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Obama Counterterror Strategy Takes U.S. In Wrong Direction

Posted by James Jay Carafano on

President Obama’s new counterterrorism strategy reflects a profound misreading of the nature of the global transnational threat. If we follow this strategy for a few years we will be right back where we were on September 10, 2001.

The new blueprint misses what should be the primary goal of U.S. counterterrorism strategy: to prevent the re-emergence of a global, Islamist extremist insurgency. To achieve this goal we must divide and defeat the enemy.

That will require:

  • first, preventing any one group from assembling the resources, allies, and support needed to mount and maintain a global insurgency
  • then crafting specific strategies to deal with significant terrorist threats aimed at the U.S., and
  • finally, even as these groups are defeated, launching and sustaining a robust initiative to identify and combat transnational terrorist threats.

The primary means of implementing such a strategy involves “hard” power and strong bilateral cooperation between the U.S. and like-minded nations that share a commitment to defending free and open societies. “Soft” power complements hard power. It is most effective when our friends and enemies know the U.S. has the will and determination to defend our people and our values.

The Road to the Wrong Strategy

President Obama has been distancing himself from the Bush post 9/11 effort for years. As a candidate, he declared it was time to close the detention facilities at Guantanamo Bay and restrict long-accepted interrogation policies. Upon entering the Oval Office, he even adjured conceptualizing the conflict as war, banishing terms like “the Long War” and “the Global War on Terrorism” in favor of “overseas contingency operations.” He also refused to identify terrorist groups who distort Islam to justify the slaughter of innocents as Islamist-terrorists.

Furthermore, Mr. Obama not only declared his intent to withdraw combat forces from Iraq and Afghanistan, he announced a specific time line for the withdrawal in Afghanistan. In announcing this timeline at the same time he announced the surge, the President effectively undermined his own Afghan counterinsurgency strategy.

He then compounded the problem by stating his intent to pursue significant cuts in conventional forces, substitute “soft” for “hard” power, and increasingly rely on international organizations rather than strong bilateral relations to advance U.S. interests. All these shifts can be interpreted as a retreat from a muscular global defense.

Problems with the New Strategy

The strategy unveiled this June essentially seeks to treat terrorism under a law enforcement paradigm. This is the same paradigm adopted by the Clinton Administration-the paradigm in effect all the way up to 9/11, when its disastrous shortcomings were so shockingly revealed.

In addition, for overseas operations, the White House embraces a “small foot print” strategy that relies primarily on Special Forces operations, covert action, and strikes with unmanned aerial vehicles.

This strategy cedes the initiative to our enemies. Moreover, it will give them the opportunity to reconstitute both their moral and physical assets.

Islamist beliefs are rooted in a culture that the strategy fails to appreciate. While Western conceptions of “honor” rest on notions of virtuous acts and beliefs, the Islamist culture equates “honor” with power. When the U.S. successfully waged war on al Qaeda, the honor of the Islamist cause was greatly diminished. The muscular response did not win popularity points in the Islamic world, but it garnered grudging respect for America’s strength and its determination to defend itself.

The conflict further discredited al Qaeda’s cause, worldwide, with the revelation that most of the casualties were Muslim innocents slaughtered by the terrorists. The popularity of the movement declined significantly.

In unilaterally withdrawing from the conflict, however, the Obama Administration allows al Qaeda to paint a narrative that the U.S. is now in retreat. It also reinforces bin Laden’s contention that the U.S. is a paper tiger, content to flee when attacked, as it did in Lebanon in 1984 and Somalia in 1994. One successful major terrorist attack or offensive in Afghanistan or Iraq will be sufficient for al Qaeda to claim a “victory” and regain its “honor.”

Meanwhile, the president’s new strategy does much to sap our moral strength and resolve to combat transnational terrorism. It is increasingly unclear to most Americans who we are fighting and what we are fighting for. Consider the administration’s ambivalent and unimaginative response to the “Arab Spring.” While involving us in another conflict, it fumbled the chance to build a plan for future engagement with the “new” Middle East that would break from the past and center on engagement with the region’s people rather than their oppressors. The mixed signals-to American allies, enemies and citizens-leaves the U.S. ill-prepared to fight a war of ideas against Islamist extremist ideology either at home or abroad.

The administration has also created opportunities for al Qaeda to physically reestablish itself in the Afghanistan-Pakistan theater. The premature drawdown in Afghanistan will allow the Taliban to reestablish space for al Qaeda to rebuild sanctuaries in the country. Meanwhile, Pakistan will have little incentive to pursue al Qaeda and its affiliates. As a result, in a few years al Qaeda will have much greater flexibility in broadening an operational base to work from.

Perhaps even more importantly, the administration’s new strategy ignores what al Qaeda has been doing on a global scale. Al Qaeda never was your garden variety “terrorist group.” It trained thousands of mujaheddin during the 1990s, then quite purposefully spread them throughout the Muslim world. Since then al Qaeda has worked assiduously to co-opt or gain control of other. It’s no accident that al Qaeda is active in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, the Sahel, and dozens more out-of-the-way places around the world.

