The Obama Administration has embraced the Bush doctrine, or at least the preemption part of the Bush doctrine. According to news reports about the Justice Department's memo on drone strikes, the Obama Administration bases its policy on an expansive interpretation of the laws of war, which allow countries to act to head off imminent attack. In particular, according to the reporter who broke the story, the Obama Administration bases its legal reasoning by interpreting "imminence" in a flexible way:
"The condition that an operational leader present an ‘imminent' threat of violent attack against the United States does not require the United States to have clear evidence that a specific attack on U.S. persons and interests will take place in the immediate future," the memo states.
Instead, it says, an "informed, high-level" official of the U.S. government may determine that the targeted American has been "recently" involved in "activities" posing a threat of a violent attack and that "there is no evidence suggesting that he has renounced or abandoned such activities." The memo does not define "recently" or "activities."
This should sound familiar to anyone who has debated American foreign policy for the past decade, for precisely that sort of logic undergirded the Bush Administration's preemption doctrine. Here is the relevant section from Bush's 2006 National Security Strategy (itself quoting from the earlier and controversial articulation in the 2002 National Security Strategy):
If necessary, however, under long-standing principles of self defense, we do not rule out the use of force before attacks occur, even if uncertainty remains as to the time and place of the enemy's attack. When the consequences of an attack with WMD are potentially so devastating, we cannot afford to stand idly by as grave dangers materialize. This is the principle and logic of preemption. The place of preemption in our national security strategy remains the same. We will always proceed deliberately, weighing the consequences of our actions.
Of course, the Bush Administration was excoriated for framing the issue that way, and there arose a lively cottage industry devoted to attacking this aspect of the Bush doctrine. While Obama has tended to get away with things his predecessors could not, I suspect that even he will face some tough questioning now that the overlap with the controversial Bush doctrine is so unmistakable.
The issue is a difficult one, for the applicability of the self-defense principle depends crucially on context. Everyone agrees that if someone is attacking you with a knife, you do not have to wait for the blade to puncture your skin before you can strike at the assailant. And everyone agrees that it is not self-defense to attack someone just because you think there is a dim and distant possibility that one day that person might decide that he wants to attack you even though there is no evidence of such intent today. In the real world of national security policymaking, however, there are abundant hard cases in between those easy calls and those hard cases are what policymakers -- as distinct from pundits -- can't avoid.
The memo reveals the Obama Administration wrestling with these problems and coming to conclusions strikingly similar to those of the Bush Administration. I wonder if Team Obama will be more successful than the Bush Administration was in arguing the merits and logic of the preemption doctrine.
We have a problem in Mali: an al Qaeda franchise has taken over most of the country. President Obama only two days ago recommitted the United States to "combat[ing] the scourge of terrorism in the region." An American ally has been working tirelessly to bring the United Nations forward, provide a political solution, organize countries in the region to provide troops, and take the lead in operations. It would seem a perfect illustration of the Obama Doctrine: U.N. mandate, regional buy-in, leadership by an American ally, the United States one contributor among many.
And oh, by the way, the military coup that overthrew a democratic government in Mali, setting off the instability that enabled al Qaeda to prey on the country? That coup was the work of military officers and units trained by the United States. The fighters mowing across the country in conjunction with al Qaeda are veterans of the war in Libya, armed with weapons looted there. They are part of the widespread insecurity that Libya's transition has spawned and U.S. policy has done nothing to attenuate. So we bear some culpability for the terror engulfing Mali. And it is in our security interest -- and in the interest of the administration's vision for the new international order -- to stamp it out.
And yet our ambassador to the United Nations publicly described the French plan as "crap," and delayed U.N. action for weeks. When France commenced military operations to prevent the al Qaeda franchise from overrunning Mali's capital, the Obama administration demanded payment for any military support provided. Ten days into the operation. U.S. officials haven't even decided whether to make requested air-to-air refueling sorties available for French planes. "This is a deliberate effort to consult with the French to assess how best we can support them in the context of support provided by other countries," said Pentagon spokesman George Little.
That's not leading, even from behind. That's undercutting your allies.
It's also incredibly damaging to the United States, even on the terms the Obama administration itself espouses. The White House wants our country to step back from unilateral actions, to have a share but not the lion's share of the work. That requires others to be both willing and able to step forward.
Our European allies have twice in the past couple of years shown themselves willing to lead military operations when we would not. In neither Libya nor Mali has the Obama administration denied that we have an interest in achieving the objectives for which our allies fought, and are fighting. So we agree it needs doing, we just don't want to do it.
Europe has several of the world's most capable militaries; not just Britain and France, but also Denmark, Norway, Poland, Sweden, the Netherlands, and others have all acquitted themselves admirably. But even those militaries lack outright or run short of some of the things that Americans take for granted in our operations: persistent surveillance of battlefields, reliable communications, rapid identification and targeting, the ability to strike promptly, transportation to deploy troops and equipment, precision-guided munitions to minimize unintended casualties, air-to-air refueling to enable strikes from great distances and repeated passes at targets.
That Europeans don't have these "enablers" in sufficient supply is their own fault. They chose to spend their money differently, predictably reducing military prowess and increasing the risk of failure. They mostly ignored decades of American pleading and NATO initiatives to boost defense spending, from the percentage rules of the Carter administration to the current incarnation of "smart defense." And they often spoke of their cultural superiority in spending money on social programs rather than militarism, even while they depended on our militarism. There is in some quarters a smug satisfaction about the Europeans finally realizing what we've been trying to tell them for so long.
But indulging that schadenfreude is unworthy of us. We want a world in which countries that share our values act to protect and promote those values; otherwise, the hard work all accrues to us. We want allies that see the right and take responsibility for acting to advance it.
Why not expect the Europeans to pay for what they need, especially when the United States borrows 30 cents of every dollar that our own government spends? The Obama administration isn't wrong to try and shift the burden-sharing toward Europeans. But there is a time for negotiating the terms of support to allies. That time is not when they are undertaking a military operation with goals that we support -- nor even when they are undertaking a military operation we don't think is a good idea.
Denying support in extremis leaves scars -- as Americans well know (Turkey denying us search-and-rescue operations from their territory during the Iraq war, France denying us their airspace during the El Dorado Canyon attacks on Libya, Belgium threatening to close its ports to us in 2003). Our own experience as an ally often in need of support even when governments oppose our policies ought to make us more, not less, willing to help when it counts most.
The French defense establishment had the grace to be embarrassed by their government's choices in 2003. The Obama Pentagon has not expressed similar embarrassment, either with regard to Mali or generally. It is from the Pentagon that the demand for reimbursement emanated. Nor is the fault confined to political civilians. Gen. Martin Dempsey has said the United States did not want to be complicit in any Israeli strike on Iran. If I were in Tehran, I would interpret that to mean we would deny Israel assistance. Denying France assistance now will reinforce the perception -- both among allies and enemies -- that U.S. allies are on their own.
The Obama Doctrine depends critically on others stepping forward and undertaking the work we are stepping back from. There will be fewer allies willing to do that if we continue to be stingy with our help and generous with our criticism
FRED DUFOUR/AFP/Getty Images
As I write this, the news is still fragmentary and unfolding concerning the Algerian hostage situation following France's military intervention in Mali and effort to arrest the territorial gains made by the jihadists. However this latest crisis plays out, events thus far seem to expose several of the Obama administration's strategic deficiencies, including:
Premature declaration of victory over al Qaeda. As if we needed yet another reminder, the White House's past declarations of looming victory against "core al Qaeda" were woefully premature. This is most costly not as a public relations blunder but as a strategic blunder; when an administration's leadership signals a change in strategic priorities, the rest of the national security apparatus shifts accordingly. Such a premature spiking of the ball seems to have influenced the administration's mishandling of the Benghazi consulate attack, and now seems to have caused a corresponding neglect of Mali. Yet Mali may be emerging as just the latest front in the war, as Peter Chilson points out the bracing fact that "Northern Mali is currently the largest al Qaeda-controlled space in the world."
The shifting fissures and fusions of various jihadist groups, a kaleidoscopic combination of local grievances and global aspirations, should not obscure that in the minds of the terrorists there is in part an international and universal dimension to their campaign. Terrorist leader Mokhtar Belmokhtar's reported demand that the U.S. release the "blind sheikh" Omar Abdel-Rahman, imprisoned for his role in masterminding the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, is just one example of their grievances towards America. Whether or not the al Qaeda branch in northern Mali is ever able to stage an attack against the continental United States, its hostage operation against the Algerian gas field installation shows a capability and willingness to target U.S. interests and allies (such as the French, British, and Japanese employees). That alone should justify a more vigorous American response than the Obama administration has thus far marshaled.
