How Do You Know When Something is Working?
How Do You Know When Something is Working?
January 16, 2015
Is the war on terror – or whatever we call it lately – working?
I think the answer depends on whether you think in terms of goals or systems. If the goal is to stop all future terror attacks on the homeland, we can never know if that is working because we don’t know whether there will be an attack tomorrow. We can feel good about what has happened so far, but the future is a far bigger slice of time than the recent past and we know nothing about how the future will unfold.
But if you see the war on terror as a system, as opposed to a goal, you ask yourself different questions. With a system, you’re looking to continuously improve your knowledge and skills for preventing future attacks. And ideally you want to improve faster than the bad guys are figuring out new methods. But one can never know for sure what the bad guys are planning.
With a systems approach, the government can be expected to try lots of different methods, many of which will turn out to be bad ideas. But we shouldn’t count the number of mistakes to evaluate the system because the whole idea is to try lots of stuff and see what works. With a systems approach you make lots of attempts, evaluate the outcomes and continuously improve. And even “continuous” is hard to measure because progress can come in unexpected steps at any time.
The most successful approach to almost anything in life goes like this: Figure out what works then do it. That’s what the war on terror looks like to me. We observers can’t know whether or not the effort is working in some goal-oriented sense. We can only ask if our knowledge and talents and resources are growing. And clearly they are.
One could argue that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and Syria have made things worse by creating more terrorists than we killed. But I think the important metric is how much the United States and its allies have collectively learned in terms of fighting this type of threat. The knowledge and talents developed along the way are probably the most important change.
Is the war on terror working? I would say yes, from my national perspective, but not because there have been no spectacular attacks on the United States homeland in years. I think success comes in the form of building knowledge and resources that will improve our odds in the future. I can’t know if there was a more cost-effective way to get to this place, or what would happen if we had done things another way. But I am certain that our national capabilities are far better. I call that success.
Someday I expect that the United States and its allies in the fight against ISIS will agree to wall off the new caliphate and cut communications to the outside world. From that point on, any new terror suspects will be thrown over the wall into ISIS territory to keep the threat in one place. And with no outside contact, the society inside the walls will not advance technologically to become a larger threat. Meanwhile, our abilities to guard and defend the wall with technology will grow daily. In the long run, I predict that a prison-caliphate is the only solution. Israel showed that walls can keep danger out. I think we can show that walls can keep danger in as well. And I think we’re heading in that direction. The systems approach ends up there.
You might worry that turning the caliphate into a huge jail would infuriate Muslims outside the caliphate. But keep in mind that no reporters will be allowed into the territory and no news will come out. So allies against ISIS will manufacture some happy-sounding news about how the caliphate is working just great and the people on the inside could not be more pleased with it. And for all we know, that might actually be the case.
These are the types of options we couldn’t discuss with any seriousness before the recent attack in France. So the terrorists just improved our capabilities by putting more options on the table. Our system trumps their goals.
Many readers have asked why I haven’t been more outspoken about the French newspaper massacre. I feel for the victims and families, of course. But I also feel that history will mark the newspaper attack as the beginning of the end of radical Islam outside the walled Caliphate.
Co-founder of CalendarTree.com
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