The Information Age Adversary and Smart Counterterrorism Strategy: A Conversation with Thom Shanker

by Forum Staff

The Fletcher Forum recently hosted The New York Times’ Thom Shanker for the inaugural Murrow Center event, a discussion series covering journalism, technology, and foreign policy. Shanker spoke about his experience covering the wars in the Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as the changing nature of the media industry and its impact on policy and decision makers.

Thom Shanker is the Washington editor and former Pentagon correspondent for The New York Times, covering the military and national security. Shanker reported on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, routinely spent time embedded with troops. Formerly, he was foreign editor and correspondent for the Chicago Tribune, based in Moscow, Berlin, and Sarajevo. He is co-author, with Eric Schmitt, of Counterstrike: The Untold Story of America’s Secret Campaign Against Al-Qaeda. Shanker attended the Fletcher School of Law & Diplomacy and Colorado College.

FLETCHER FORUM: Looking at Iraq and Afghanistan, what are the main lessons national security thinkers have drawn from those experiences? What lessons are those thinkers missing as they build strategy for the future?

THOM SHANKER: I think one of the main lessons that people have taken to heart is Eisenhower’s famous statement, “The plan is nothing but planning is everything.” The invasion of Iraq was a terrific success and happened really quickly, but there had been no planning for what comes next. General Petraeus’s famous question, “Tell me how this ends”—truly nobody had thought through that.

Now, military planners really understand they have to do their planning: not just to break stuff, but for what happens after it’s broken. It really is your responsibility to fix it and to govern. America’s such a new country; Middle Eastern history is counted in thousands of years and America’s in hundreds. I don’t think it’s too sharp a criticism to say that most of the people who planned the invasion of Iraq had maybe heard the word Shia and the word Sunni but had very little understanding of the cultural and the religious implications of the Shia-Sunni split. I don’t think planners even thought about that when they brought down Saddam Hussein.

And then for Afghanistan, the lesson here is that winning isn’t enough. I was embedded with the 5th Special Forces Group, who captured Kandahar with Hamid Karzai. I came in shortly after the fall of Kandahar, and at that point in January 2001, we had won the war in Afghanistan. The Taliban had been outed. Al-Qaeda was damaged, hiding. The war was over; we had won. And then we let it slip away. Focus shifted to Iraq. The victory in Afghanistan was flawed, but it was a masterpiece—and they let it slip away. And we still have troops on the ground there now.

The problem is not that we’ve been in Afghanistan for fourteen years or Iraq for eleven. It’s that in Afghanistan we went to war fourteen times, each a year long. And the same in Iraq—we went to war eleven times. With an all-volunteer military, you couldn’t deploy people and have them stay. When my dad went off to WWII, he didn’t come home until it was over. I understand you can’t do that in an all-volunteer military, but the sense of continuity, to see a mission through, is another really important lesson.

One of the central themes of the book Counterstrike I wrote with Eric Schmidt—the other biggest lesson learned from the past decade and a half—is to very carefully define what our threats are. President Bush very understandably in the days after 9/11 talked about the existential threat posed by al-Qaeda, and that gave the United States government and the American public the idea that al-Qaeda could actually end our existence. That’s what existential threats are. The Soviet Union during the Cold War was truly an existential threat. They had enough nuclear weapons to wipe out America as we knew it.

If, heaven forbid, al-Qaeda gets its hands on a couple nuclear weapons—the loss of life would be unimaginable. Any death more than zero is unacceptable. But even al-Qaeda with nuclear weapons could not end the existence of the United States, unless we by our actions ended the existence of the values that we hold dear. And that’s what happened. Our values came under attack from us as much as our nation did from al-Qaeda, and it was because we allowed all of the institutions—public, private, government, civilian—to act as if al-Qaeda was truly an existential threat.

We have to act appropriately to our threats. Say what you will about Guantanamo—I’m a political person—but you can’t say that Guantanamo is the picture-perfect representation of American values. It’s just not. Abu Ghraib. Horrible stain on American values.