Leading from behind. An Obama administration official first proudly described the White House's multilateral strategy as "leading from behind" in the context of the Libya intervention. What might have sounded good then does not sound so good now, as unfortunately the Mali chaos emanates directly from the Libya spillover, and the corresponding failure to engage in an effective post-conflict stabilization operation. Now the latest chapter of "leading from behind" has the French intervening in Mali while the U.S. sits on the sidelines. This has the effect of further annoying important NATO allies while ceding leverage and initiative to the jihadists. The U.S. admittedly has limited resources and bandwidth to bring to bear here, so I am not making the simplistic argument that an earlier full-scale American intervention would have been easy or solved the problems besetting Mali. But while the downsides of excessive involvement are well-known, the ongoing crisis shows in turn the downsides of dogmatic passivity.
Anemic religious freedom policy. Six months ago I wrote about Mali and made the point that violations of religious freedom are often a leading indicator of a looming security threat (an argument later elaborated here). As I said at the time:
"One worrisome indicator is the jihadists' destruction of traditional Muslim burial grounds and other iconic sites, a sign of the vicious religious intolerance that militant Islamists show towards other Muslims, let alone believers in non-Islamic faiths ... This campaign of religious intolerance may be an early warning indicator of a looming security threat, particularly if northern Mali becomes a terrorist safe-haven and magnet for jihadists planning attacks on the West ... at a minimum, American counterterrorism and religious-freedom policymakers should be watching Mali closely, and talking to each other. In the case of Mali, their concerns may be more aligned then they realize."
Unfortunately the Mali situation is just the latest indicator that the Obama administration still has not made religious freedom policy a priority, either as a value in its own right or as a strategic interest. From that time six months ago, conditions only worsened in Mali as the jihadists began imposing their perverse version of Islamic law. If the Obama administration had been paying more attention to religious liberty deteriorations, it would not have been as surprised at Mali's perilous straits.
FRED DUFOUR/AFP/Getty Images
While we have no doubt that Bob Schieffer, the moderator of Monday night's foreign policy debate, will have plenty of material to choose from in formulating his questions for the candidates, we couldn't resist a chance to add our own suggestions. Following are some potential questions for the debate as submitted by the Shadow Government crew:
1. Mr. President, is there any foreign policy challenge America faces that you would concede has gotten worse on your watch because of actions you have taken or not taken? In other words, is there any foreign policy problem that you would say can be blamed at least partly on you and not entirely on Republicans or President Bush?
2. Mr. President, what is the fairest criticism of your foreign policy record that you have heard from Governor Romney over the course of this campaign?
3. Mr. President, what is the most unfair criticism of Romney's foreign policy platform that you have heard your supporters levy over the course of this campaign?
4. Mr. President, why do you say that Romney is proposing defense expenditures that the military have not asked for when Romney is just proposing restoring funding to the levels you claimed were needed in your own budget a few years ago. That budget, which you asked for, reflected what the military asked for didn't it? And didn't you order the military to accept deeper cuts -- thus they can't now speak up and ask for those levels to be restored without being insubordinate, so isn't it misleading to claim that they are not asking for them when you ordered them not to?
5. For both: Both campaigns have featured senior retired military endorsements as a way of demonstrating your fitness to be commander-in-chief. Don't you worry that such endorsements drag the military into partisan politics, thus undermining public confidence in a non-partisan military institution?
1. Mr. President, history tells us that prestige matters; that is, nation-states who are regarded for their power, whether military, economic or moral, are less often challenged by those who wish to upset the peace or change the international order that favors the interests of the great powers. Has your administration seen an increase in the prestige of the United States or a decrease, and why?
2. For both: Isn't a reform of our foreign aid system and institutions long overdue, and shouldn't reform have as its primary goal the promotion of direct and tangible US interests, such as more trade with more countries that govern themselves democratically? If this is truly the appropriate goal for international development funds, then why aren't all aid recipients required to practice sustained and real democracy?
1. For both: Do you believe that the economically endangered nations of Europe should adopt policies of austerity, as countries like Germany have argued, or that they should turn instead to more fiscal stimulus? If you prefer stimulus, is there any level of debt/GDP at which you get concerned about their ability to pay those debts? If you believe these countries should borrow more, from whom should they borrow? Should the United States be offering funds?
2. For both: There has been almost no progress on global trade talks since the summer of
2008. How would you assess the health of the World Trade Organization and the
world trading system? Is this important for the United States? What would you
do to strengthen the WTO, if anything?
3. For both: In 2009, in response to the stimulus bill, a top Chinese economic official said, ""We hate you guys. Once you start issuing $1 trillion-$2 trillion... we know the dollar is going to depreciate, so we hate you guys but there is nothing much we can do...." Brazil's finance minister, Guido Mantega, has accused the United States Federal Reserve of igniting a global currency war with its policies of quantitative easing. To what extent does the United States need to consider the international ramifications of its economic policies? Do you believe a strong dollar is in the U.S. interest? If so, what does that mean?
1. For both: What do you consider the top two national security threats to our country?
2. For both: How do you see increasing energy independence for the United States affecting our foreign policy?
3. President Obama, you have threatened to veto any changes to the 2010 Budget Control Act, yet both your Secretary of Defense and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff believe sequestration going into effect would be disastrous. How will you enact the Budget Control Act without damaging our national defense?
4. Governor Romney, you have committed to increase defense spending; where does the money come from to do that in year 1 of a Romney administration?
5. President Obama, Vice President Biden has said that your administration will withdraw U.S. forces from Afghanstan in 2014, whether or not the Afghan security forces are then capable of taking over the fight. Do you agree?
1. For both: Under what circumstances would you authorize military action against Iran's nuclear facilities? Will you intervene to stop the civil war in Syria? If so, what lessons have you learned from our recent experiences in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya that will shape how you undertake an intervention? How do you plan to accomplish a responsible transition to Afghan leadership for security there? What should be the mission of U.S. troops in Afghanistan after transition, and how many troops will be required to accomplish it? Or do you envision a complete withdrawal of all forces?
2. For both: Should the United States support the spread of democracy abroad? What is the role of democracy assistance in U.S. grand strategy, and how does it relate to our overall national interests? How will you respond to future peaceful uprisings like the Green Revolution or the Arab Spring?
3. For both: Some Americans are concerned that the government has accumulated too much power over the last decade in its effort to develop a robust counterterrorism capability. Others believe we need to keep those powers because the terrorist threat has not abated. Do you plan to sustain the government's new, post-9/11 war-time powers, reportedly including targeted killings and indefinite detentions, indefinitely? If not, will you publicly and explicitly commit to defining a clear end-state to the war against al Qaeda, the achievement of which will terminate the new powers?
Win McNamee/Getty Images
The murder of Ambassador Stevens and three other Americans in Libya on September 11 has created a growing political backlash in the United States, but there are three other reasons that this attack is significant. First, an al Qaeda unit successfully assaulted American soil for the first time since 9/11. Second, we were -- once again -- caught by surprise, and third, the attacks show that al Qaeda is not just alive and kicking (as I mentioned in my previous post), but that our current strategy for dealing with the group is failing.
While various plots have been attempted by al Qaeda and individuals or cells associated with the group, the sacking of the Benghazi consulate was the first successful attack that can be definitively tied to the organization. Excellent work by Thomas Joscelyn suggests that the attack on the consulate was just one of four separate assaults on embassies carried out by al Qaeda that day. This simultaneity is, by the way, one reason that I immediately suspected -- and wrote about - al Qaeda involvement in the raids, since this is as much a hallmark of al Qaeda operations as, for instance, the use of suicide bombers in Muslim-majority countries and the targeting of international organizations.
Just as worrisome for future events is the fact that the United States was caught off-guard, yet again, by this massive and sophisticated operation. I would argue that there are four reasons for this failure: a widely accepted narrative, a false view, the successes of the targeted attrition program, and assumptions about the war in Libya. For the past 18 months there has been a building narrative among both the expert community and this administration that, with the death of Bin Ladin, al Qaeda is nearly finished and that there is nothing left but a small group of "dead-enders," known as the "core," that need to be dealt with. Al Qaeda, in the narrative, is so weakened that it can barely stay alive, let alone carry out successful and complex attacks like that in Benghazi.
This narrative is based on a false view of al Qaeda: that the "core" is a small terrorist group whose main objective is attacking the United States, that the affiliates have primarily local concerns, that there is little command and control between the "core" and the affiliates, and that, therefore, the United States must only kill off the central leadership to be safe. I responded to this view of al Qaeda in several earlier posts, arguing that the core and affiliates are intimately connected, that the main objective of al Qaeda is taking over the Muslim-majority world, and that the organization is, in fact, attempting to create and lead a global insurgency. If this is all true, then al Qaeda is nowhere near defeat, and is, in fact, doing far better today than at any time in its existence.
