The Good and Bad of Obama’s Counterterrorism Strategy

The good, the bad and the ugly of Obama’s new approach to the War on Terror.

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Evan Moore is a Senior Policy Analyst for the Foreign Policy Initiative, where Caitlin Poling is the Director of Government Relations.

In late May, President Obama gave a high-profile speech to announce his new strategy for countering terrorist threats to the United States and its allies. While certain parts of Obama's new counterterrorism strategy represent a step forward, other aspects alarmingly suggest a step backwards to pre-9/11 thinking.

The Good:  Obama Pushes Back Against Isolationists

It is perhaps ironic that Obama's new counterterrorism strategy is strongest when it reinforces the status quo – which is to say, the foreign policy consensus against isolationism. By so doing, the president gave a much needed and long overdue pushback against increasingly vocal advocates of non-intervention in America's political left and right.

First, the president defended the morality and legality of U.S. counterterrorism actions against al-Qaida, saying, "We are at war with an organization that right now would kill as many Americans as they could if we did not stop them first. So this is a just war – a war waged proportionally, in last resort, and in self-defense." 

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Second, Obama reaffirmed that a pillar of his counterterrorism strategy would be to use "all elements of national power" to prevail in "a battle of ideas," and thus addressed "the underlying grievances and conflicts that feed extremism." Specifically, he pledged to support the democratic transitions of the Arab Spring "because the peaceful realization of individual aspirations will serve as a rebuke to violent extremists." He also defended U.S. foreign assistance as a tool for marginalizing ideologies of violent extremism that is "fundamental to our national security" and comparatively low-cost.

Third, the president stressed the importance of active foreign diplomacy in the aftermath of the tragic death of U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and others in the Benghazi attack of September 11, 2012, arguing that "our security and our values demand that we make the effort."  Indeed, Obama rightly asserted that "any retreat from challenging regions will only increase the dangers that we face in the long run."

The Bad: A Return to the Pre-9/11 Mentality?

Unfortunately, the remainder of the president's new counterterrorism strategy marks a frustrating step backwards.

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The greatest danger in the Obama's new strategy is his assertion that, with the decimation of al-Qaida's central leadership, the scale of the terror threat to the United States now resembles the pre-9/11 years, when threats primarily focused on overseas targets and radicalized individuals in the United States.  To be sure, he conceded that al-Qaida's affiliates have tried to launch a series of attacks against the U.S. homeland in recent years.  But, he then added: "We learned that left unchecked, these threats can grow. But if dealt with smartly and proportionally, these threats need not rise to the level that we saw on the eve of 9/11." 

However, the president's subordinates have painted a different picture of the threat, testifying before Congress that the al-Qaida network is both expanding and capable of inflicting mass casualties on American soil.  

For example, as CIA Director John Brennan said during his confirmation hearings, "We remain at war with al-Qaida and its associated forces, which despite the substantial progress we have made against them, still seek to carry out deadly strikes against our homeland, our citizens and against our friends and allies." Brennan added, "I will say that if you look out over the last four years, what happened in a number of places, such as Yemen and other areas, where there was in fact a growth of al-Qaida, quite unfortunately."

What's more, Michael Sheehan, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations Low-Intensity Conflict, recently told lawmakers that the effort against al-Qaida could conceivably continue for up to 20 years, and said that there was no need to alter or repeal the post-9/11 Authorization of Use of Military Force resolution, which provides the legal justification for the campaign against the terror network.

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Moreover, while the president's strategy is ostensibly aimed at reducing America's involvement overseas, the United States will actually have to increase its efforts abroad to properly execute it.  In Afghanistan, for instance, Obama committed the United States to a counter-terrorism mission and training the Afghan Security Forces, but reportedly favors a U.S. military presence of at most 9,000 troops.  However, independent analysts have assessed that such an operation would require 24,000-to-31,000 troops in Afghanistan past the end of NATO's operations there next year.

Also problematic, the president stressed using international partnerships to assist American efforts in dismantling terrorist groups and maintaining stability, yet failed to mention the problems facing these partners. The counterterrorism effort in Yemen is particularly strained, as the Yemeni government is confronting the simultaneous challenge of a democratic transition, a fragmented central military, a protracted secession movement in the south and the local al-Qaida affiliate controlling large swaths of Yemini territory. Indeed, since Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi succeeded Ali Abdullah Saleh as Yemen's president in 2012, no fewer than 20 brigades of the Yemeni Armed Forces have rebelled against him.

By over-relying on drone strikes in his counterterrorism strategy, Obama risks forfeiting opportunities to collect valuable intelligence and increasing local opposition to the United States. As Farea al-Muslimi, a Yemeni citizen, recently told the Senate Judiciary Committee, the psychological fear and terror that impacts populations affected by drone strikes is tremendously detrimental to American interests in Yemen. "What radicals had previously failed to achieve in my village, one drone strike accomplished in an instant. There is now an intense anger and growing hatred of America," he said.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Afghanistan.]

Residents of the remote areas that are often targeted by drone strikes have little knowledge of the United States.  But as al-Muslimi testified, "when [residents of his village now] think of America they think of the terror they feel from drones that hover over their heads ready to fire missiles at any time." The Obama administration must recognize that effectively dealing with extremists will require a concerted approach to help build a country's capacity to take them on by themselves – which, in turn, will necessitate establishing a functional democratic government that is legitimate and responsive to the needs of its citizens.

Finally, the president curiously omitted any reference to America's efforts to prevent terrorist groups from acquiring weapons of mass destruction – a pillar of America's efforts in the Global War on Terror since President George W. Bush's 2002 State of the Union address . As North Korea continues to increase the size and effectiveness of its own nuclear arsenal, and terror-sponsoring Iran draws perilously close to obtaining nuclear weapons-making capability, the United States must work to actively thwart the nuclear ambitions of rogue nations. 

Moreover, as the crisis in Syria worsens, the frightful scenario of extremist groups on the ground acquiring some of the Assad regime's chemical weapons is a real and genuine risk. Obama's pledge to strengthen and empower moderate forces in the Syrian opposition thus must be immediately acted upon by providing arms, ammunition and aid directly to vetted armed groups, and establishing a safe zone for these forces to organize and train.

Terrorism Threats Remain – and May Yet Grow

After more than a decade of protracted conflict, it is understandable that the American people and its political leadership are tired of war. However, the terror threats to the United States have not abated – in many respects, they have worsened. What is required now is a renewed effort to counter and truly defeat al-Qaida and associated forces by denying them safe haven, uprooting their state sponsors and – most important of all – preventing them from getting their hands on the world's most destructive weapons.

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