Published September 15, 2011 at National Defense University Press Blog
Bin Laden’s Legacy: Why We’re Still Losing the War on Terror
By Daveed Gartenstein-Ross
John Wiley, 2011
288 pp. $25.95
Sun Tzu wrote in The Art of War, “If you know others and know yourself, you will not be imperiled in a hundred battles. If you do not know others and do not know yourself, you will be imperiled in every single battle.” In Bin Laden’s Legacy: Why We’re Still Losing the War on Terror, Daveed Gartenstein-Ross argues that despite Osama bin Laden’s position atop America’s Most Wanted list for over a decade, the United States has never made a serious effort to understand his—and, by extension, al Qaeda’s—strategy. As a result, we have assumed the role of George Foreman in his famous match with Muhammad Ali; the harder we hit, the more we wear ourselves out as al Qaeda leans back against the ropes and waits.
Gartenstein-Ross provides a wide-ranging synopsis of America’s decade-long struggle against al Qaeda. Over the course of the book, he lays out the missteps the United States has made in its prosecution of the war on terror, beginning with the most fundamental mistake: U.S. inability or unwillingness to consider al Qaeda’s strategy when formulating its responses. According to the author, “[al Qaeda’s] strategy could be known through a nuanced look at bin Laden’s personal history and thought. Even at the time of 9/11, it was clear that bin Laden believed it was essential to undermine the economy of his superpower foe and to make the battlefield on which the American had to fight as broad as possible. U.S. strategic documents analyzing al Qaeda reveal a lack of awareness of these twin goals” (p. 35).
This lack of awareness of al Qaeda’s interest in weakening the American economy led to a decade of intense politicization of national security, which in turn created a culture in which any amount of spending could be justified in the name of fighting terror. Gartenstein-Ross documents the gross mismanagement of funds, duplication of effort across agencies, and minimal oversight of contractors. This resource inefficiency was most clearly on display in the Department of Homeland Security, where the combination of multi-billion-dollar budgets, tight deadlines, and intense pressure to do something without clear priorities led to massive cost overruns. As the author points out, this wasteful and inefficient spending was itself a boon to al Qaeda in its efforts to drive up the cost to the United States.
The other element of al Qaeda’s strategy involved broadening the battlefield. The United States eagerly embraced this approach without realizing that doing so played into al Qaeda’s hands. In 2002, President George W. Bush said that “the best way to keep America safe from terrorism is to go after terrorists where they plan and hide” (p. 13). This was exactly what bin Laden wanted; by inducing the United States to fight outside its borders, he understood that there would be long-term costs that would put further economic pressure on America. While the war in Afghanistan was a war of necessity, as al Qaeda safe havens would have continued to pose systemic risks to America, Gartenstein-Ross excoriates the Bush administration for the Iraq war, calling it “naïve best-case scenario thinking” that “would erode American power and provide al Qaeda with a remarkable opportunity to regroup” (pp. 101–102). By adding a new battlefield that was previously unconnected to terrorist activity, U.S. policymakers ratcheted up the costs while providing al Qaeda’s leadership time to regroup as the military pulled back in Afghanistan and the tribal areas of Pakistan.
Throughout Bin Laden’s Legacy, Gartenstein-Ross repeatedly returns to our failure to treat al Qaeda’s leaders as people capable of sophisticated strategic thought. Bin Laden believed that “economic power was the source of U.S. military might, and thus . . . saw weakening the economy as a critical aspect of victory” (p. 9). Through al Qaeda, he promulgated the idea of driving up costs as a way to bring America down; today, we face an enemy that knows we will respond to every attack by increasing our spending. Yet as Gartenstein-Ross argues, we have not treated jihadi terrorists as enemies worthy of understanding. Instead, we have focused on the tactic of terrorism without probing what al Qaeda hoped to gain through its use.
Urgent without being alarmist and eminently readable, Bin Laden’s Legacy is a testament to Gartenstein-Ross’s deep knowledge of his field and his capacity to cut through feeble arguments to lay out only the most salient evidence. His legal training combines neatly with his moderate, academic approach to produce arguments so logical that they seem obvious at first glace; only later does the reader realize this is a fresh read on the past 10 years of counterterrorism efforts.
If there is fault to be found, it is in the final chapter, in which the author lays out a roadmap for future efforts against AQ, its branches and franchises, and jihadi terrorism more broadly. The scope of the effort, however, is too great for a single chapter in a 300-page book. While individual recommendations such as finding a liquid fuel alternative to oil or implementing civil service reform may be necessary, Gartenstein-Ross fails to elucidate how America can achieve those goals. As the author points out, path dependence has the United States firmly in its grip; it will be hard to retool our approach at this late date, and there is insufficient practical guidance in Bin Laden’s Legacy to consider this a guidebook for future counterterrorism efforts.
Nevertheless, as improbable as it may once have seemed, al Qaeda’s goal of crippling the United States is achievable if we refuse to recognize our weaknesses and take a hard look at our unsustainable security structures and our untenable fiscal situation. Indeed, the biggest threat to our security and our way of life may very well be us. Al Qaeda cannot reasonably be blamed for the housing bubble bursting or the debt ceiling crisis, but the combined weight of our self-generated economic misfortunes and the long-term costs of our wars of choice leave us with little spare capacity to respond to the threats we still face from a nimble, adaptive enemy. Bin Laden’s Legacy lays bare al Qaeda’s strategy; the question now is whether we will be able to adapt to face it.