Torture in Counterterrorism: The Need for a Strategic Perspective

Just a decade since becoming one of the hottest debates in counterterrorism, the issue of torture has  largely disappeared from public and academic discussion. This debate has often revolved around the whitewashing of the word torture, often euphemistically called ‘enhanced interrogation techniques.’ But to those who would still use this language, I’d simply point out that official Gestapo correspondence talked of ‘sharpened interrogation techniques’ against resistance fighters in occupied Europe during World War II. This language is as dishonest now as it was then.

While the aftermath of the attacks on September 11 saw a deluge of arguments in favour of torture – perhaps most notably by Alan Dershowitz – today the advocates of torture are largely limited to a small number of unrepentant CIA officials and neo-conservative intellectuals. There are a myriad of reasons for this reduction in proponents of such methods, but two major trends have all but ended the torture debate: the shocking revelations of the torture program, culminating in the catchily named Senate Intelligence Committee Study on CIA Detention and Interrogation Program released in December 2014; and the Obama administration’s tendency to kill suspected terrorists in drone strikes rather than capturing them.

Despite the current weakness of the pro-torture argument, there are serious deficiencies in both the public and academic discourse on torture. The success of the anti-torture argument has come about largely in spite of the way in which torture is framed. What I want to do here is challenge the dominant understanding of torture as a tactical, rather than strategic, issue, something epitomised by the near total dominance the ‘ticking-bomb scenario’ (the idea that an attack against Americans is imminent) holds over this discourse.

In order to understand this, it is first important to take a step back and understand the difference between strategy and tactics. To quote the famous paraphrase of Clausewitz’s definition, “Tactics is the art of using troops in battle; strategy is the art of using battles to win the war.” So in counterterrorism, strategy is the way in which a state achieves its political objectives, tactics are the tools it used to achieve it. What is important here, then, is that tactics serve strategy, and therefore the use of any tactic in counterterrorism – whether torture, drone strikes, or deradicalization programs (programs that seek to rehabilitate accused or convicted terrorists) – cannot be fully understood without examining how they serve a wider strategy. Those who focus on tactics at the expense of strategy should heed the advice of Sun Tzu: tactics without strategy is simply the noise before defeat.

Therefore, when we look at torture, we should not just look at how effective it is as a tactic, but how it serves a state’s wider strategy. Yet, the ticking-bomb scenario can inhibit our ability to see torture in this way, because it only looks at tactics rather than strategy. It focuses entirely on the single ‘ticking-bomb’ case without discussing the context in which it takes place. It does not discuss issues that are pertinent before using torture (such as whether those engaged in the practice have any experience, or even know what they are doing. Emergencies are not the best time for enthusiastic amateurs), or those that arise because of torture (see below). The debate invariably revolves around small and technical details, which are inherently tactical in nature: the torture advocate asserts torture’s efficiency in making people talk, opponents reply that people say anything to make the torture stop, advocates retort that this is better than nothing. Repeat ad nauseam. Of course, there is a legitimate debate to be had on the efficiency of torture, but the problem is that the debate does not extend beyond this. Whether torture is effective in gaining intelligence is only a part of the debate, but it dominates the discussion nonetheless.

Rather than framing the debate on torture around the tactical view offered by the ticking-bomb scenario, the debate on torture should focus on whether torture makes strategic sense for a state to pursue. In doing so, we need to develop our understanding of the long-term negative effects torture can have.

Perhaps the most damaging of these long-term negative effects is providing a recruiting tool for terrorist organisations, who frequently draw upon images of torture in order to gain support. The power of this imagery can be seen in the way that ISIS dresses up its captives in orange jumpsuits, clearly designed to echo the infamous outfits worn at Guantanamo Bay.

The use of torture can also undermine public trust in the security services, especially within communities who feel at risk of state oppression. Intelligence services known to use torture are likely to see a decrease in the number of people willing to provide information. After all, if you suspect a family member or close friend of involvement in terrorism, are you going to tell the security services if you fear they will be tortured?

A third strategic problem torture causes is that it undermines a state’s soft power, and in particular its ability to promote human rights. Is it a surprise that American attempts to inculcate a respect for human rights in Iraqi forces failed when the United States simultaneously abandoned those human rights itself the moment they became inexpedient? A final strategic problem is the damage torture does to multilateral cooperation – arguably the most vital tool in thwarting transnational terrorist organisations – as states become reluctant to share intelligence which is tainted by the use of torture or in some other cases, states may be reluctant to share information that could lead other states to dig deeper using extreme methods.

These strategic issues with torture do not, of course, completely end the debate. A case could be made that these strategic problems can be mitigated, and are in fact a price worth paying for the information torture provides. In order to make this argument, however, the torture advocate must engage in the strategic discussion. In this sense, torture is more effective in some strategies than others. If a state aims to defeat terrorism by repression and state terror, then clearly torture will be an effective tactic: the strategic drawbacks mentioned above are mitigated, or even turned into advantages by a state that shows little concern for international opinion. On the other hand, if a state aims to defeat terrorism by building support within communities and alienating the terrorists from their potential base, then torture does not suit the strategy well. In other words, making the strategic case for torture implies support for a wider coercive counterterrorist strategy, more suited to brutal dictatorships than liberal democracies.

The use of torture by the state entails significant strategic consequences, which are largely ignored because of the focus on a tactical view of torture, embodied in the ticking-bomb scenario. This is not to concede that the tactical arguments in favour of torture are necessarily true, but any debate on torture in this tactical straightjacket naturally favours the pro-torture side, and has a tendency to reduce the debate to practicality versus ethics. That is not how we should conduct the debate: the practical arguments against torture are just as strong, if not stronger, than the ones in favour of it.

Photo by Justin NormanCC BY-NC-SA 2.0 (image was not modified)


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