A Better Way to Fight Terrorism

You can find a lot of great stuff in Key West. Cold beer, warm sun -- and the secret to winning the long war against global trans-national terrorist networks.

Sixteen years ago, the military established a joint task force to help fight the drug war in Latin America. In 1998, it became a joint “interagency” task force (a “JIATF” in military jargon), including representatives not only from the military but also all the intelligence and federal law enforcement agencies combating the drug trade. In 2003, it became JIATF South. Today the command, about 500 people, coordinates detection and monitoring activities from the U.S.-Mexican border down both coasts of Latin America.

JIATF South has some notable achievements. Drug interdictions have increased for six years running. 2004 was a record year, even though fewer planes and ships have been available to chase drug smugglers since 9/11. We’re making progress against a smart, well-financed and ruthless enemy.

The JIATF South succeeds because it does something the federal government rarely does well, if at all: It plays well with others. Federal agencies have their own bureaucratic interests to look after, and they don’t trust other agencies. Presidents are too busy running the country to referee interagency squabbles.

Congress isn’t much help in the interagency business, either. Congressional committees are busy overseeing the federal agencies under their jurisdiction and have little incentive to worry about how well they coordinate with organizations under the responsibility of other committees.

In the end, there’s no one in charge.

JIATF South is different. On a typical day, Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine and Coast Guard uniforms sit alongside the alphabet soup of federal intelligence and law enforcement agencies. They work with air, sea and land forces from 11 foreign countries, including ships and planes from the Netherlands, France and Great Britain.

Key West is successful in part because it’s a long way from Washington and in part because it is been at it for 16 years, with that time invested in building trust and confidence between agencies. Mostly, JIATF South succeeds because the agencies involved have little alternative.

Acting independently, they know they stand little chance at making headway in the drug war. For example, the Coast Guard relies on JIATF South to provide intelligence from many national and foreign sources. That allows it to focus on what it does best, interdicting ships at sea. And it can depend on JIATF South to get its planes and ships to the right place at the right time. Since 9/11, in fact, the Coast Guard has recorded record seizures, even though it has had to divert more assets to other maritime security missions.

Washington needs to create a lot more organizations that look like JIATF South, and that will mean changing the military’s command structure. The Pentagon still divides the planet into Cold War-era overseas combatant commands. These are primarily military commands to plan and fight wars. But wars are few and far between, and we likely won’t fight them in places covered by the commands.

Meanwhile, the Pentagon often gets saddled with tasks that should be done by other federal agencies. Tsunami relief is just one example. Every problem does look like a nail when all you have is a hammer.

The Pentagon still needs major military commands where we have long-standing military alliances: in Europe and Northeast Asia. Additionally, a military command to support homeland security (Northern Command, a post-9/11 Pentagon initiative) also makes sense.

But the United States should replace other combatant commands with organizations that look more like JIATF South, organized to cover troubled parts of the world that America needs to worry a lot about and focused on transnational threats particular to those regions.

Thus, JIATF South should worry about terrorism, human and arms trafficking, as well as drug smuggling. A task force covering Africa and the Middle East would be concerned with arms smuggling, human trafficking, terrorism and infectious diseases. One covering South and Central Asia would be oriented on piracy, human trafficking, terrorism, infectious disease and trafficking in materials need to make weapons of mass destruction.

Defeating terrorism would be a perfect mission for the regional interagency task forces. After all, no part of the government has all the tools or all the information it needs to get the terrorists before they get us. The Key West approach offers a model of how to get more out of the sum of the parts.

James Jay Carafano, Ph.D., co-author of “Winning the Long War: Lessons from the Cold War for Defeating Terrorism and Preserving Freedom,” is Senior Research Fellow for National Security and Homeland Security at The Heritage Foundation.

James Jay Carafano is vice president of foreign and defense policy studies  The Heritage Foundation. Follow him on Twitter @JJCarafano.