The successes of counterterrorism czar John Brennan's targeting program played into both the narrative and the current accepted view of al Qaeda by giving the impression of progress in the war with al Qaeda. As each member of the leadership was killed -- most especially Bin Laden, but many others as well -- experts and administration officials proclaimed that we could see the light at the end of the tunnel. The belief that the United States was making progress against al Qaeda (along with the notion that the affiliates have mainly local concerns) created a false sense of security in many places, including Libya.
Finally, and most controversially, I believe that this administration's incorrect reading of the war in Libya worked with the narrative and analytical issues to create the preconditions for the United States to be caught by surprise in Benghazi. Unlike the war in Iraq, the United States managed to topple the Libyan dictator without putting American lives in danger and without exacerbating local tensions through the presence of our troops. The result should have been less violence, no insurgency, and no organized al Qaeda group in Libya. The continued, and even strengthening, violence in places like Benghazi -- along with a strong al Qaeda presence -- was unexpected and therefore unplanned for, again adding to the shock of September 11.
The third significance of Benghazi is that it underlines the failure of our current strategy to deal with al Qaeda. For several years, the main strategies for combating al Qaeda have been to take them on through our ground troops (in Iraq and Afghanistan), to empower partners to fight them (many places in the Middle East), or to use attrition to whittle down the group's leadership. With the ending of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the slow shifting of some partners away from aiding us (see Egypt and Pakistan, for example), we are more and more dependent on attrition as the means for taking out the group. The spread of al Qaeda to many new places, including the Sinai, Mali, Syria, and of course Libya, points to the failure of this strategy to achieve our goals.
Prior to the terrorist attack that killed U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and the subsequent anti-U.S. demonstrations throughout the Muslim world, the conventional wisdom held that President Obama was unassailable on foreign policy during the election campaign. Yet rather than tout the administration's successes -- which have produced an edge in polls as to who the public trusts on foreign affairs -- the Obama campaign and its allies seem more eager to warn voters that Mitt Romney is planning to bring back George W. Bush's foreign policy than tout the president's "successes." "Of Romney's 24 special advisors on foreign policy, 17 served in the Bush-Cheney administration," wrote Adam Smith, the most senior Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee -- and that's "a frightening prospect." Similarly, during the Democratic convention, Senator John Kerry said: "[Romney] has all these [neoconservative] advisers who know all the wrong things about foreign policy. He would rely on them." Now, noted foreign policy scholar Maureen Dowd has written not one, but TWO columns decrying "neocon" influence over Romney's foreign policy.
This is an especially odd line of attack given that most of the Obama administration's foreign policy achievements are little more than extensions of Bush administration policies.
President Obama frequently boasts that he fulfilled his promise to "end the war" in Iraq. In reality, he merely adhered to the U.S.-Iraq Status of Forces Agreement negotiated and signed by the Bush administration in 2008. What's more, as a senator Mr. Obama opposed the 2007 surge of U.S. forces that made this agreement possible. The Obama administration's only policy innovation on Iraq was last year's failure to broker a new strategic framework agreement with Iraq, a deal they had previously insisted was necessary and achievable.
Then there's the operation that killed Osama bin Laden. To be sure, the president deserves credit for launching the raid against the advice of so many of his advisors, including Vice President Joe Biden. But Mr. Obama fails to acknowledge that the intelligence chain that led to the Abbottabad raid began with detainee interrogations at Guantanamo Bay and CIA "black" sites that he vowed to close upon taking office.
What about drones? President Obama deserves credit for the successful "drone war" against al Qaeda leaders in Pakistan, but the uptick in U.S. drone attacks there began in July 2008. The Obama administration's continuation of this policy is an acknowledgment -- unspoken, of course -- that the Bush administration was correct to treat the war on terror as an actual war rather than a global law-enforcement campaign.
On Iran, President Obama brags that "Iran is under greater pressure than ever before, "and "few thought that sanctions could have an immediate bite on the Iranian regime." Putting aside the fact that these sanctions were imposed upon the president by a 100-0 Senate vote, and that Obama's State Department has granted exemptions to all 20 of Iran's major oil-trading partners, this triumphalism ignores that the Bush administration worked for years to build multilateral support for sanctions (both at the United Nations and in national capitals). The Obama administration broke from this effort for two years, attempting instead to engage the Iranian leadership. When this outreach predictably failed, the Obama administration claimed that Tehran had proven itself irrevocably committed to its nuclear program -- precisely the conclusion the Bush administration had reached years earlier.
Yes, there's more to the Obama administration's foreign-policy case, but the other "achievements" are muddled ones. Even before the Benghazi attack, post-Qaddafi Libya was so insecure that the State Department issued a travel advisory warning U.S. citizens against "all but essential travel to Libya," and NATO's intervention in Libya raised the inconvenient question of why the administration intervened to alleviate a "medieval siege" on Benghazi but sits silently as tens of thousands of civilians are slaughtered in Syria.
In Afghanistan, the surge ordered by President Obama in December 2009 had the operational effect intended. But even in taking this step, the president undermined the policy by rejecting his military commander's request for 40,000 troops, declaring the surge would end according to a fixed timeline rather than conditions on the ground, and announcing the withdrawal of the last 20,000 surge forces before the Afghan fighting season ended (but before the November election). The Bush administration veterans advising Governor Romney surely know more about the importance of seeing a policy through to its fruition.
The Bush administration made many foreign policy mistakes during its eight years in office, most notably the conduct of the Iraq War after the fall of Baghdad. And Governor Romney still needs to provide details demonstrating why he would be a better steward of U.S. national security than President Obama. But the potential devolution of the Arab Spring into anti-U.S. violence demonstrates why both candidates owe the American people a serious discussion about foreign and defense policy. Hopefully in the election campaign's waning weeks the Democrats will offer much more than the ad hominen anti-Bush attacks they have provided to date.
Benjamin Runkle served in the Department of Defense and National Security Council during the Bush administration, and is author of Wanted Dead or Alive: Manhunts from Geronimo to bin Laden.
Ron Sachs-Pool/Getty Images
The murder of the ambassador to Libya, J. Christopher Stevens -- along with three other U.S. citizens -- has brought Libya back into the American media spotlight. It should never have left. While our media has studiously ignored "post-conflict" Libya, the situation on the ground has steadily deteriorated, with armed militias fighting each other and the nominal government of the country for control on the ground. "Phase IV" in Libya has involved combat with tanks and heavy weaponry, continuing clashes in Tripoli and Libya's other large cities, and even the seizure of the national airport at one point. Benghazi itself is one of the most dangerous places in Libya. Not only is the city home to a militia, Ansar al-Sharia, whose leaders have linkages to al Qaeda, but in April and June 2012 "militants" carried out a series of attacks in that city on the U.N., Red Cross, the U.S. consulate, and the British consulate, all international entities that al Qaeda has specifically targeted in other countries.
Now Ansar al-Sharia has been implicated responsibility for this latest attack on the U.S. consulate. If this is true, then Libya's security problems are no longer a matter solely of local concern, but have global implications. Even before this attack there was evidence to suggest that al Qaeda was involved in Libya. Although there is no proof of al Qaeda participation in the original uprising against Qaddafi, high-ranking al Qaeda leaders did make their way to Libya at the end of 2011. Not long afterward the al Qaeda flag -- a distinctive black banner adopted officially by al Qaeda in Iraq and other affiliates -- was openly flown over public buildings; al Qaeda's version of sharia was demanded and Sufi shrines attacked; and by the spring of 2012 an al Qaeda military unit was strong enough to hold a public parade in Sirte (Qaddafi's former stronghold) featuring heavy weaponry and dozens of technicals. The entire region was in fact affected by al Qaeda's presence in Libya: AQIM openly boasted of benefiting from Qaddafi's weapons cache and many of the members of a new al Qaeda-linked group, Ansar al-Din, came out of Libya to take over northern Mali and impose al Qaeda's version of sharia on a reluctant population.
It is worth emphasizing that we are facing far more than just further chaos in Libya and the possibility of an al Qaeda terrorism problem. The assault on the Benghazi consulate was a sophisticated and complex attack, involving automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs), suggesting that Ansar al-Sharia is preparing for an insurgency and not just carrying out terrorist attacks. The group's imposition of sharia and attempts at shadow governance in Benghazi (see their Facebook page for details), support this interpretation of the group's longer-term objectives.
The death of Ambassador Stevens is a wake-up call to the U.S. The Arab Spring is in the process of being hijacked by al Qaeda and we ignore the spread of violence and of al Qaeda's pernicious vision in the Middle East at our own peril.
Peter Bergen has a new piece up on CNN's website that argues the United States can declare victory over al Qaeda and wind down the war against the group. Reading through his article, I found several places where I profoundly disagreed with his analysis and therefore with his overall conclusion that al Qaeda has been defeated.
