By Jill Dougherty, reporting from Aspen, Colorado
War is hell, but the war on terror is a chronic disease.
"It's a different type of war," Hank Crumpton says. He is one of three top officials - former and present - on a panel at the Aspen Security Forum. He's dressed in jeans and a plaid shirt. Don't let it fool you. He's the State Department's former coordinator of counterterrorism as well as former director of the CIA's National Resources Division.
Dealing with terror, he says, "is going to be more like managing disease." To fight it, he believes, the United States needs "a different mindset, a different structure. And it's going to be much more than military action and covert power."
Al Qaeda has been greatly diminished but, he says, "they are the vanguard, I think, in a new type of threat."
The threat is from "non-state actors": groups, cells, even individuals who are not part of organized states or nations. They fight "asymmetric" wars, conflicts that turn the traditional nation-state-against-nation-state paradigm on its head.
"It's unprecedented, the degree of asymmetry," Crumpton goes on. The audience here at Aspen, filled with people who live and breathe national security issues, is following along intently as the discussion unfolds.
"You had 19 al Qaeda operatives with box cutters who somehow compelled us to spend over a trillion dollars in extra defense spending. We've never seen that in the history of human conflict," Crumpton says. "You look at the role of non-state actors, not just al Qaeda and not just their affiliates, but the narco-traffickers in Mexico. Fifty thousand dead since 2006. These are non-state actors. You look in cyberspace, maybe half of that is non-state actors."
The man to Crumpton's right agrees: Modern war is like fighting a disease. Former Ambassador Cofer Black held the same job as Crumpton at the State Department and served as director of the Counterterrorist Center at the CIA.
"This is a disease. It's going to go on for a long time," he says. "You will know you are successful when something else becomes more important to us. We can't spend ourselves into the ground on this. We have already spent an awful lot of money. Many of our children have been in the infantry in Afghanistan. Whatever we do has to be effective and has to achieve a result. What is that result? If you can't identify it then you have to come up with a different plan."
Black says the United States needs a "sustainable" approach to modern war, maximizing all the elements of its "statecraft" in a very effective way "under one very smart person."
Say the word "statecraft" and you think State Department. Robert Godec, principal deputy coordinator for counterterrorism for the department, outlines what he calls new and important tools for fighting terrorists and their message.
The United States can't do everything on its own, so it's working with other countries, building international coalitions, helping governments identify threats and build their capacity to fight terrorism, he says.
One example: GCTF, the Global Counterterrorism Forum, created last September. It includes 29 countries plus the European Union. Other countries also participate. Then there's the International Centre of Excellence on Countering Violent Extremism in Abu Dhabi, which aims to counter the al Qaeda message.
The new Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications in the District of Columbia is online, directly countering the al Qaeda message in several languages, including Arabic.
In discussions with these three men and in other panels here at Aspen this week, a consensus emerges. Not only has the nature of war changed but, as CNN National Security Analyst Peter Bergen asks: Could we be at war forever?
"I think the answer is yes," Crumpton says. "The nation-state is not going to go away. It's going to be the most important organizing principle, and its going to be critical, but now you have got a layer of non-state actors on top of that. That makes it much more complex."
Managing the "disease" of terrorism. If only there were a pill you could take.