Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Brother against Brother - A Missed Chance to Undermine Lashkar-e-Taiba

Yesterday’s Washington Post had an article about Hafez Muhammad Masood, brother of Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) leader Hafez Muhammed Saeed.  The article discusses the vast differences between the brothers, Saeed has a $10 million bounty on his head under the U.S. State Department’s Rewards for Justice program for his role, as leader of LeT, in organizing the November 2008 assault on Mumbai in which six Americans (and over 160 others) were killed.

Masood, in contrast, lived in Sharon, Massachusetts were he was renown for his work on Interfaith outreach – especially with the local Jewish community.  He says he knew nothing of his brother’s links to terrorism except what he read in the paper.  He was deported for visa violations and is now back in Pakistan, working for his brother, but he still speaks fondly of America.

As the co-author of a recent book on LeT this article caught my interest for other reasons.  The book discusses computer models of Lashkar-e-Taiba’s behavior.  The major findings are that traditional security approaches – raids, international sanctions, arrests, etc. – have had limited efficacy in reducing LeT attacks.  Forcing the Pakistani government to really crackdown is helpful, but difficult to do.  But an interesting pair of policy options were indicated by our research: fostering internal organizational conflict and undermining the organizational infrastructure (including its communications, social services, and training activities.)

(If you want more details on this, buy your copy today!  Former DNI Mike McConnell calls it "an invaluable asset to counter-terrorism analysts and policymakers" and "a must read.")

In that light, Masood could have been an asset to the United States.  Could he have played a useful role in public diplomacy or other kinds of information operations against Lashkar-e-Taiba?  Asking him to speak out directly against his elder brother might not have been realistic and even have been counter-productive.  But what about asking him to appear to make broader statements about the United States to Pakistani audiences, or raise money for Pakistan and pointedly not send it through his brother’s organization?  This is only an off-the-cuff suggestion.  Presumably far more creative and effective possibilities exist.

The fact that Masood, on his return to Pakistan went to work for his brother raises questions about his motivations (although there may not have been a great number of job opportunities for Islamic preachers in Pakistan – there appears to be a glut.)  In the article he echoes his brother’s rhetoric, albeit without the fire.  But it is also clear that Masood preferred to stay in the United States, and his visa violation – rather then being used to deport him – could have been used as leverage to ensure his assistance.  Whether or not he was “on board” is irrelevant, he could have been a useful asset and that opportunity was foreclosed by a strict law enforcement approach.

Another side to this story is the bureaucratic one.  For the U.S. Attorney in Massachusetts this was an easy case, deport someone on a clear visa violation who had links to terrorism (the U.S. attorney responsible claimed the case had nothing to do with Masood’s family links.)  Fair enough, the Department of Justice charges and tries people.  But the bureaucratic links need to exist to take advantage of this kind of opportunity.  Lateral links are needed so that intelligence and public diplomacy agencies know about the opportunity.  At the same time vertical links are also needed so that the issue can be kicked up to a higher level and resolved so that Justice and Defense don’t get into turf wars.  But most importantly, creative thinking is needed throughout the government to take advantage of these opportunities.

Some terrorist groups can be defeated through good police-work.  But many, particularly those like Lashkar-e-Taiba, which have state support and a safe haven, can only be undermined with more subtle strategies.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

In Defense of the Shallow: Why Watch the Debates?

Just before the debates began I tweeted: “Another debate, do I have to watch it? I don’t want to be a policy wonk anymore.”

Of course I watched it. I can’t say I learned much, but I watched it.  If you must know, I thought Obama won, but not in a blowout – not be enough to really change anything.  Also, the questions seemed pretty stilted to Obama – disaffected Democrats asking to be inspired.

But what are the debates really all about?  Do they really give the American people a hard look at policy positions?  I doubt it – people have a pretty good sense of the candidate’s policy positions and, more importantly, the broad policy preferences of the two parties.  Individual’s fundamental prejudices (not a negative thing – just their understanding of how the world works) don’t tend to change much and the debate gives little opportunity for it to do so.

The Presidential campaign is a very long audition for a job.  The debates are that final interview question: “Is there anything you would like to tell us about yourself?”

The purpose of that question is the interviewer's last ditch effort to figure out, quite simply, if you are crazy.

I don’t necessarily mean clinically (don’t mock mental illness) but are you a person who has difficulties that are going to introduce a negative factor into the workplace - say not do the job, feud with co-workers, steal etc?

In a sense that is the question the debates are asking – they are a chance for us to get a really good look at the people who want to lead us and get a sense if they are “okay.”  That’s why the 1984 debates, for example, were so important.  Reagan had had an impressive first term, but in the first debate he seemed pretty off.  He pulled it together for debate two – but if the President had actually become senile, well that’s the kind of thing we’d want to know.

Much of the Presidency is performance, and we need to know the candidate can perform.  It may seem shallow, but sometimes surface matters.  The 1960 debate famously highlighted handsome, youthful Kennedy with the awkward Nixon.  Shallow, yes, but it turned out to be pretty right – there was something off about Nixon – as we learned a bit later.

For most of the debates I’ve seen both candidates managed to perform well enough to show that they weren’t way off.  Interestingly there were no debates between 1960 and 1976 – elections won by Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon.  Off-hand these were two of the most deeply flawed individuals of the modern Presidency.  Shallow judgments perhaps, but not valid nonetheless.