First, Bergen begins with a false analogy by arguing that the current war is nothing like World War II, and that therefore there can be no culminating peace as was signed between the Allies and Nazi Germany. This argument implies that a definitive victory over al Qaeda, one on the model and scale of the victory over the Nazis, is impossible. The current war is indeed nothing like WWII -- it's an irregular conflict being fought against an insurgent group, while WWII (for the most part), was a regular conflict fought against recognizable nation-states. It might therefore be impossible to sign a peace treaty on the decks of a battleship when this war ends, but it is entirely possible to win irregular wars and to win them as definitively and recognizably as WWII was won, as the examples of multiple conflicts throughout the twentieth century show. For instance, from 1898-1954, the U.S. absolutely defeated three separate insurgencies in the Philippines, including a nationalist insurgency, an insurgency by local Muslims, and a communist insurgency. The British took on and repeatedly defeated insurgencies (the Boers, the Malay communists, and the Kenyan Mau-Mau, for instance), and it is actually difficult to find, beyond the Sandinistas and Castro's group, an insurgency that has succeeded in Latin America.
Second, Bergen argues that the war against al Qaeda is not an "essential challenge" to the U.S. and thus can be safely relegated to some level of effort short of war. It is true that the death of 3,000 Americans in the first attack on the U.S. homeland since WWII was not an existential threat to the U.S., nor have the pinpricks that al Qaeda has managed since 9-11 posed a serious challenge to the continued existence of the United States. On the other hand, this assessment fails to take into consideration the global growth of al Qaeda, its absorption of every other major jihadist group on the planet, and its ability to take and control territory throughout the Muslim-majority world. While I have heard some deride this spread as only threatening the 'garden-spots' of the world, we need to remind ourselves that it was from just this sort of uncontrolled territory that 9-11 was carried out, and once the 'garden-spots' are taken, our vital lines of communications and territories that we (apparently) care more about will be threatened. In addition, I would note that it has only been through our wartime footing that we have managed to keep al Qaeda in even this loose net. If we downgrade our effort, al Qaeda will be able to grow even faster and push its control even further.
Third and fourth, the article goes on to conclude that it is possible to "declare victory" and move on because 1) al Qaeda's offensive capabilities are "puny" and 2) U.S. defenses are strong. The first of these assessments is based on an assumption about al Qaeda that is unwarranted; that is, that al Qaeda's main objective and goal is to attack the United States. The recent release of documents from Abbottabad make it clear that attacking the United States was (and is) but the first step in a staged strategic plan, a plan that begins by attriting the United States, and weakening it so much that the United States will be forced out of all Muslim-majority countries. The next stage of al Qaeda's strategic plan is to take over and control territory, declaring "emirates" that will be able to spread safely because the United States will be too weak to intervene. This means that the affiliates are not just dangerous when they attack the United States (which Bergen implies in his article), but are a threat to our security when they overthrow local governments and set up local emirates that have greater, global ambitions. I would also note that while polling data is important for understanding how well we are doing in our fight against al Qaeda -- and here the indications are positive -- it is a fact that insurgencies need only a tiny percentage of active support in order to be self-sustaining (usually defined as 5 percent of the populace). Al Qaeda would like the consent of the governed, but they are perfectly happy to violently enforce obedience to their rule when necessary. And by the way: No al Qaeda affiliate or partner (including the Taliban, al Qaeda in Iraq, or the Shabaab) has been deposed from power by an uprising of the local population alone. They have needed outside intervention in order to expel the insurgents, even when the people have hated al Qaeda's often brutal rule.
On Bergen's second point, I agree that U.S. defenses are strong, but disagree profoundly with the current mission of Special Operation Forces as the right method to defeat al Qaeda. This counter-terrorism mission is based on killing al Qaeda members, i.e. attrition, a strategy that assumes that al Qaeda is still a terrorist group as it was in the 1990s. This is simply not true. Even then, the group's leadership aspired to bigger things, and al Qaeda has now succeeded in becoming an insurgent group, one that takes and holds territory, recruits far more soldiers than we can kill, sets up shadow governance and attempts to overthrow governments around the Muslim-majority world. While attrition can succeed as a strategy against terrorist groups (see i.e. the Spanish and French fight against ETA), it is absolutely counterproductive against an insurgency, which simply uses the killings to recruit more members and to fuel its propaganda.
Fifth, some part of Bergen's declaration of victory is based on wishful thinking. He argues, for instance, that killing or capturing AQAP's bomb-maker will 'likely' cause the threat from AQAP to recede. This assumes that 1) the bomb-maker never trained replacements and 2) that AQAP is incapable of thinking up other ways to attack us. It also ignores the real threat from AQAP if it manages to overthrow the government in Sana'a and push on into Saudi Arabia.
Finally, the last sentence of his article is a straw man. The objective of the Allied war on the Nazis was the same as every other regular war: To break the enemy's will to resist. It was simply not necessary to kill every Nazi in order to achieve this objective. The objective of irregular wars is rather different, however: to secure the population by clearing out the insurgents; then holding the territory through persistent presence; and finally creating the political conditions necessary to prevent any further appeal by the remaining insurgents. In this view, winning against al Qaeda does not depend on body counts, but rather would look very much like victories against other insurgents: the spreading of security for populations in Somalia, Yemen, the Sahel, and elsewhere; the prevention of a return of al-Qaeda to these cleared areas; and the empowerment of legitimate governments that can control and police their own territories. By these standards, we have not yet defeated al Qaeda; in fact, beyond Iraq, Afghanistan, and Somalia, we have hardly engaged the enemy at all.
Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images
Whatever your perspective about counterinsurgency (COIN), there is one position that is clearly wrong: the view that debate about COIN is not important, necessary, or productive, as retired Army colonel Robert Killebrew recently suggested over at the Best Defense. Beyond advancing the peculiar idea that a contentious issue in American foreign policy merits no further discussion, Killebrew has it exactly backwards: The debate over COIN is at an important turning point, and is in many ways just getting started. Scholars and strategic thinkers are increasingly engaging the ideas of counterinsurgency in new and sophisticated ways. This development should hearten supporters of the intellectual enterprise generally ,as well as those who embrace the notion that better thinking can lead to better policy.
Last week the Robert S. Strauss Center at the University of Texas (UT) sponsored a workshop, Reassessing Counterinsurgency, together with partners from King's College London and the University of Queensland. The workshop brought together scholars and practitioners to tackle the subject of counterinsurgency in critically new ways. It included COIN's most articulate advocates and critics, policy experts, strategic analysts, historians, and political scientists from the U.S., Britain, and beyond who are doing path-breaking new work on the subject.
At least one thing became clear over a day and a half of refreshingly nuanced discussion. Despite years of attention in the Beltway, the counterinsurgency debate remains remarkably muddled. Terms are still frustratingly ill-defined. Distinctions between tactical advice and strategic direction are lost in the jumble, as larger disagreements over policy in Iraq and Afghanistan are tangled into the discussion about COIN. Scholars bristle at what they see as the intellectual shallowness and lack of theoretical rigor of counterinsurgency ideas, while policy hands and some military officers have no patience for what they perceive as the academy's tendency to suffer from analysis paralysis.
The confused mishmash notwithstanding, the UT workshop surfaced a few recurring themes. As the army is in the midst of revising their counterinsurgency manual, there are at least four key sets of questions that doctrine writers might consider, and that should help shape the scholarly research agenda and the next phase of the debate:
1. Are We Speaking the Same Language?
If the first step in developing good theory is defining terms, then there is much work still to be done in counterinsurgency. There is a growing consensus that the term itself is ambiguous, misused, and has experienced "conceptual stretching." As one workshop participant has written, "in a remarkably short period of time, counterinsurgency has become the new Kuhnian paradigm, or normal science, for non-kinetic (or limited kinetic) warfare. However it is far from obvious that this framework truly captures the dynamics that are occurring in an increasingly complex and interconnected world."
Is "counterinsurgency" merely one type of what scholar Harry Eckstein referred to as "internal war"? If so, how should we understand its features as compared to other manifestations of internal war, such as civil war and revolutions? Taking one step further back, is war divisible into such classifications, or, instead, as Clausewitz would have it, always a chameleon? This most fundamental conceptual question -- how (or whether) to subdivide conflict analytically and how counterinsurgency fits into a broader typology -- has received surprisingly little attention in the debate over COIN.
There are other important, and largely unanswered, questions. What are the differences between "first-party COIN" -- that conducted by a state within its own territory -- and "third-party COIN" conducted by an intervening outside power? Is there a difference between "big COIN," or large-scale state-building, and the more modest ambitions of "little COIN," focused on small-scale assistance? If these different types of COIN are significantly dissimilar propositions, should they be called the same thing? The gaps in the theoretical and scholarly literature are legion, and they can only be filled by continued research, better evidence, thinking, and yes, debate.
