What’s the best way organize a coalition around countering terrorism?

Fighting transnational terrorist groups such as the Islamic State, al-Qaida, and its various offshoots—and even more localized terrorist groups such as Boko Haram and al-Shabab requires effective international collaboration. Counterterrorism, therefore, is a prime collective-action function of the United Nations and other global and regional multilateral institutions.

Yet those multilateral institutions with broad membership and cumbersome decisionmaking and accountability processes have often produced sluggish responses—even paralysis—in authorizing (let alone directing) timely and effective action against terrorists and their allies. The frustrations are contributing to growing skepticism as to the future of multilateral security institutions and operations. But the perceived necessity of combatting terrorism has also been the mother of inventive, if not always ideal, mechanisms through and around the institutional blockages.

The balance sheet on cooperation

In the absence of adequate collective efforts to stanch trans-border terrorism, there are new pressures to resurrect national barriers to the movement of people and goods. This risks reversing the recent evolution away from the sovereignty-über-Alles Westphalian international system. One consequence of persistent terror threats has been the resurrection of various border controls within the European Union, in effect rescinding the Schengen agreements among most of the EU countries, plus Norway and Switzerland. It has also created temptations to go it alone, with some countries resorting to unilateral actions such as bombing raids against terrorist camps to avoid dealing with the inhibitions, different threat perceptions, interests, and commitments of presumed counterterrorism partners.

But effectively countering terrorists who can inflict lethal damage across national borders demands cooperation among states whose civilian populations are targets. Ideally, such multilateral cooperation will be multifaceted and worldwide. And ideally, it would include capabilities for anticipating, intercepting, and capturing or killing those engaged in or responsible for terrorist acts. The multilateral arrangements can be of great practical value, giving those actively engaged in counterterrorist action access to their partners’ intelligence and territory. Multilateral endorsements and collaboration can also be of crucial political value, in sharing the costs and risks of the operations and providing them with legal and moral legitimacy. 

But there’s another side of the multilateralism coin: it can be slow. Partners must agree on when, against whom, how, and with what rules of engagement a counterterrorism action is planned. This can be problematic when swift and extremely secret responses to pending or ongoing threats are needed. The international checks and balances may be good for accountability, but they can also have bad paralyzing effects.

Case study: Afghanistan

How, then, to maintain the burden-sharing and accountability virtues of multilaterally-endorsed and conducted counterterrorism while minimizing its susceptibility to debilitating gridlock? 

Most important, the governments doing battle against terrorism need to adapt their arrangements with each other to the volatility of the current polyarchic world, where many diffuse centers of state and non-state power keep proliferating. 

NATO’s International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and the subsequent Resolute Support arrangements in Afghanistan are a good example of an adaptive and innovative multilateral military counterterrorism alliance. No doubt, the alliance arrangements aren’t perfect, reflecting the constraints and limitations inherent in international collective action arrangements, now further complicated by the emergent polyarchic relationships. This has generated frustration among coalition partners, and particularly in the United States. Nonetheless, as even the unilateralism-happy administration of George W. Bush quickly learned, they were still better than solo action.

The 9/11 attacks set in motion a large and complex multilateral security operation. For the first time, NATO invoked Article 5 of its founding treaty—the collective defense clause. The Bush administration sought the legitimizing function of NATO endorsements for its counterterrorism responses, including the invasion of Afghanistan to destroy al-Qaida and topple the Taliban regime. 

The international checks and balances may be good for accountability, but they can also have bad paralyzing effects.

Yet the Bush administration was determined not to allow U.S. counterterrorism operations and alliance leadership to be encumbered by NATO’s unwieldy procedures, especially the NATO Council’s consensus rule that effectively gives all members veto power. Moreover, the immediate military response to 9/11 consisted of a small and presumably nimble special operations deployments to work in tandem with forces in Afghanistan. But that largely solo action with a grab-bag of local proxies turned out to be insufficient. Although international forces toppled the Taliban regime within two months, the Afghan proxies turned out to be highly unreliable allies for continuing the fight. 

It became clear that a much more robust, accountable, and internationalized force was needed to stabilize a post-Taliban Afghanistan. U.S. representatives and military commanders were creative in “working” the NATO system so that it did not interfere with the ISAF’s semi-autonomous operations (after August 8, 2003, ISAF was formally but not actually subordinate to NATO). Outside of the NATO and ISAF frameworks, the CIA and U.S. special operations forces undertook their own missions. A favored approach was to ensure that NATO mandates to ISAF and/or U.S. commanders were vague enough to allow for flexible implementation that aligned with U.S preferences.

Running a 42-country, political-military, counterterrorism-counterinsurgency coalition is a systemic challenge that requires some imagination. There are lots of different interests, as well as varying levels of commitment. Skillful diplomats and pragmatic military commanders devised mechanisms for avoiding the collective action frustrations. That required, to some extent, living with restrictions on national deployments. To be sure, those restrictions fueled not just inhibitions but resentments on the battlefield (for example, U.S. soldiers complained that ISAF stood for “I Saw America Fight”). But without flexibly accommodating divergent allied interests, many fewer countries would have contributed at all.

Moreover, although particular countries were specially relied upon for the performance of ISAF’s various missions (routing out al-Qaida, preventing the return of the Taliban, and state-building), any country’s opting out of its assigned role would not collapse the whole operation, and the abandoned role could be performed by another country. 

[T]hese arrangements will usually have to be negotiated between the participant countries at the level of operational commands, rather than imposed hierarchically from national capitals.

Better than the alternative

The ISAF operations in Afghanistan have hardly been an unqualified success. The counterinsurgency and state-building efforts are struggling, and the survival of Afghanistan’s post-Taliban political dispensation remains precarious at best.

Still, the Afghanistan case shows the burden-sharing virtue of multilateralism. But specificity is key: collaborative arrangements need to be functionally-specific for a particular set of countries and carefully defined to suit their capacities (rather than amorphous or open-ended). Another lesson for future multilateral collective security operations is that these arrangements will usually have to be negotiated between the participant countries at the level of operational commands, rather than imposed hierarchically from national capitals. This will help flag implementation problems early on and make other adjustments in a timely manner.

The kind of modular mode of multilateralism we’ve described here is imperfect and requires careful management. But it is by far the better approach—practically and morally—than either the debilitating paralysis of overly-ambitious and highly-institutionalized collective action, or the resentments generated by largely unaccountable unilateralism.