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February 23, 2012

Counterterrorism Amok

by Mike M

A leading item on the strategic shopping list for Washington over the last year has been a successor to COIN as the default approach to the crowds of terrorists plotting in failed and failing states all over the globe.  We can’t rush in with COIN Brigades and suppress the places; we’re out of strategic energy and, frankly, the COIN doctrine is a theoretical and operational mess.

American popular opinion and budgetary realities won’t begin to allow another drawn-out campaign.  And yet our obsession with bands of al Qaeda-affiliated malcontents has not waned.  So we need a new model for going after bands of sympathizers in places like Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen.  If we had such a model, it would ease our minds about the forthcoming transition in Afghanistan—as much as we’d like to convince ourselves we’ll “stay engaged” to prevent terrible outcomes, the fact is that we’re going to cross some Rubicon in the next couple of years beyond which we simply won’t go back to reassemble the place if it falls apart.

The Alternative Counterterror Model has been increasingly on display these last months, and it’s a fearsome sight:  Hordes of drone strikes, and a burgeoning reliance on special forces (and, presumably, covert folks as well) to go where full-up brigades cannot.  The model, while not explicitly spelled out, would appear to involve:

  1. Partnering with some local entity/entities who agree to assist in the battle against the “extremists”;
  2. Equipping and training their fighters (the SOF role);
  3. Conducting direct raids and strikes on bad guys from sites in the country or nearby (more SOF);
  4. Conducting drone strikes based on intel gathered from multiple sources;
  5. Global law enforcement operations to track and catch any local suspects who escape the local ops and lunge forth to make mayhem; and
  6. Continued global financial and technological nets to deny these groups access to money and high-level weaponry …

… all with a goal of keeping the groups under constant pressure and on the run, taking out leadership groups, and generally whacking them down to levels that do not pose a serious threat.

This sounds sensible, and persuasive.  Except for one thing:  An emerging lesson of the application of this model, especially in Pakistan and Yemen, may be that key elements are unsustainable.  What is described as a “counterterrorism” program actually ends up looming over the local population as a fairly large war with an intrusive foreign presence.  It’s not in any way covert, modest, or restrained.  And therefore, in precisely the manner of bad COIN, the currently proposed CT strategy is generating angry reactions that will eviscerate these programs over time.

The Pakistan case is better known:  A drone program out of control; an intrusive US presence with associated demands to run a war according to US dictates; small crowds of US SOF trainers on the ground; and the upshot of a badly, and perhaps permanently, fractured relationship.  On the drones, a leading English-language daily put the views of most Pakistanis quite well:  “US drone strikes in Pakistan have been an unmitigated disaster.  They have catalysed public opinion like no other set of events – except perhaps the Raymond Davis Affair – and produced a profound antipathy towards America.  The people of Pakistan today feel deeply inimical towards the US.  Every strike in which innocent lives are lost … deepens the well of resentment.  The drone strikes play directly into the hands of the very extremists they are supposed to be targeting, and are seen by a battered public as cruel aggression.”  A persuasive analysis by Peter Bergen of the New America Foundation suggests that, before the drone program was suspended late last year, the US had run out of high-value targets and is mostly hitting foot soldiers—that only one in seven drone strikes hit “militant leaders” of any stripe, and only two percent were going after the leaders of al Qaeda.

There is no simple conclusion to be drawn from this relationship.  The Pakistani government and military clearly see a threat from militants and appears glad for some help from Washington—as long as it remains more or less on Islamabad’s terms.  There have been public reports of intermittently good intelligence sharing from the Pakistani side, interspersed with episodes when the ISI may have warned off its allies before a strike occurred.  But the gnawing, long-term reality seems undeniable:  A comprehensive CT program on America’s terms is untenable.  The idea that Pakistan is fighting America’s war for it, and sustaining massive social and human costs in the bargain, is one of the most bitterly held points of resentment in the relationship, at both official and popular levels.

A powerful new piece of reportage from the ground in Yemen makes essentially the same argument.  Jeremy Scahill interviewed senior tribal and militia leaders and found a consensus on the blowback being generated by the grinding US counterterror campaign:

The October drone strike that killed Awlaki’s 16-year-old son, Abdulrahman, a US citizen, and his teenage cousin shocked and enraged Yemenis of all political stripes.  “I firmly believe that the [military] operations implemented by the US performed a great service for Al Qaeda, because those operations gave Al Qaeda unprecedented local sympathy,” says Jamal, the Yemeni journalist.  The strikes “have recruited thousands.”  Yemeni tribesmen, he says, share one common goal with Al Qaeda, “which is revenge against the Americans, because those who were killed are the sons of the tribesmen, and the tribesmen never, ever give up on revenge.”  Even senior officials of the Saleh regime recognize the damage the strikes have caused. “People certainly resent these [US] interventions,” Qirbi, the foreign minister and a close Saleh ally, concedes.

As Scahill stressed, as well—and as others have pointed out with regard to Somalia—another aspect of the counterproductive dynamic of this CT approach is the way it marries us to often unpopular regimes or quasi-regimes.  In many of these unstable situations, there’s no way around it:  We need to partner with whoever has some forces to train up.  But this ends up putting us on precisely the opposite side of the fence from COIN doctrine—lined up with politically illegitimate, corrupt leaders and institutions.  And so in the name of counterterrorism we are busily violating the principles that we claim brought us success in Iraq.

You can add to these calculations the unlawful detentions, extreme interrogations, and other associated aspects of the continuing global war on terror that affect our global credibility and legitimacy in profound ways.  Those practices, too, create local backlash against our campaigns, and undermine their potential for sustainable success.

The bottom line:  This wide-ranging virtual war built around SOF-based training and operations plus drones, which fills the war-is-sexy pages of our newsmagazines, is running out of steam before is even gets fully established as the formal alternative to COIN.  We’re going to need something else.  That “something” must be grounded in the elements of the global campaign that are truly sustainable—law enforcement, intelligence sharing, finance and weapons enforcement—and must then build a new model of local targeting that works from local realities up, not a drone’s targeting camera down.

This means, very briefly and in admittedly rough terms, letting local partners fight a war against the extremists in their midst, and we assist.  Don’t make it our war, despite the presence of globally-minded AQ elements.  Don’t push the strategy to the point of blowback.  Accept the short-term risk of less day-to-day pressure for the long-term gain of legitimacy and credibility.

Because if we don’t, we’re going to be confronted with a truly awful scenario:  A country like Yemen being overrun by extremists, thanks in part to our overreaching.  A local populace bursting with fury at the US role in bringing it all about.  Open letters to the president penned by neocons and liberal interventionists to send in the Marines before “al Qaeda takes over a state and directs attacks against us” … and senior military folks staring down the barrel of a contingency they have absolutely zero desire to take on, reading intel reports about “American forces likely to be welcomed with barrages of AK-47 fire.”

By the time we get to that moment, it will be too late to sidestep an onrushing tragedy.  We need to be thinking now about alternatives to the muscular CT approach whose strategic wisdom hasn’t yet been subject to a serious debate.

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