Hard lessons

David Pacchioli
September 17, 2007
Newspaper’s Front Page of 9-11
K. Taylor

Front page, The Washington Post, September 12, 2001.

What's the only way to win the war on terror? Learn well the missteps of the war on drugs—and don't repeat them. So argues Penn State political scientist Michael Kenney, in From Pablo to Osama: Trafficking and Terrorist Networks, Government Bureaucracies, and Competitive Adaptation, published in May by the Penn State University Press.

In this comparative study, Kenney uses organizational theory to examine the inner workings of Colombian drug trafficking enterprises and international terror networks (principally Al Qaeda), as well as the law-enforcement agencies that seek to dismantle them. He introduces the concept of competitive adaptation to explain why, despite repeated setbacks, the traffickers and terrorists continue to bounce back.

Both sides learn from experience in these ongoing struggles, Kenney notes, and primarily from each other. One side's adaptation or innovation spurs a counter-move from the other side, and the cycle repeats. In this "co-evolutionary dynamic," each side has advantages and disadvantages, but the key advantage in flexibility remains with the traffickers and terrorists, unconstrained by law or morality. The "protean nature" of their operations makes them impossible to eradicate.

The standard response by enforcement agencies—focused on tactical improvements—is therefore self-defeating, Kenney argues, because it short-circuits the "exploratory learning" that would enable success against such an elusive adversary. Using the drug wars as an example, he shows how the relentless pressure to improve supply-control strategies has lead to "competency traps," precluding consideration of approaches that could be more fruitful. As a result, he says, in spite of short-term successes, the supply of illegal drugs reaching the U.S. has not been significantly reduced over the last 25 years.

Heeding these lessons, Kenney argues, can allow us to avoid the same traps in the war on terror. "In particular, the government should move beyond a militarized counterterrorism strategy that concentrates on reducing the capabilities of terrorist networks and devote greater political, cultural, and economic resources to addressing the root conditions of terrorism," he writes.

Toward that end, Kenney suggests, "politicians should shun the temptation to manipulate the public's fears of terrorism for their own benefit, and policymakers should strive to create counterterrorism agencies whose legitimacy depends less on amplifying the threat of extremism and more on creating realistic expectations of our government's ability to stop it."

Michael Kenney, Ph.D., is assistant professor of political science and public policy at Penn State Harrisburg, mck14@psu.edu.

Last Updated September 17, 2007