2. Is Field Manual 3-24 COIN? Is COIN Field Manual 3-24?
These discussions also raise the important question of how to situate the Army's Field Manual (FM) 3-24, published in December 2006, in the broader literature on COIN. In disputes over counterinsurgency, FM 3-24 and COIN are frequently conflated. Yet their precise relationship remains unclear. Did FM 3-24 represent the state of the art in thinking on counterinsurgency, or was it, as some suggest, merely a military doctrinal manual, a small slice of a larger intellectual pie focused on tactical advice to soldiers and the conflict in Iraq? According to this view, it would be unjust to impugn counterinsurgency more broadly based on perceived deficiencies in the manual, and those who take issue with COIN might best participate in the manual's revision, rather than throw rocks from the sidelines.
Yet if FM 3-24 was just a doctrinal manual, it was also undeniably unique in many ways. It was certainly the first military doctrine to be unveiled with such fanfare, including appearances by the drafting team in various media outlets to herald the manual's arrival. One could be forgiven for seeing a larger enterprise in a University of Chicago edition, which featured an introduction that seems to range far beyond the document's nominal, tactical, remit. FM 3-24 arguably played an important role in the bureaucratic and domestic politics associated with the decision to surge in Iraq, and it seems hard to dispute that various personalities and Washington think tanks linked to the document played a major role in U.S. policy deliberations over both Iraq and Afghanistan. It is a truism that military doctrine is not strategy. But what if, in this case, a doctrine became a strategy, as critics have argued?
As FM 3-24 is revised, it seems a good moment to have a larger debate about the interactive effects of doctrine and strategy, real or prospective. Is COIN per se the right manual, or should it be written as part of a broader document that addresses other forms of internal conflict? Does the mere existence of a manual inevitably create a "moral hazard" effect, lulling policymakers into a false confidence about what is possible? Might it provide incentives for policymakers and strategists to "name" a conflict according to the manuals that are available, rather than the facts on the ground? To what extent should a doctrinal manual take account of the risk of its misuse?
3. History and Statecraft
Counterinsurgency also raises critically important questions about the uses of history. The basis of counterinsurgency is a set of particular historical cases, most notably the British in Malaya, the French in Algeria, and the U.S. in Vietnam, and to a lesser extent the British experience in Northern Ireland and imperial policing operations in the U.K.'s former dominions. These cases raise two different, but related questions: 1. What happened?; and 2. How do we use what happened? Despite the rather blithe use of these historical analogies in many discussions about COIN, both of these questions are highly contested by scholars.
While Malaya is widely considered the perfect case study of counterinsurgency principles (at least as articulated in FM 3-24), a new generation of scholars, such as British historian Karl Hack, has begun to challenge popular understandings of what happened there, including the much discussed "hearts and minds" approach. Scholars are also examining the other case studies of COIN in critical ways and developing new, much more nuanced, understandings of those histories.
But the second part of the question is how we use those cases, and this connects to a larger and long-standing debate about the uses of history for policymaking. At Harvard, the late Ernest May and Richard Neustadt spent decades examining the uses of history and warning against the perils of simplistic historical analogies in developing and/or justifying policy. Francis J. Gavin and James Steinberg recently offered a wise and thoughtful refresher on this subject, reminding us that history's "lessons" can be as often misleading as helpful.
But this question has received surprisingly little attention in the COIN debate. Despite the certainty with which COIN advocates have offered historical models, it is not at all obvious or well demonstrated that the classic case studies of COIN are applicable to modern American warfare. Imagine that we conducted the very simple exercise, suggested by May and Neustadt, to test the applicability of an historical analogy: Divide a sheet of paper in half, and on the left side write down the similarities between Iraq and, say, Malaya. On the right side, write down the differences. Would the left side really be more robust than the right? And even if the relevance of historical cases seems plausible at first blush, surely the evidentiary burden lies with those who argue for the use of the analogy. In the field of counterinsurgency, there has been surprisingly little deep scholarship that would even begin to meet this burden.
4. What Really Happened in Iraq, and Why? What of COIN in Afghanistan?
Inextricably woven into the previous three sets of questions is the U.S. experience in Iraq during and after the Surge, which, for some, offers the most recent, and most potent, case study in successful COIN. According to this view, COIN, as described by FM 3-24, was taken to Iraq in 2007, implemented there, and violence declined. What better evidence of COIN's utility than our own experience but a few years ago?
But there are serious and unresolved questions about what really happened in Iraq, and both sides of the argument have suffered from an absence of evidence. It has been hard to prove that the Surge (and its alleged accompanying COIN techniques) worked, but also hard to demonstrate that it did not, and both sides have plausible, but unproven, explanations for the observed outcomes. In an upcoming article in International Security, Stephen Biddle, Jeffrey Friedman, and Jacob Shapiro use recently declassified data on violence to explore various competing arguments about the Surge. Without spoiling the surprise, their answer is that the story is complicated, and reveals the limits of several sides of the argument.
The Iraq question leads us irretrievably to a discussion about how counterinsurgency ideas featured in later policy -- and results -- in Afghanistan. Here there are also important, unanswered questions that scholars must tackle in coming years. Was the problem that COIN was never fully implemented in Afghanistan, as some argue? Or did the U.S. try, and fail, at counterinsurgency there, as others would have it? Beyond the facts on the ground there is also an important, and insufficiently understood, history of how interpretations of the Iraq experience affected the thinking of military and civilian senior leaders in policy on Afghanistan, for good or for ill.
If indeed COL Killebrew is right that counterinsurgency is here to stay, then so long as we are sending young men and women into danger to undertake such conflicts, it is imperative that we get it right, or as right as we can. We are obligated not to sit back, be quiet, and declare the debate over, but instead work diligently to fill the serious intellectual gaps in this fascinating and critical subject that has had such a profound impact on American policy and real lives on the battlefield.
The disruption of a new underwear bomber plot, once again attributable to al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) -- one of the most active branches of al Qaeda -- is a welcome and yet worrisome development. On the one hand, kudos to our counter-terrorism establishment which, through good intelligence and police work, stopped the bomber before he could carry out his attack. On the other hand, AQAP has shown that it -- and al Qaeda in general -- are alive and well, despite our best efforts to disrupt and destroy them. After years of deadly strikes against the group (see Bill Roggio's excellent work on this here), AQAP has been able to regenerate and continue to plot and plan destructive terrorist attacks against the homeland.
Even more worrisome, however, is that AQAP managed to organize this attack while its fighting cadres are winning battle after battle against the Yemeni government, seizing territory and imposing al Qaeda's version of sharia on the populace. I'll have more to say on this issue soon, when the first part of my reaction to the recently released Osama bin Ladin documents will be posted. For this piece, I will just say that it is a false dichotomy to categorize al Qaeda's strategy as one that is meant solely to take territory OR solely to carry out attacks on the U.S. As the actions of AQAP make quite clear, the group desires both and, more importantly, has the capabilities to do both simultaneously.
The U.S. is on high alert to watch for any further bombs that might be on the loose; I wonder if we have a similarly well-thought out plan in place to deal with the deteriorating situation in the country that allowed these plots to be hatched.
ABC News via Getty Images
Islamabad is unhappy with the United States. As the anniversary of the killing of Bin Laden approaches, Pakistani officials, and especially parliamentarians, are spewing even more venom against the United States than they usually do -- which is saying a lot. Pakistan is full of grievances. It is furious that the United States is launching drone attacks against al Qaeda terrorists on its territory. Pakistan has not yet reopened the logistics support line to Afghanistan through its territory, which it closed in retaliation against the previous spate of American drone attacks. The future of that line now appears to be in real jeopardy.
Pakistan wants $3 billion from the Coalition Support Fund as compensation for its operations in support of the American effort against terrorists operating from the Tribal Areas. Washington is prepared to reimburse about a third of that amount, and is not yet ready to pay even that.
Finally, Islamabad is uneasy with the Afghan-American agreement that commits Washington to a decade of support for Afghanistan once American and coalition troops withdraw in 2014. No one really knows how much American assistance will really be available. Ten years is a very long time, and American interests could lie elsewhere. But Pakistanis, ever seeking to render Afghanistan firmly within their sphere of influence -- and to prevent it from becoming part of India's sphere -- are uneasy about the thought of close American ties to Kabul for the foreseeable future.
