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With Us and Against Us: How America’s Partners Help and Hinder the War on Terror

April 4, 2019  |  12:15 pm  |  LBJ School of Public Affairs, SRH 3.124

On Thursday, April 4, 2019, the Strauss Center and Clements Center welcomed Dr. Stephen Tankel, Associate Professor in the School of International Service at American University, for a talk on his recently released book, With Us and Against Us: How America’s Partners Help and Hinder the War on Terror. The book explores how U.S. partners both hinder and help counterterrorism efforts. Tankel argues that the US must consolidate cooperation when it is good, and mitigate risks where it is bad, based on what we can expect and knowing that the partnerships are not perfect. Tankel looks at six Muslim-majority countries; Egypt, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia (which are long-term US allies) and Mali, Algeria, Egypt, and Yemen, with whom we built security partnerships with after 9/11.

Please see the Horns on a Dilemna podcast on the talk here.

Video from the event can be found here.

Tankel argues that threat perceptions are critical in determining the potential for cooperation with our partners. The sweet spot for cooperation is when the United States and its partner share threats. Cooperation is difficult when the United States faces a high asymmetry of threat perceptions. When the partner faces potential competing threats, cooperation determines how they prioritize threats. Tankel provides the example that in 2010, Al Qaeda in the Arabia Peninsula (AQAP) based in Yemen was the United States greatest threat, but the Yemeni’s government only prioritized it third. At times, Yemen even partnered with AQAP against its number one priority threat; the Houthi’s.

The types of relationships our partners have with terrorists also impacts our cooperation with them. If our partners also see them as belligerent, there is a lot of room for cooperation. Cooperative competition with terrorist organizations often prompts the United States to provide much needed security assistance. If our partners are indifferent to the organization, they tend to ignore the terrorists. Lastly, our partner nations may even collaborate with the terrorist organization, making cooperation with them impossible. Tankel argues that terrorist-state relations are the most critical factor for counterterrorism operations.

Tankel then explores the different types of counterterrorism efforts. He argues that the elements of tactical cooperation are the nuts and bolts of counterterrorism. The instruments of statecraft are most useful for securing this tactical cooperation. Cooperation on countering violent extremism is the hardest to evaluate and very difficult to obtain. Cooperation won’t succeed without partner buy-in.

Lastly, Tankel provides some recommendations on how to get more out of US partners. He argues that the US needs to expand the toolkit of engagement to create new ways to incentivize, support, and coerce partners. Counterterrorism is inherently political and does not exist in a vacuum. We need to make our expectations clear up front, which includes swiftly implementing assessment, monitoring and evaluation. Tankel also argues that it is important to leverage the US’s NATO allies.


Stephen Tankel is an associate professor in the School of International Service at American University and an adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. From 2014-2015, Dr. Tankel served as a Senior Advisor at the Department of Defense, where he led a review of U.S. defense policy in South and Central Asia, and helped to coordinate efforts to counter the flow of foreign fighters from South, Central, and Southeast Asia to Iraq and Syria. An expert on terrorism, counterterrorism, and security and military affairs in South Asia, Dr. Tankel frequently advises U.S. policymakers, practitioners, and members of the Intelligence Community on these issues. He has conducted field research in Afghanistan, Algeria, Bangladesh, India, Kenya, Lebanon, Pakistan, and the Balkans. Dr. Tankel is the author of numerous works, including With Us And Against Us: How America’s Partners Help and Hinder the War on Terror and Storming the World Stage: The Story of Lashkar-e-Taiba. He is also a senior editor of the web magazine War on the Rocks, associate editor of the Texas National Security Review, on the editorial boards of Terrorism and Political Violence and Studies in Conflict and Terrorism, and a frequent media commentator.

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