A three-part series in the Washington Post this week shed light on the U.S. counterterrorism apparatus as it is more than a decade after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. In the immediate aftermath of the attacks, the Bush administration and Congress took a number of actions to counter the forces that came to bear that day.
With the two resulting ground wars are drawing to a close – U.S. troops have been out of Iraq for 10 months and are slowly leaving Afghanistan – the government is establishing a counterterrorism system for the next decade.
With public opinion tilted against these more traditional wars and the limited efficacy of traditional forces against an enemy whose ideals can’t be drawn onto a map, a precision approach makes a lot of sense for the U.S. Covert operations by definition don’t make headlines as much as thousands of soldiers marching on a capital city, and drone strikes are both low-risk and deniable.
So American national security considerations are woven neatly into a “disposition matrix,” which lists every individual on an American kill list and magically generating every conceivable kill scenario for the individual, based on current intelligence and troop locations.
The matrix contains the names of terrorism suspects arrayed against an accounting of the resources being marshaled to track them down, including sealed indictments and clandestine operations. U.S. officials said the database is designed to go beyond existing kill lists, mapping plans for the “disposition” of suspects beyond the reach of American drones.
Although the matrix is a work in progress, the effort to create it reflects a reality setting in among the nation’s counterterrorism ranks: The United States’ conventional wars are winding down, but the government expects to continue adding names to kill or capture lists for years.
Currently, the kingpin of American counterterrorism is an unelected official appointed without congressional confirmation: John O. Brennan.
What was once a disparate collection of tactics — drone strikes by the CIA and the military, overhead surveillance, deployment of small Special Forces ground units at far-flung bases, and distribution of military and economic aid to threatened governments — has become a White House-centered strategy with Brennan at its core.
The Post story details Brennan’s loosely defined job description and his close relationship to President Barack Obama. But despite the synergy within the current administration, officials are in the process of setting up a procedural framework that will outlast them using tools like the disposition matrix and consistent procedures.
“This needs to be sustainable,” one senior administration official said, “and we need to think of it in ways that contemplate other people sitting in all the chairs around the table.”
The number of takeoffs and landings each month has more than doubled, reaching a peak of 1,666 in July compared with a monthly average of 768 two years ago, according to air-traffic statistics disclosed in Defense Department contracting documents.
The human counterpart to the drone mission in Djibouti is the roughly 300 special operators who occupy the base alongside regular troops.
About 300 Special Operations personnel plan raids and coordinate drone flights from inside a high-security compound at Lemonnier that is dotted with satellite dishes and ringed by concertina wire. Most of the commandos work incognito, concealing their names even from conventional troops on the base.
Side effects are more difficult to measure — including the extent to which strikes breed more enemies of the United States — but could be more consequential if the campaign continues for 10 more years.
“We are looking at something that is potentially indefinite,” Pillar said. “We have to pay particular attention, maybe more than we collectively have so far, to the longer-term pros and cons to the methods we use.”