FLETCHER FORUM: Do you think that we are defining terrorism more accurately today, and have developed a more comprehensive counterterrorism strategy? Are we prioritizing terrorism in the appropriate way, as with ISIS? Are we using the right policy and military tools to address it—for example, drones?

SHANKER: Drones is such an electrifying word. The problem with drones is that people talk about the drone strategy. No. Drones are a tactic that should fit into a broader strategy, and for too long drones were indeed our full strategy. A full counter-terrorism strategy has to include drones, special operations raids, intelligence gathering. Until we get to the underlying causes of the anger and frustration within these societies—not just poverty, but the poverty of hope, the poverty of education, the poverty of opportunity—we’re never going to end terrorism. Drones don’t build schools. Drones don’t invest and bring jobs. Drones can’t provide healthcare. Until you solve those problems, you’re going to have this problem of heartfelt frustration, anger, and hatred that leads to the next wave of terrorist fighters.

I think America’s approach to counterterrorism is a lot smarter, with still a few mistakes. The Islamic State went from being junior varsity to being the world’s greatest threat in a matter of weeks. How’d that happen? We are still in many ways an industrial-age security power, and we still have not adapted to the information age adversaries. ISIS is so much smarter on social media. The other week, they posted the photographs, names, ranks, and addresses of 100 American service personnel they say contributed to the bombing campaign. It was so artistically done that there was this implication they’d hacked into DOD servers, which was very ominous. They hadn’t. All those names were drawn from public news reports, some even from DOD’s own news reports, and ISIS had done the kind of web research that any high school senior can do, but they made it look like a very elaborate targeting list. It had the desired effect, because the goal of terrorism is to terrorize. And I guarantee those people and their families, friends, central command were shocked.

FLETCHER FORUM: Drawing on your experience as a journalist in these conflict zones, especially as an embed, could you speak about the role of media and journalists in conflict, as related to both the public and policymakers?

SHANKER: There’s no grimmer decision that a democracy makes than going to war, and those of us who report on national security policy in conflicts feel that it’s utterly important that the American public knows what the government is doing in its name. Some of the stories that I’m most proud of are a series of articles I wrote with Eric Schmidt and David Sanger a year before the invasion of Iraq, laying out the war planning that was underway. We wrote those very, very carefully—not to disclose things that might help an adversary, but because the Bush administration was saying, “We’re not going to war; there are off-ramps, negotiations are underway.” And we thought it vitally important for the American public to know, “Hey, no kidding, in your name your government is already planning for war a year from now.”

Unfortunately, the relationship between the military and the media is like a marriage—a dysfunctional marriage, but we stay together for the kids. It’s really important that the military, for the well being of the men and women in uniform, communicates to the American people what it’s doing. And as a journalist, I want the American public to know what the military’s doing. There’s a coming together of our interests, but the military and the media still have not agreed on what the stories should look like, and what information is fair game.

FLETCHER FORUM: You’ve spoken previously about the changing nature of conflict and we’re starting wars like Iraq and Afghanistan give way to wars like Syria, which journalists can’t access. Increasingly, we’re seeing cyber warfare—where’s the battlefield for that? With Yemen and the drone strikes, you have more conflict in the unilateral action. How do journalists cover those type of wars, and what does it mean for the future

SHANKER: On Yemen and counterinsurgency, I find it very interesting that Saudi Arabia is now leading the offensive in Yemen. We’ve talked about how we shouldn’t solve the problems of the Arab world or the Muslim world, but no other powers have stepped up to do it. Now, the whole concept of furthering global security by, with, and through other nations rather than us doing it is on display right now. We’ll have to see where that ends up.

On journalists’ role in conflict, covering the civil war in Syria on the ground is so dangerous The New York Times is not sending people in right now. As war becomes more of a hybrid nature, with what Russia is doing in Ukraine and what we may see in other places like the Baltics or elsewhere in the former Soviet sphere, it becomes harder to cover. By its nature, most of hybrid warfare is invisible. Who are the little green men? We try to write stories about it, but trying to do facial recognition and look at patches is very, very hard for a news organization.

