Recently, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta spoke at an event at the Naval Post Graduate School in Monterey, California. At one point, the event featured a question and answer session, and an economic professor, Dr. David Henderson, stood up and asked Panetta how the United States can afford to spend so much money fighting wars in South Asia when groups like al Qaeda are spending so little and have become much weaker than they once were.
Panetta responded by saying that we will only “end those wars” when people in those countries who threaten to attack America are no longer there:
Q: Good morning, Mr. Secretary. I’m David Henderson, an economist, an economics professor also in the Graduate School of Business and Public Policy. Ohio State University Professor John Mueller stated in a recent article in Foreign Affairs, quote, “An al Qaeda computer seized in Afghanistan in 2001 indicated that the group’s budget for research and weapons of mass destruction, almost all of it focused on primitive chemical weapons work, was some $2,000 to $4,000.” In your previous job, you yourself pointed out that there are fewer than two dozen key operatives left in al Qaeda. Given our huge budget deficit that you referred to, when do you say enough is enough? Let’s end those wars because the costs are so much higher than the hypothetical small benefits?
SEC. PANETTA: The answer to that question is you end those wars when those individuals that have threatened to attack this country no longer are there to threaten this country. We have an obligation coming out of 9/11 to defend this country. That’s what we’re here to do. That’s what we’re all about is to make sure that al Qaeda and their militant affiliates never again attack this country.
Panetta’s suggestion that the United States expend any amount of resources to be at war in Afghanistan until there is no one left there who threatens “to attack this country” would not only have us fighting in that country for years to come, but also implies that we would have to be at war in many other locations. The Congressional Research Service pointed out in a report earlier this year that one terror group alone, al Qaeda, now exists in 70 countries and largely consists of autonomous actors rather than militias or armies:
The Al Qaeda network today also comprises semi-autonomous or self radicalized actors, who often have only peripheral or ephemeral ties to either the core cadre in Pakistan or affiliated groups elsewhere. According to U.S. officials Al Qaeda cells and associates are located in over 70 countries. Sometimes these individuals never leave their home country but are radicalized with the assistance of others who have traveled abroad for training and indoctrination through the use of modern technologies. In many ways, the dispersion of Al Qaeda affiliates fits into the larger strategy of Bin Laden and his associates.
It certainly wouldn’t be desirable to be at war in so many countries. So how should the United States orient itself to combat individuals who are trying to harm the country? The RAND Corporation published a ground-breaking study in 2008 where it analyzed how 268 different terror groups ended between 1968 and 2006. It found that the overwhelming majority of them were defeated either by smart police and intelligence work and/or integrating their movements into the political process and de-radicalizing them. It illustrates this in the following chart:
Certainly, it appears to be much more effective to focus on smart policing and policies that de-radicalize people in order to battle terror. And it is certainly desirable to avoid wars that often radicalize local populations and expend enormous resources in both blood and treasure.