RAND book provides critical review of US actions since 9/11 attacks

July 26, 2011

A new collection of essays by experts from the RAND Corporation examines America in the decade since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, focusing a critical eye on the nation's actions since the attacks and outlining changes in strategy needed to improve efforts against jihadist groups.

Successes outlined in the book, "The Long Shadow of 9/11: America's Response to Terrorism," include the significant degradation of al Qaeda, improved intelligence systems that have helped uncover terrorist plots and strengthened public health capabilities to safeguard Americans against any future attacks.

But the nation also has made significant mistakes during the past decade. Those errors include overconfidence in rebuilding Afghanistan, launching a war in Iraq that did little to weaken al Qaeda, and many actions that aided jihadist recruiting by fostering resentment toward the United States, such as the detainee abuse committed at Abu Ghraib prison.

"There is consensus that the United States has accomplished a great deal in the past 10 years in its efforts against terrorism," said Brian Michael Jenkins, co-editor of the anthology and the person who began RAND's terrorism study efforts nearly 40 years ago. "But this collection of essays points out that the United States has made many mistakes in its response to the 9/11 attacks and significant attention is needed to correct the nation's path."

Most of the authors of the 16 essays were involved in terrorism research long before the 9/11 attacks and many also have firsthand experience with these issues through service in the armed forces, Central Intelligence Agency, and the U.S. Departments of State, Justice and Defense. Others have advised military commanders in Iraq and Afghanistan, or domestic agencies such as public health agencies.

"These essays are not just primers in theology or cultural sensitivity," Jenkins writes. "They are pragmatic arguments about how to succeed."

Among the more provocative essays in the book is one by Arturo Munoz, a RAND senior political scientist, who argues that the United States should have backed Afghan President Hamid Karzai's effort to reconcile with the Taliban in December 2001. "A peace process among the Afghans was being discussed at the time, only to be repudiated by the Americans," he writes. Today, according to Munoz, America's efforts in Afghanistan might be better pursued by adapting military and civilian efforts to more closely align with Afghan norms. This means fewer U.S. troops across the countryside and more reliance on traditional or tribal forms of governance that stress consensus-building.

Jack Riley, vice president of the RAND National Security Research Division, suggests in his article that it's time to reassess the stringent air travel screening systems put in place after the 9/11 attacks. He suggests there are opportunities to simplify the system, while maintaining safety. Such an approach might create a "trusted traveler" program for flights originating in the United States combined with continued strict procedures for travelers coming to the United States.

An essay by Eric Larson, a senior policy researcher, offers insight into the ongoing debate among Islamic scholars about the brutal tactics employed by al Qaeda and discusses the growing number of former supporters who have rebuked the jihadist movement. This debate has been called a civil war within Islam itself and has much in common with the West's own century-long Reformation and Counter-Reformation. Larson suggests that understanding this issue can help the United States align its policies to undercut the jihadist narrative and support the aspirations of most ordinary Muslims.

Writing about the perception among the U.S. public toward homeland security policies, senior physical scientist Brian Jackson suggests that unrealistic demands for absolute safety drove the nation to spend unwisely on less effective strategies in the fight against terrorism. He argues for a new approach toward homeland security that stresses prudent and effective investments and strategies, rather than an ongoing race to plug only the latest hole in the nation's defenses.

RAND economist Lloyd Dixon and colleagues discuss one area of homeland security -- how to compensate victims of terrorism -- where some early solutions may soon disappear. When the Terrorism Risk Insurance Act of 2002 expires at the end of 2012, the nation will be without a system to fund insurance against losses from terrorist attacks. Dixon and his co-authors suggest that creating a rational compensation system to aid those hurt by terrorism can promote social cohesion and national unity, and contribute significantly to both social and economic resiliency.

Outside reviewers applaud the book for its wide-ranging perspective and innovative contributions to the national debate.

"The attacks on 9/11 set in motion a great array of changes in America. These essays capture this upheaval, but better still they do something RAND is so well positioned to do: They provide expert assessments of where our responses are strong, where they have fallen short, and how we need to change yet more," wrote Richard J. Danzig, former U.S. Secretary of the Navy and chairman of the Center for a New American Security.

Other reviewers were L. Paul Bremer III, chairman of the National Commission on Terrorism and head of the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq in 2003 and 2004, and Suzanne E. Spaulding, executive director of both the National Commission on Terrorism and the Commission to Assess the Organization of the Federal Government to Combat the Proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction.

The RAND book provides analysis across a wide array of topics, but many of the essays touch on common themes, including:
"The Long Shadow of 9/11: America's Response to Terrorism" is available at www.rand.org.

Funding for the project was provided through RAND's Investment in People and Ideas program, which combines philanthropic contributions from individuals, foundations and private-sector firms with earnings from RAND's endowment and operations to support research on issues that reach beyond the scope of traditional client sponsorship.

RAND Corporation

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