Robert Pape and Offshore Balancing

Last week, I attended a two-day conference at the New America Foundation on terrorism organized by Robert Pape from the University of Chicago.   In his new book, Cutting the Fuse, Pape argues that the suicide bombings are largely a function of foreign occupation.  Using empirical research, he demonstrates that a surge in terrorism attacks is almost always accompanied by foreign invasion and occupation.  “Prior to the U.S. invasion of Iraq there had never been a suicide terrorist attack in Iraq,” reports Pape in his book.  Since the U.S. invasion, however, there has been a boom in suicide attacks culminating in 2007 with over three-hundred attacks.  Similar patterns were also present in other major terrorist regions including Afghanistan, Lebanon, and Israel.  In order to reduce the number of suicide bombers—and also diminish the number of terrorist recruits—Pape recommends that the U.S. engage in offshore balancing: the use of naval and air-craft capabilities to maintain a projection of force in the region, while simultaneously reducing the U.S. footprint in the hostile country.

Generally, I find Pape’s main thesis quite persuasive.  Although I do not believe the relationship is quite as linear Cutting the Fuse suggests[i], the book does produce compelling evidence that foreign occupation leads to an increase in terrorism.  His policy recommendations are perhaps the more interesting and controversial.  Offshore balancing in the context of counter-terrorism would seem to require sustained use of targeted drone attacks.   This poses an obvious problem.  If occupation leads to an increase in terrorism, why would drone attacks be any different?

Pape dismisses this argument.  Firstly, he says, U.S. occupation should not be replaced with “mass drone attacks”.  Counter-terrorism is not the central idea of offshore balancing according to Pape.  Indeed one of the professor’s graduate students put the argument most succinctly, arguing that without a U.S. presence in Afghanistan, counter-terrorism activities would be unnecessary.  Secondly, off-shore balancing would still allow the U.S. the strategic flexibility to topple hostile regimes in rogue or failing states.

This argument seems to still leave a number of questions unanswered.  If there is another 9-11 type attack, what policy response would offshore balancing recommend?   Airstrikes against suspected terrorist camps, a la Bill Clinton 1998 might be perceived as weak by both allies and potential terrorists.  Send in troops and the U.S. could easily be mired in another Afghanistan.  A third option, argued ably by Seth Jones and seemingly endorsed by Pape would be to rely on residual forces to conduct covert action, training and paramilitary activity thereby “leveraging local entities” to do our fighting for us[1].  The Jones model would lessen the U.S. footprint while simultaneously pursuing an aggressive “population-centric” approach towards an insurgency.   There are, however, significant risks to empowering local forces.  In Iraq, the Sons of Iraq, a group that the U.S. backed against Al Qaeda in Iraq and largely touted as a success story, now poses a significant security threat to the Shia dominated central government.  Recall also that some Taliban allies—e.g. Gulbudden Hekmatyar and his group Hizb Islamiya—were once  “local entities” the U.S. supported to fight the communists.  In Afghanistan these risks are further heightened due to the lack of a strong Afghan army.  There are also country-specific factors that need to factor into any Covert Action.   In Afghanistan covert action might well entail working with local warlords with dubious human rights records not to mention potentially anti-American agendas.   The unpredictable nature of covert action should weigh heavily on policymakers considering this option.

At the outset, Pape’s vision of offshore balancing seemed overly optimistic.  He  seems to suggest that minimal in-country troops combined with over-the-horizon forces can contain the terrorist threat.   Only after considering the alternatives, does Pape’s argument begin to look more attractive.  A full throttle invasion is clearly counter-productive.  It plays into the terrorist goals because they can easily portray U.S. direct intervention as imperialist.  The facts can’t lie, and the facts suggest that more troops leads to more terrorism.  A second option, whereby the U.S. withdraws to aircraft carriers and conducts counter-terrorist attacks is likewise problematic.  Without adequate intelligence, the drone attacks will not be successful; furthermore civilian deaths from drone attacks may very well inflame locals and encourage terrorism.  A third option which relies on covert action and paramilitary/ military training has some potential, especially given the reports that the Taliban are not well liked in Afghanistan.  This strategy, however, poses the risk that future destabilizing groups will be empowered.  Ironically, Pape’s approach, which seems to call for a more limited response, may be the best option from a cost-benefit analysis.

One final note: there are some calls for the U.S. to “move beyond the war on terrorism”.  I think this view is mistaken.  The reality is that transnational threats such as terrorism, narco-trafficking, and piracy are the greatest security threats to the U.S..  If the U.S. is to remain prepared and vigilant over the next two decades, strategic thinking must emphasize how to deal with these threats effectively. This entails developing not just the capability to topple foreign regimes, which offshore balancing has proven capable of achieving, but also develops appropriate policy tools to “win the peace.”  Pape’s book, Cutting the Fuse, is a good start at addressing these issues.


[1] This, according to Pape is precisely how the U.S. was able to overthrow the Taliban in 2001 with the help of the Northern Alliance.


[i] For instance, Kori Schake argues that Pape’s causal chain is backwards.  The U.S. occupied Afghanistan in response to the 9-11 attacks; therefore, the problem of terrorism existed prior to U.S. intervention.  Terrorism was a precondition which only manifested itself in the form of suicide bombers as U.S. troops started to arrive.  Both Schake’s and Pape’s views are somewhat extreme.  Schake believes that the causal stream only flows in one direction: i.e. terrorism causes U.S. occupation.  Pape argues that this causal flow is reversed.  A more nuanced interpretation would allow causality to go in both directions, whereby each terrorist attack elicits a U.S. response (more troops), which in turn produces a terrorist response (more suicide attacks).  In the end Pape probably gets the better of the argument, since it is clearly up to the U.S. to break out of this downward cycle with alternative policies.

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