There are those in Washington who persist in calling Pakistan an American ally. It is no such thing. The American-Pakistani relationship is a forced marriage of inconvenience. American-Pakistani relations are a shadow of the cooperation that had reached its zenith when Pervez Mussharraf committed himself to the fight against al Qaeda. Early in the past decade, Pakistan redirected its forces from the Indian border, and undertook serious operations against al Qaeda. Pakistan lost many troops in the effort, and the United States, recognizing Islamabad's contribution, established the Coalition Support Fund, which, at least when I was in charge of payments, covered over 80 percent of all Pakistani claims.
But times have changed. Pakistan's military has become increasingly radicalized, even as the size of its nuclear weapons arsenal continues to grow apace. The country's president, Asif Ali Zardari, has struggled with the military virtually since the day he took office. The Pakistani "street," whose history of hostility to the United States dates back at least to the 1979 burning of the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad, is even more violently anti-American today. The power and influence of the Imams, and of the students who graduate their madrasas, continues to grow unabated. And the possibility that the country will break apart, with Pashtu, Baluch, Sindhis, and Punjabis, each going their own way, is considered more real than ever before.
The United States cannot abandon Pakistan. To do so is to invite open Pakistani support for the likes of the Haqqanis, who probably are now America's most dangerous adversaries in Afghanistan. However bad the relationship with Pakistan's military might be, having no relationship would be even worse. After all, not all of Pakistan's generals are radical Muslims; many still retain a Western-oriented outlook.
Moreover, the only way to combat the influence of radical Islam in Pakistan is to fund schools that can compete with the madrasas, by offering both religious and secular studies, as well as the hot meals that impoverished students can obtain nowhere else. While reeling economically, only the United States, despite its own economic headaches, is still in a position to finance directly the creation and sustenance of such an educational system.
Finally, however uncomfortable the relationship with Pakistan may be today, a Pakistan that becomes even more radicalized, or worse still, breaks apart, will represent a true danger to American security. Washington is right to ignore Pakistani protests and once again to employ drones against those who seek to harm America. It is also right to withhold payments of Coalition Support Funding until the road to Afghanistan is once again re-opened. But America must do more, in other ways, particularly in developing a much more ambitious plan to support modern education in Pakistan's poorest areas -that would also encompass traditional Koranic studies. Perhaps direct American assistance will not be feasible -- Islamabad may prohibit such aid. In that case, indirect means will have to be found -- perhaps via international organizations. If the United States truly hopes for a cooperative relationship with Pakistan, it must do all it can to shed the light of modern education on the darker corners of that country's psyche. Nothing less will do, and no action at all would constitute a tragedy, for Pakistan, for the entire region, and for the United States as well.
JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images
In an earlier post I noted that there have been strong protests to my thesis that al Qaeda has not been fatally damaged by U.S. counter-terrorism efforts, and in fact is stronger now than ever before. In the earlier post I listed five specific objections that I have heard from administration officials and from al Qaeda and terrorism experts (like Will McCants). Since then Seth Jones has published a piece that also argues al Qaeda is not dead, although he takes on different points of contention than I do.
At the center of the first three objections that I list -- and that lead directly to the fourth -- is a profound disagreement over what exactly al Qaeda is, how able "core" al Qaeda is to command and control its affiliates, and what the group can therefore hope to achieve (despite its boasts to far greater things). The objections also reflect a difference in opinion about the public statements made by al Qaeda's leaders, seen by many as expressing aspirational -- but unachievable -- goals, or as rhetoric designed to inspire terror attacks, but by me and others as official statements of the group's policy vision.
I've already discussed thoroughly the differing views of "what al Qaeda is" in this post, but would stress that I take al Qaeda's leadership at their word, and agree that the "core" is the high command of a global organization that includes many branches (as al Qaeda calls the affiliates) and that these branches are an integral part of al Qaeda. Their relationship is somewhat like that between the Pentagon and the Combatant Commanders, although more decentralized and with latitude for splintering and serious disagreement-as in any insurgency. The oath of obedience that binds leadership and forces in the field -- called "baya" -- is one piece of evidence that both "core" and branches are precisely the same thing and that there is a command and control function built into their relationship. In theory, baya operates in much the same way as a feudal oath of fealty. When joining al Qaeda, only the overall affiliate military commander -- and the head of shadow governance, if one exists -- swear loyalty to the al Qaeda high command, subordinate commanders swear loyalty to these leaders, and the ordinary foot soldiers swear loyalty to the subordinates. Just as with feudal oaths where the meanest peasant could not argue that he did not have to obey the ruler because he had not personally sworn an oath to him, so the local forces of al Qaeda -- through their oaths to their unit commander -- are bound to obey as well the orders of everyone above them in the chain of command. One recent example of this theoretical hierarchy in practice is the baya sworn by Shaykh Atom to the Amir of the Shabab in Somalia, an oath that made him -- and his men -- as much a part of al Qaeda as the Shabab.
But these oaths, while suggestive, do not prove that the "core" is really able to command and control the affiliates. Again, there is evidence that tells us they are, but in the same way that all insurgencies are under the command and control (C2) of often distant superiors. In regular militaries and regular wars, C2 is a rigidly defined issue, with strict rules about who obeys whom, daily reporting by subordinates to officers, constant oversight to make certain that orders are obeyed, and set penalties for insubordination or direct disobedience. Irregular wars -- such as insurgencies -- are very different, however, as a recent publication by the Department of Defense on the insurgency in Afghanistan makes clear. As in other insurgencies, the Taliban leadership in Pakistan provides broad strategic guidance and resources as needed, but not specific daily orders with daily reportage back up the chain of command. Instead, tighter C2 is handled through the local shadow government and commanders on the ground, who report back to their distant superiors on a regular basis. This, in miniature, is how al Qaeda is controlling their forces in places like Iraq, Yemen, Somalia, and the Sahel. Captured documents from Iraq show in action both the strengths and limitations of this sort of guidance. Zarqawi was directly ordered by his superiors to stop cutting off heads in public, to refrain from ever attacking neighboring countries again, to create the foundations for an Islamic state in Iraq, and to try harder to win over Sunnis to his cause. All these orders he obeyed. He was also ordered to stop killing Shia and Sunnis in large numbers, but events seem to show that he ignored this demand. From their distant headquarters, al Qaeda could not do much about this insubordination, although his subsequent demotion to a lesser position within al Qaeda in Iraq is suggestive, and I'm sure they did not mourn his passing a few weeks later.
Another example of this sort of C2 should give pause to those who argue that the "core" does not really control the affiliates. In the summer of 2009, the official view of the U.S. was that the affiliates were focused solely on local concerns (i.e. overthrowing the rulers of their own countries). That June, Mustafa Abu al-Yazid, the General Manager of al Qaeda, gave an interview in which he stated that the branches were an integral part of al Qaeda and that the leadership was ordering them to carry out attacks on the U.S. Six months later, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula-assessed by the U.S. government as having purely local objectives-carried out an unsuccessful attack on the homeland. A few months later, Tehrik-i-Taliban, a Pakistani group tied to al Qaeda that was also viewed as having purely local concerns, attempted to blow up Times Square. Our failure to take seriously the "rhetoric" of al Qaeda leaders led to two near catastrophes.
This discussion also matters because the U.S. policy proposals that flow from these viewpoints are substantially different. If al Qaeda can be divided into a core leadership that has as its primary objective attacking the U.S. and affiliates that are not an integral part of that core (or at least not under real command and control), then it is possible to carry out a successful counter-terrorism (CT) strategy against the "core" and perhaps the leadership of the affiliates, while allowing regional partners to handle the local insurgencies of the affiliates themselves. If, however, al Qaeda is both core and affiliate, that is both high command and ground forces, and the leadership is able to exert real command and control functions, then CT methodologies -- and its foundation of attrition -- will not destroy al Qaeda or prevent its spread. The only method that we have for dealing with this sort of warfare is counterinsurgency.
In my next post, I'll expand on this assertion and give my take on how the Arab Spring and the death of Bin Ladin have affected al Qaeda.
ABDURASHID ABIKAR/AFP/Getty Images
My last four posts, and particularly the concluding paragraph of the final post (here), have received some critical attention. The claim that al Qaeda is in far better condition now than on 9-11 seems especially egregious to some experts, so I'd like to take this post to state fairly the top five objections to my thesis. In follow-up posts, I'll answer each of these.
1) The al-Qaeda core does not command and control the affiliates, who are still primarily concerned with local matters.
Al Qaeda consists of the "core," a group of a few hundred men located somewhere in South Asia. Of course the core claims to control the affiliates -- groups like al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) -- however, a close look at the development of the affiliates suggests that this is nothing but propaganda, used to make al Qaeda look bigger and more successful than it actual is. All the affiliates evolved out of local conditions, have overwhelmingly local memberships, and have local objectives. Many of them were failed terrorist groups, who seized on a relationship with al Qaeda to give them a new lease on life, and do not have any real commitment to al Qaeda's global objectives. The dispersion of al Qaeda core members out to these affiliates shows just how effective our war against them has been and demonstrates the fundamental weakness of the group.
