The Obama administration has tried to meet the Al Qaeda threat with hundreds of drone strikes and targeted killings. Former military intelligence analyst Joshua Foust argues that the US needs to recognize the holes in their current strategy to come to terms with the political realities of the countries they target.
It’s one thing to win a battle. It’s quite another to win the war. It’s the difference between tactical agility and strategic forethought.
According to the way the Obama administration chooses to measure things, it’s making significant strides in the “War on Terror.” Its inability either to acknowledge or manage the negative outcomes of its tactical successes, however, has both immediate and long-term consequences.
The administration can certainly claim success in terms of the number of Al Qaeda plots disrupted, and of senior terrorist figures either captured or killed. But its blinkered obsession with special operations and drone strikes overlooks the collateral harm caused: hundreds of civilian deaths in places like Yemen and Pakistan, and the destabilization of governments in countries that are our ostensible allies or clients. Meanwhile, the administration appears genuinely puzzled by resurgent anti-Americanism in places it thought were on its side.
Does the White House not under- stand how it is contribu- ting to the deepening unpopu- larity of the Hadi govern- ment in Yemen?
Does the White House not understand how it is contributing to the deepening unpopularity of the Hadi government in Yemen? Does it not comprehend how its actions in Pakistan have alienated a whole new generation of Pakistanis? Does it not grasp how powerful and subversive U.S. intelligence and military services are? And look at the trouble Libyan Prime Minister Ali Zeidan found himself in when it became pretty obvious he’d helped the United States capture senior Al Qaeda figure Abu Anas al-Libi in Tripoli.
This is not to say that American actions against Al Qaeda and its operatives are unjustified, but the White House needs to be much more transparent about what it’s doing and why it’s doing it. The Obama administration has done a terrible job of communicating its policies, its goals, and whatever safeguards it has in place to minimize collateral damage. By refusing to even acknowledge its targeted killing program, the White House is insulting its citizens’ intelligence and treating the public with contempt.
Fighting Al Qaeda is more problematic and complex than it was a decade ago. Al Qaeda is no longer a centralized organization plotting a variety of attacks on the United States. It has become a brand – a system of beliefs that different kinds of terrorist, insurgent, and extremist groups can plug into. It’s like an international corporation that provides access to training, ideological support, foreign funding, and foreign fighters. Al Qaeda affiliates are creating regional instability in the Middle East and North Africa, disrupting local economic initiatives and regional trade patterns that might actually improve the lot of ordinary working citizens.
It would of course be unfair to put all the blame for these failures on U.S. President Barack Obama. Obama inherited a toxic legacy from the Bush administration, and while he has tried to fix some of the worst aspects of that legacy, a less-than-cooperative Congress and the momentum that some programs seem to have mean there’s only so much he can do.
His inability to close Guantan- amo amounts to one of his biggest strategic failures in counter- ing terrorism.
Take Guantanamo, for example. Its continued existence is a major contributor to global anti-Americanism. It is also one of the best recruiting tools Islamist militants have against the United States, especially in countries where there’s no active counterterrorism program. Obama has been working for years to shut it down, but Congress has stymied him at every turn. His inability to close Guantanamo amounts to one of his biggest strategic failures in countering terrorism.
Obama, like his predecessors, appears incapable of accepting that the United States cannot keep going around telling the rest of the world how to behave. American power has diminished, and the United States can no longer play the international bully. It insults nations that, understandably, believe their own interests are just as valid as those of the United States.
America would achieve much better results if it opened its eyes to the attitudes and opinions of populations around the world and embraced a more nuanced approach that used negotiation rather than threats and coercion. Sadly, the skilled diplomacy that this would require appears to be something American citizens, and the governments that represent them, seriously undervalue. In order to create an effective foreign policy and counter terrorism, however, the United States must recognize that it can only go so far in shaping the world to suit its own interests.
Photo credit: K.M.Chaudary/Associated Press