by JOSHUA FOUST
Back in May, Pres. Barack Obama gave a landmark speech at National Defense University, where he said “the use of force must be seen as part of a larger discussion about a comprehensive counter-terrorism strategy.”
He laid out a compelling new vision: abandoning the conflict model (exemplified by the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force against Al Qaeda), while moving toward a future marked by more collaboration with governments, more training and state-building, and a limited use of force.
This past weekend, we saw one way that new model for countering terror will work out.
In two simultaneous raids, U.S. Special Operations Forces tried to grab senior terrorist figures in Libya and Somalia. The raid into Libya worked, and now one of the architects of the 1998 embassy bombings in Nairobi, Kenya and Daar es Salaam, Tanzania, is sitting on a U.S. Navy vessel being interrogated for information. The raid into Somalia did not go as planned, and Navy SEALs had to withdraw after a fierce firefight.
Both raids mark a dramatic departure from Obama’s first term of counterterrorism, which was defined more by a focus on killing than on anything else. Even the vaunted turn to population-centric counterinsurgency in Afghanistan resulted in sharply increased civilian casualties, U.S. soldier deaths, and the degradation of Afghanistan’s own security forces (the “green-on-blue” incident, wherein an Afghan soldier attacks and kills coalition forces on their own bases, is now so common it’s barely backpage news).
Yet Obama faces significant political obstacles to achieving his new vision. The AUMF remains stubbornly in place, the move to repeal it overtaken by Edward Snowden’s revelations about NSA surveillance and the government shutdown. Drone strikes are still routine occurrences in Yemen and Pakistan. Guantanamo is still open. And the budget crisis is imperiling any effort to expand stability operations, capacity building, or democracy promotion.
So what can we expect to see moving forward? Undoubtedly, drones are going to continue being a major part of the arsenal — especially should research in lethal autonomy continue and actually create workable war robots. As the Air Force gets better and better at rapidly deploying small, portable drone bases-in-a-box, drone deployment will expand to new regions where instability is breaking out.
In some circles, the “Phase 0” counterterrorism operations are taking shape in surprising ways. AFRICOM, arguably the front line of this new counterterrorism approach, is seeing the idea of prophylactic counterterrorism campaigns take hold as countries with no Al Qaeda presence are nevertheless lavished with arms deals, military training, humanitarian aid, and institutional support in a bid to prevent them from “falling off the cliff” into a terror haven.
This vision, of small training efforts supporting governance work and enforced by the occasional commando raid or drone strike, is deeply appealing to many in the Obama administration. But whether it can actually come to fruition depends on the gridlock in Washington coming to an end.
Since the raids this weekend took place despite the shutdown, that seems unlikely to be a driving factor in ending the shutdown: no one seems to care very much that 70 percent of the intelligence workforce is currently furloughed (including the operations people who will plan and carry out future capture or kill raids).
If the country is lucky, the shutdown will end before any foreign policy disaster strikes a U.S. outpost or asset. And if that luck holds, then a new, innovative era of counterterrorism is going to unfold across Africa and, possibly, beyond.
Subscribe to War is Boring here.