms and Influence, the classic statement of nuclear deterrence strategy was written in 1967, 22 years after the dawn of the nuclear era.  By 2005, less than four years after September 11th, my colleagues and I were developing new and effective strategies for deterring terrorism.  In my opinion, it was a fairly rapid adaptation to a new strategic environment. Deterrence does work against terrorism.  We deter terrorist attacks all the time.  There are innumerable instances of terrorists planning attacks and then calling them off at the last minute because they feared that the attack might fail or because they feared a harsh response.  That is deterrence.  The problem is that too often this deterrent effect has been achieved by accident. By elevating deterrence to a more prominent place in our counterterrorism strategy, however, we can seek to achieve this effect more systematically. After all, ultimately, we would prefer to deter terrorist attacks than to have to defend against them day after day. 

Download the Full Article

Eric Schmitt is a terrorism correspondent for The New York Times and has embedded with troops in Iraq, Somalia, and Pakistan. Schmitt has twice been a member of Times reporting teams that were awarded the Pulitzer Prize.

Thom Shanker, a Pentagon correspondent for The New York Times, routinely spends time embedded with troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. Shanker was formerly a foreign editor and correspondent for the Chicago Tribune, based in Moscow, Berlin, and Sarajevo.

Matthew Kroenig is an assistant professor of Government at Georgetown University.  From July 2010 to July 2011, he was a Special Advisor in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, responsible for the development and implementation of Middle East defense policy and strategy.  Previously, in 2005, he worked as a strategist in the Office of the Secretary of Defense where he authored the first-ever, U.S. government strategy for deterring terrorist networks.  For his work, he was awarded the Office of the Secretary of Defense’s Award for Outstanding Achievement.

About the Author(s)

Octavian Manea was a Fulbright Junior Scholar at Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs (Syracuse University) where he received an MA in International Relations and a Certificate of Advanced  Studies in Security Studies.