American focus on its own safety has, in fact, led the U.S. to ignore a very real problem-that Al Qaeda is not merely concerned about attacking our homeland. Al Qaeda is, in fact, a global insurgency intent on taking over far-flung areas of the world. And the new strategy is wholly inappropriate for dealing with that reality.

While covert strikes can be a successful tactic for hunting down the leaders of a terrorist group, attrition is actually counterproductive when combating an insurgency. The prospect of “body counts” as the proper metric for measuring success should give Americans pause about the strategy pursued by the administration. Additionally, without persistent presence and the engagement of al Qaeda-threatened governments and civilian populations, the U.S. will lack the real-time, actionable intelligence needed to target terrorists and suppress insurgencies.

Finally, the president’s strategy pays insufficient attention to state-sponsored terrorism, a major problem now that will only get worse. Today, Iran is one of the most prominent and aggressive state sponsors of terror. Its protégés-Hamas and Hezbollah-pose grave threats to regional stability. In addition, transnational criminal cartels in Mexico are increasingly taking on the character of both insurgencies and terrorist networks.

In sum, the new strategy is wholly inadequate to deal with the existing terrorist threat, much less the resurgent threat it is doomed to foster. Perhaps anticipating this observation, the administration has taken to broadcasting the feel-good message that al Qaeda is “near collapse.” This supposedly justifies the new counter-terrorism strategy which basically suggests we can pretty much drop everything in the War on Terror except hunting down the last of the high-level al Qaeda operatives.

While most experts agree that the al Qaeda network has been greatly degraded, it is certainly premature to declare “mission accomplished.” The White House, however, seems intent on silencing dissenting voices within ranks.

Dissent within the Administration’s Ranks

Mike Leiter, the former head of the National Counterterrorism Center (known as NCTC), appears to have been shown the door because he was not on board with the White House line that “the end of al Qaeda is inevitable.” Now, he is airing his views publicly. Late last month the New York Times reported Leiter as saying that al Qaeda in Pakistan still posed a serious threat to the United States and that “assessments that Al Qaeda was on the verge of collapse lacked ‘accuracy and precision’.”

There is also talk that the Defense Department’s chief intelligence officer, Mike Vickers, has argued that taking the pressure off now (particularly by shrinking the U.S. foot print in Afghanistan) will allow al Qaeda to get back in the game.

Meanwhile, the Washington Post reports that “some” U.S. officials have cautioned the administration that Iran is secretly aiding al Qaeda. Some analysts within the administration want to believe it’s not willful misbehavior by Tehran, just a case of Iran turning a blind eye to activities. Others, like Treasury official David S. Cohen, hold that Tehran is engaged in a systematic campaign of support and (following the favored Middle East dictum that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend”) may even have a formal agreement al Qaeda. This squabble can’t be good news to a White House that so eagerly offered the hand of accommodation to Iran, only to have it publicly spurned.

Even if the more benign view of Iran’s relations with al Qaeda proves true, after a few years of al Qaeda redux, the U.S. may well find it must adopt a different strategic course.

Toward a Better Strategy

The first and most quintessential element of the U.S. counter-terrorism effort must be persistence. No counter-insurgency can succeed without the sustained political will to see the effort through.

Moreover, the threat must be recognized for what it truly is: a global insurgency. The danger to American security, freedom, and prosperity is far graver than what might be achieved by any individual terrorist act. An insurgency is a threat to the fundamental legitimacy of all free societies.

When the true threat is acknowledged (and, yes, this involves dropping the euphemisms and calling terrorism by its name), then we can prepare an effective strategy based on the framework identified in the bullet points above. And no anti-terrorism strategy can be effective if it is perceived to shy away from the use of hard power.

Unfortunately, the Obama strategy suggests that the president has talked himself out of fighting. Perhaps he believes that the nation can no longer afford to defend itself and, thus, must assume a much more timid and subservient role in the world. If that is the assumption, it is dead wrong.

The U.S. never has been able to protect itself on the cheap and never will. Nor is it necessary for Americans to compromise on their security in order to restore the nation’s fiscal health.

National security is not the source of the nation’s economic woes. On the contrary, as a percentage of national wealth, the U.S. is spending about half what it did during the Cold War to protect all Americans from a variety of dangers (including transnational terrorism/insurgency).

Compromising security to balance the budget would not only make the nation less safe-it would not solve our real fiscal problems. Those problems are rapidly growing expenditures on entitlement programs, which have become blatantly unsustainable, and excessive taxation and regulation, which retard economic growth.

Unless these challenges are addressed, it will be impossible to get government spending under control. Far better-and much more effective-to exercise restraint in entitlement spending, taxation and regulation than to gut the national security budget and hope for the best.

Effective security, after all, contributes economic growth. It helps create the stable, secure environment necessary to keep our people free, and prosperous.

James Jay Carafano is director of The Heritage Foundation’s Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies. HIs colleague, Mackenzie Eaglen, is a member of Breaking Defense’s Board of Contributors

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