The Counterterror President

Barack Obama has had a terrible summer. A key provision of his healthcare reform was ruled unconstitutional at the circuit court level. Unemployment remains high. Republican rivals are stealing the spotlight. Solutions in Syria and Yemen are elusive. The al-Maliki government in Iraq was unable to extend the U.S. troop presence. The economy is stagnant. Afghanistan policy is paralyzed while casualties mount. The national credit rating was downgraded. The debt ceiling crisis was resolved on terms so unfavorable to the President that comedian Stephen Colbert joked that Republicans even made him give up his 50th birthday. Even his legendary skills as an orator seem to have deserted him. This is hardly the resume Obama wants to present to the American people in 2012; if he isn’t re-elected, he certainly won’t enjoy reading this chapter of the histories.

However, in one area, Barack Obama has consistently excelled. His policies are a sensible, effective, and measured responses to the problem, and he faces little serious opposition. His successes have stolen headlines–indeed, one was so big that Americans poured into the streets to celebrate. Charitable historians will remember Obama as the counterterror president.

There are three key points on which Obama’s counterterror policy has succeeded. He has taken control of Afghanistan policy despite formidable opposition, he has killed Al Qaeda’s leader, and he has maintained the drone policy in the face of much screeching on his own side of the aisle.

Obama in the Situation Room, observing the operation would kill Osama bin Laden. (Image via Middle East Post)

Seizing the Initiative on Afghanistan
For several years, Afghan policy has been in the hands of the military, not the executive branch. The military’s plans were driven by counterinsurgency theories, which are nothing if not an intellectual fad. The counterinsurgency gurus have produced dozens of books, spent piles of money, and given no clear results–the war drags on and violence increases. Conflicts do not always result from cultural misunderstandings and economic deprivations, yet the COIN crowd seems to believe that they do, that an insurgency is a puzzle to be solved, a glitch in the system, that defeating it is a matter of finding the right approach. This was beautifully distilled to a single moment when Gen. Stanley McChrystal said of the infamous spaghetti slide: “When we understand that slide, we’ll have won the war.”

For the COIN pros, winning is possible in Afghanistan--you just need to find the right places to change this system. The problem is that this system is an entire society. Is an outside power really capable of making sustained, transformative changes to an unfamiliar and fragmented country? (Image via the Collared Sheep)

Intellectual and political paralysis had set in, as the answer to all questions about Afghanistan had become “Ask the generals,” and the answer from the generals was always “More time, more money, more cultural understanding.” Let me be clear (to borrow the post-oratory Obama’s phrase): Obama’s Afghanistan policy is not on the right track. Continuing a war in a land known as the “Graveyard of Empires” cannot be considered wise, and it is difficult to say that there is any end toward which Afghan policy aims, or that the United States even has any permanent interests in Afghanistan that it must defend. However, Obama’s trampling of the generals and initiation of withdrawal from an unwinnable war is a difficult and critical step on the road to withdrawal.

Killing Bin Laden
The high point of Obama’s presidency, in retrospect, may be his speech on the night of bin Laden’s killing. Obama’s critics were quick to point out that bin Laden was largely a figurehead, and that his killing was merely a symbolic victory. However, terrorism acts as much on the symbolic as on the physical, so a symbolic victory can be decisive. Still, the attack’s main value to Obama’s resume is as a demonstration of boldness. Obama’s advisers felt that there was a “forty to sixty percent” chance that Osama was actually in the compound to be raided. The attack would surely be an international incident–it would require a gross violation of Pakistan’s national sovereignty, show the Pakistani military to be incapable of securing its borders against outside penetration, and highlight the duplicity of elements in the Pakistani security apparatus. Obama made a high-risk, decisive, and final choice, and it paid off in spades. The contrast with his flaccidity in the debt talks is palpable.

Fighting Terror with Drones
The fundamental problem of Afghanistan and the Afghani-Pakistani border region is that it is economically and geopolitically useless, yet it can be a haven for terrorists. Occupying the area with troops is excessive, as there is nothing for them to protect; launching a mass development initiative to provoke the organic development of law and order is futile. Leaving the area alone, however, allows terror to fester and grow. How can one control an ungovernable land?

Finding a solution requires an understanding of how terror groups operate. The popular image of the terrorist group is a collection of lunatics who periodically run amok. Effective, sustained terrorism is in fact a very complicated activity, requiring technical experts, leaders, trainers, surveillance personnel, planners, well-connected “fixers,” and a host of other characters in support of the operatives that actually carry out operations. A terrorist group must find all of these people or its attacks will rarely succeed; when new personnel come in, they must be carefully managed so that they cannot betray the entire organization if captured. Governments can thus make it difficult for the group to function effectively by forcing them to regularly re-recruit and making it difficult for members to have safe, timely meetings. Harassment of the organization and targeting assassination of key personnel is thus a viable counterterror policy.

Drones are ideally suited for harassment and assassination. They have a precision strike capacity that allows them to minimize collateral damage even when terrorist personnel are careful to remain near civilians. Unlike aircraft, they can remain on target for hours or even days at a time, allowing decisionmakers more certainty in target identification (though human intelligence on the ground is still best). Unlike aircraft, they can be operated with a light local footprint and act in relative secrecy. Drones demonstrated their utility in the preparations for the raid on bin Laden’s compound; today, they killed a senior al Qaeda leader.

An MQ-9 Reaper, the most effective of America's drones, fires a Hellfire missile. (Image via Baron's Hobbies)

In spite of their efficacy and their dramatically lower costs (financial and political) than alternatives like occupation, there has been growing opposition to their use. It is truly remarkable how easily Taliban accounts of high civilian casualties have penetrated the English-language debate; the media and commentators regularly report these claims with no qualification. We must wonder how long it will be until the Taliban’s figures surpass the number of civilians actually living in targeted areas. A parallel current of dissent has arisen. What are the ethical and legal implications of conducting warfare from hundreds or even thousands of miles away?

The discussion is belated–cruise missiles have allowed precisely this sort of attack for decades, and people have been killing one another from beyond the reach of common arms since the invention of the bow. It also is not relevant. Legal scholars have mused that the remote drone operator is a legitimate target under the laws of war, thus putting targets in communities all around the country; they apparently have not noticed that the terrorist groups in question see almost all Americans, especially American national security personnel, as legitimate targets. Given the total airspace dominance required for effective drone operations, the legal questions about drone use might not even be germane in a conflict with another major military power.

The normally cerebral Obama thus wisely left this chatter to the sophomore philosophy classrooms where it belongs and used the drones. Today’s killing is merely the latest of their long line of successes.

It is too soon to predict the outcome of the 2012 election. Obama has a difficult fight ahead of him. Unemployment will be high–a projected 8.5% in November 2012–and that may be enough to do him in. History will likely frown on our 44th President’s first term, though it will note that a more politically astute leader could not have done much more. Though Obama cannot put “Now Hiring” signs in the windows of American businesses, the record will show that he put them in the mouths of more than a few Pakistani caves.


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Filed under Terrorism, The West

One response to “The Counterterror President

  1. Pingback: The Counterterror President – Guest column by John Allan Gay | Connecting MENA, India and USA

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