Another line of argument judges that AQAP and others who have sworn fealty to the al Qaeda core are indeed part of al Qaeda, but argues that only in Somalia has al Qaeda -- through the section of the Shabaab that has sworn fealty -- been able to hold ground. In Yemen and other places they do not have any real base and even in Somalia, the Shabaab are now on the defensive from the regional forces that have boots on the ground. This line of argument would also agree with the other described above about command and control: It is impossible for the "core" to effectively control the actions of these distant affiliates.
2) The main objective of the al Qaeda core is to attack the U.S. All the other expressed objectives are mere propaganda by al Qaeda, used to radicalize Muslims and to inspire attacks on the U.S. and its allies.
The argument here is that no one should take seriously the outrageous propaganda spouted by al Qaeda's spokesmen. They naturally want to make themselves out to be more than they are, and claim all sorts of "achievements" and capabilities that they do not in fact possess. In addition, the larger objectives that they say they are aiming for are clearly fantasies (world domination -- really?) and unachievable. The actions of the affiliates, meanwhile, are judged to be either really aimed at local issues, or to be so ineffective that they can be safely left to capable partners.
3) The means that al Qaeda core has used to carry out its main objective are either cells trained in South Asia or adherents ("lone wolves"), who are radicalized through the internet or extremist preachers.
The U.S. has successfully prevented al Qaeda from operationalizing any large cells designed to attack U.S. persons since 2001. Because of these successes, al Qaeda was forced to rely on the far less effective "lone wolves," showing just how weak the group has become.
4) Based on these three points, the correct strategy for dealing with al Qaeda is counter-terrorism plus countering violent extremism.
Al Qaeda is little more than a small group of frightened men in Afghanistan-Pakistan, and thus to use the military against them is to over-react to a limited problem. It is also extremely expensive to involve the military and leads to the unnecessary loss of American lives. Instead, the U.S. should depend on a counter-terrorism strategy to defeat the group. This would entail law enforcement means and methods to take out the criminals, with the main aim of attrition (i.e. killing or capturing al Qaeda members), until the group is so weak that local law enforcement can handle them on their own (as they are doing in places like Indonesia and Turkey). We also need to stop the radicalization of individual Muslims (like Major Hasan) by countering the propaganda of al Qaeda and killing off its most charismatic leaders (see the deaths of Anwar al-Awlaqi and Bin Ladin himself).
For the affiliates, it is enough to involve regional and capable partners, who can be our surrogate "boots on the ground" in places like Somalia.
5) Without its charismatic founder, chief propagandist, main radicalizer and inspiration -- Osama Bin Ladin -- al Qaeda is doomed. In addition, the Arab Spring shows just how irrelevant al Qaeda has become for the life of the Muslim community.
The death of Bin Ladin and the Arab Spring were game-changers. Without its chief radicalizer, al Qaeda core will not be able to replace losses and will not be able to inspire young Muslims to carry out attacks against the U.S. This shows that the U.S. has nearly won the war on al Qaeda. The revolutionary events that we call the Arab Spring also demonstrate that al Qaeda -- once seen as so influential in the Muslim community -- has become largely irrelevant. Al Qaeda neither began nor influenced the course of the uprisings, and was ignored by those who participated in them. We can also see that (in general) the outcomes of the Spring have not favored al Qaeda's resurgence in these areas, and have in fact opened the path for a far more optimistic future for the Muslim world.
Now that I've convinced you that my last four posts are completely and egregiously wrong, you will need to come back over the next few days to see how I'll answer each of these objections.
Ulet Ifansasti/Getty Images
BRUSSELS – For supporters of the war in Afghanistan, recent news has been depressing. Here in Brussels at NATO headquarters, where I've been observing the so-called "jumbo" ministerial of NATO defense and foreign ministers, officials were forced to address the Haqqani network's brazen attacks in several Afghan cities, including Kabul, over the weekend, as well as photographs published by the Los Angeles Times of U.S. Army soldiers posing with the body parts of suicide bombers in 2010.
JOHN THYS/AFP/Getty Images
In previous posts (here, here, and here), I've looked at three important questions that we must answer if we are to assess how well the U.S. is doing in its war on al Qaeda: defining al Qaeda, naming the group's objectives, and then examining how well it is doing at achieving its goals. I've suggested that the U.S. comes to quite different conclusions than al Qaeda itself on all three of these issues. According to a majority of experts -- both within and outside government -- al Qaeda is primarily the small "core" located somewhere in Afghanistan-Pakistan; the affiliates have an ambiguous relationship with this core and are generally focused on local concerns. The objective of the core is to attack the U.S. and its allies and, because of our excellent counter-terrorism (CT) efforts, we have thwarted all such attempts on the U.S. since 9-11. If this version of the conflict is true, we have nearly won, and only need to kill or capture a few more members of the core before it disintegrates completely.
Al Qaeda's leadership, on the other hand, considers itself to be much more than just a core of terrorists, but rather the "high command" of a global organization. In their view, the affiliates (or branches), as well as many fighters in Afghanistan-Pakistan, are integral members of al Qaeda. They have publicly described expansive objectives that include overthrowing the rulers of every Muslim-majority country (whether part of an earlier Islamic state or not), imposing their version of sharia, and then setting up "amirates," or Islamic states in these countries. Al Qaeda believes that they have achieved many of these goals already and are pressing forward to seize more territory and set up new shadow governments.
So how do we reconcile these very different versions of the war and determine where we are at in this conflict? I believe that the most important question we can ask ourselves is this: Is al Qaeda better off now than it was ten years ago? If we just look at attacks on the U.S., its citizens, and even its allies, we will agree with the current majority view of al Qaeda and answer "no." Unlike before 9-11, when al Qaeda and terrorists trained by the group were able to carry out devastating attacks against the U.S. and its interests in 1993, 1995, 1998, and 2000, the period since 9-11 has been marked by one CT triumph after another. The planned follow-up attacks (the so-called "second wave") were foiled or failed to materialize and other serious plots have been stopped on a regular basis. The only large-scale attacks that succeeded were abroad (Bali (2002), Spain (2004), London (2005) -- no other major attempts since 2005 have made it past the CT nets of the U.S. and our allies.
We will, however, draw quite a different conclusion if we look at how al Qaeda is faring in the rest of the world. On September 11, al Qaeda controlled perhaps a half-dozen camps in one safe-haven (Afghanistan) and had a few tentative alliances with other jihadist groups that had mostly local concerns. Today al Qaeda has multiple safe-havens (in northern Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen, the Sahel); controls branches in many countries that share al Qaeda's global aspirations; holds territory through shadow governments that force local Muslims to follow al Qaeda's version of sharia; and is waging open war on numerous battlefields (Afghanistan, Somalia, Yemen, Mali, etc.). Most tellingly, it is involved -- sometimes weakly, at other times in strength -- in every Muslim-majority country in the world.
Based on these facts, any net assessment of al Qaeda would conclude that, despite its failure to carry out a mass-casualty attack on the U.S. since 9-11, the group is in far better condition on a global scale than at any time in its history. And if, as al Qaeda itself has always argued, attacking the U.S. was just one means toward the greater ends of overthrowing Muslim rulers, imposing their version of sharia, and controlling territory, then they have made real progress toward achieving their strategic goals. This judgment is not just an esoteric statement about theory, but also has important policy implications: If al Qaeda is indeed spreading itself across broad swathes of territory, can the U.S. continue to depend solely on regional partners and a counter-terrorism strategy to stop the group?
My last post argued that determining al Qaeda's objectives is vital for any evaluation of the group's progress. I suggested that the U.S. government believes that the main goal of al Qaeda is attacking the United States and its allies, but that this is to confuse means with ends. The stated objectives of the group are to liberate all Muslim-majority countries of non-Muslim occupiers and their apostate rulers, impose their version of sharia in these places, create an Islamic state then that they call the "caliphate," and eventually force all human beings to follow their version of Islamic law. By carrying out attacks on the U.S. -- and other means -- al Qaeda believes that it can achieve these greater ends.
The confusion of means with ends has many consequences, but one of the most vital is that it makes it extremely difficult to understand where we are at in the war with al Qaeda.
If the main objective for al Qaeda were to attack the U.S., then it is obvious that the group has been an abject failure: It has not carried out a successful homeland attack since 9-11 and has been incapable of a mass attack on our allies since the London bombings of 2005. The group must be far weaker than anyone thought in the immediate aftermath of 9-11, less capable of projecting power, and therefore less of a threat to the United States than once feared. The death of Osama bin Laden might even mean that the group is finished -- a spent force that can be safely relegated to some second-tier category while the U.S. concentrates on more dangerous enemies (like China).