The cyber war—we have some of the best cyber reporters anywhere working for The New York Times, and they do amazing work, but most of what’s going on in cyber is, to mix metaphors, below the radar.

It’s only going to get harder for us to do the kind of quality journalism that we want, because we do it best when we are embedded within a large muscle movement maneuver, and that’s just not going to be the kind of war that we see in the near future. So we are having to rethink what we do and how we do it. A lot of it’s going to be much more like what you do here at Fletcher and academic institutions. It’s going to be data mining and research and thinking through things in different ways, because we might not be able to go put our feet on the ground and our eyeballs on the situation.

FLETCHER FORUM: What is the responsibility of news organizations to their freelance journalists in a place like Syria? The New York Times has a policy not to send journalists to Syria, but other organizations rely on freelancers, and we’ve seen some of the ramifications of that.

SHANKER: I get called a lot by young people who want to go set up shop somewhere in the Middle East and make their name. I overemphasize for effect why they shouldn’t do it. If you’re a correspondent for The New York Times and you’re in a conflict zone, you have a special insurance package so that your surviving family members, should the worst happen, be taken care of. We have all kinds of med-evac contracts. The New York Times takes care of its people. That includes our contract employees. If you’re working for The New York Times, you’re working for The New York Times. But people who go over simply to freelance and hope to sell articles to the wire services—maybe it’s the father in me, but I just urge them not to do it. The cost-benefit analysis just does not work out, and I would never go into a conflict zone without the full backing of a major news organization. If you’re going to risk your life for something you feel is important to write about, you need to be sure that you to have all the proper safety nets in place. You’re asking a very heartfelt question; we talk about this a lot.

When I was at the Tribune, I was interviewing staff reporters for a job in Africa, and one of the reporters said, “I just really want to get to Africa because I’m not going to feel complete as a reporter until I’ve covered a revolution or conflict or something like that.” I did not hire him for the job, because I thought that anybody who only saw their own self-aggrandizement in the deaths of others, in the rapes of others, in the widowing and orphaning of others, was not somebody who had the heart and soul to actually cover these things with the right empathy. The best combat correspondents I know are calm, are quiet, are introspective. They’re covering these stories not for their own self-aggrandizement, but because they want the world to understand the violence that people are doing to other people.

FLETCHER FORUM: In terms of the economic pressures on newspapers today, you see more niche online outlets that are targeting a very specific demographic in a very certain way, and people consuming news through aggregators or algorithms on their Facebook feed. How do you see this affecting the way the public is informed, the we make decisions about how to go to war, or even on domestic policy?

SHANKER: The fragmentation or niche elements of media today are both good and bad. As someone deep in the national security world I love all the niche, narrow, specialized national security websites. They’re designed for me. Small Wars Journal, Situation Report—these are really great things that give me just what I need.

The downside is that the Internet is not becoming broadcast, but becoming narrowcast. When people only aggregate or have news feeds push to them only those things they know they want to know about, we are creating a whole generation or population of people who are simply not as well-versed in the broader world. There’s been some great work on how the civil war in Syria was caused as much as by a drought as by Assad’s policies, so if you’re only reading about Assad’s policies but not following the water issues, you’re going to miss the whole thing.

I love mainstream, old school, dead-tree media. The reason that I believe in it is because newspapers to me are small “c” catholic and small “d” democratic, by which I don’t mean the religion and the party. Catholic in its original meaning means universal, all-encompassing; and democratic means for everybody. Newspapers have everything for everybody, instead of just a little bit for you.

The serendipity of coming upon an article that may be something you never thought you wanted to read, but is the very best thing you read that day, or becomes your new passion, or makes you think about something in a different way—that is the magic of a newspaper. That’s what the Internet loses, and I think society loses because of it.

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