But if its main objectives are those outlined above, then measuring the successes and failures of al Qaeda is more complex than the number of attacks on the U.S. it has carried out and the casualties of Americans and our friends it has caused. To assess al Qaeda's strengths, we would need to look at where the group claims that it is active worldwide and see how much progress it has made in achieving its goals. Since they will only begin to force all other people to follow their version of shari'a after achieving the first three goals, I won't attempt to assess their progress on this front.
Instead, let's begin by examining al-Qaeda's objective of expelling non-Muslim occupiers and apostate rulers from Muslim lands. Since 9-11, American military forces have withdrawn from Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and soon will leave Afghanistan. Multiple NATO forces have also decided to leave Afghanistan and many countries left Iraq before the defeat of the insurgency. We would say -- and rightly so -- that the reasons for pulling out of these areas have little to do with al Qaeda's actions. The U.S. in fact left Iraq and is leaving Afghanistan because it believes that al Qaeda has been defeated in both countries, and was able to move forces out of Saudi Arabia because Saddam was no longer around to threaten U.S. interests. With our allies the situation is rather different: It was the stubborn refusal of the insurgents (whether members of al-Qaeda or not) to quit fighting that caused many of them to decide to leave first Iraq (see Spain) and then Afghanistan. But, despite the real reasons for the withdrawal of American and allied forces from Muslim lands, Zawahiri and other leaders of al Qaeda have been able to claim credit for pushing them out of these countries, and for achieving one of their most important objectives.
The same holds true for the ouster of "apostate" rulers like Saddam, Mubarak, Ben Ali, Qaddafi, and Ali Saleh (see Abdullah, "Disobeying Ali Abdullah Saleh Is the Most Important Duty That Was Called For by the Good Predecessors," Sada al-Malahim, Issue 3, May 2008) -- all named by the group as deserving to be pushed from power and/or executed. The Arab Spring in particular was a force completely outside al-Qaeda's power to begin or control, but this has not stopped its leaders from pointing out that the downfall of these "tyrants" fulfills one of their objectives. From the start of the spring, then, the group could position itself as supporting the uprisings and has sympathizers in Libya and Egypt, and outright members in Yemen, that are in position to take advantage of the social and political foment that has naturally occurred in these countries.
The bottom line is this: regardless of the agency of al Qaeda in these events, the actions by the U.S., its allies, and the people of these Muslim-majority countries have fulfilled two major objectives that al Qaeda has consistently claimed that they are pursuing. And, because of its consistency in calling for the ouster of these rulers, the group is now in an excellent position to build support in all the countries touched by the uprisings.
Al Qaeda has had more direct involvement in achieving its third objective-creating the "caliphate" -- although apparently with less success. The graphic below shows the governance areas for the caliphate that al Qaeda has claimed it is in the process of creating through the jihads of its branches. The exact boundaries of these areas are open to discussion, but the names and general territories are as described by al Qaeda.
In at least five of these areas -- the Sahara, Horn of Africa, Yemen, Iraq, and Pakistan, al Qaeda has claimed to have established amirates, their name for the shadow governments that are supposed to expand their authority until it encompasses the entire governance area. I believe that, eventually, al Qaeda wants to make these areas into wilayat or provinces within the larger caliphate.
All these attempts to set up governance have had some success: al Qaeda's branches did not just announce the establishment of a state in each place, but have also been imposing their version of Islamic law by setting up a court system to establish legal penalties and settle cases, along with an institution traditionally called the "hisba" to enforce the law. They have also created a regular army, charged taxes, collected Islamic charity (traditionally the provenance of the state), and much else. Al Qaeda 's attempts at shadow governance have not been uncontested, however. In almost all these cases, the new amirates are under pressure from central governments and external forces (like the Kenyans in Somalia), and in one case, Iraq, lost nearly everything when the U.S. carried out a successful counter-insurgency in 2007-2008. Yet the new governance structures have proven to be resilient, and even in Iraq are making a comeback that show the depth of their influence. In Yemen, where the central government is weak and there are no strong neighbors to intervene, the situation is particularly dire, and al Qaeda has been able to take advantage of the chaos from the Arab Spring to spread its control across large portions of the country.
Any evaluation of al Qaeda's progress in achieving this objective would have to admit that the group has done far better here than expected, is a real threat in many of these countries, and will require far more effort than the U.S. or its allies is currently willing to exert if the extremists are to be stopped.
In my next post I'll look at how well the U.S. (and other countries) have done in countering al Qaeda, and give my net assessment of where we are at in our war with the group.
Mohamed Abdiwahab/AFP/Getty Images
In my last post, I argued that evaluating progress in our war with al Qaeda is possible, but that we must first answer a series of questions, beginning with "What is al Qaeda?" In this post, I'll look at the second issue -- the problem of al Qaeda's objectives in their war. Only by understanding what the group aspires to achieve can we determine if they have succeeded in attaining their goals or not. As with the issue of defining al Qaeda, there are a variety of opinions within the expert community and the government about the group's strategic vision, a term that includes both objectives and plans for achieving them. Consistently, however, the U.S. government -- including both the Bush and Obama administrations -- has concluded that carrying out terrorist attacks on the U.S. and our allies is the key objective for "core" al Qaeda, while the affiliates are focused on local agendas (although they now also desire to carry out attacks on the U.S.).
There are, however, hints in official U.S. statements of quite a different set of objectives for the group. The declassified part of an April 2006 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE), for instance, asserts that al Qaeda's political goal is an "ultra-conservative interpretation of sharia-based governance spanning the Muslim world." In 2010, an official statement for the record of then-DNI Dennis Blair, listed the objectives for al Qaeda, besides attacking the U.S. and its allies, as "driving Western influence from Islamic lands" and "facilitating the establishment of sharia law in South Asia." A speech by John Brennan in 2011 gives a detailed look at how the U.S. defines al Qaeda's goals, proposing four separate objectives: first, to terrorize the U.S. into retreating from the world stage; second, to use long wars to financially bleed the U.S. while inflaming anti-American sentiment; third, to defend the rights of Muslims; and finally, claims al Qaeda has "a feckless delusion" and "grandiose vision" for global domination through a "violent Islamic caliphate."
A look at the public and private statements of al Qaeda's leaders supports the view that the group seeks to achieve far more than simply attacking the U.S. and its allies. In multiple statements, leaders like Zawahiri have consistently presented a series of objectives that al Qaeda is actively pursuing: liberating all "Muslim lands" from occupation by both non-Muslims and "apostate" rulers; imposing their version of sharia (Islamic law) on Muslims and non-Muslims alike in these lands; erecting then a state that they call the "caliphate;" and eventually making God's word the highest. This phrase, which means many things to Muslims, signifies just one thing for the extremists: that the entire world is ruled by their version of sharia.
It is significant that al Qaeda's lists of objectives do not mention attacking the United States or its allies. Rather, attacking the U.S. is presented as a way to achieve these goals, suggesting that U.S. evaluations of al Qaeda's effectiveness have a serious error at their very foundation: a confusion of our enemy's means and ends. The importance of this mistake cannot be understated. If al Qaeda's main goal is to attack the U.S. and our current counter-terrorism (CT) efforts have prevented the group from doing so, then we have succeeded not only in saving lives, but also have found how to stop the terrorists entirely. If, on the other hand, killing Americans was just one of the methods that al Qaeda has been employing on its way to other, larger goals, then our CT work might have only partially thwarted the group and there might be other areas where they have been more successful in reaching their goals.
In my next post, I'll take a look at the objectives that al Qaeda has said that it is pursuing, and attempt to bring some clarity to the question of how well the group has been doing in achieving them.
Mohamed Abdiwahab/AFP/Getty Images
Is al Qaeda dead? Statements by counter-terrorism and intelligence officials suggest that the Obama administration is moving toward this conclusion. In a speech at Johns Hopkins' School of Advanced International Studies last June, John Brennan said that al Qaeda was "in its decline" and that it was possible to envision the demise of al Qaeda's core leadership in the near future. Leon Panetta was even more forthright in remarks to reporters a month later, arguing that the U.S. was within reach of "strategically defeating al Qaeda," that the group was "on the run," and that killing 10-20 key leaders would lead to its defeat. Two weeks ago DNI James Clapper reiterated the administration's view in his testimony before Congress that core al Qaeda was "diminishing in operational importance," that the movement could soon fragment, and that this would make the core largely of symbolic significance.
It is rather surprising, given this optimistic appraisal, that the second half of Clapper's testimony on terrorism -- as well as the next few lines of Brennan's speech -- detail the resilience and growing threat from al Qaeda affiliates -- the official designation for groups like al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghrab (AQIM). Both statements warn that these groups are not just maintaining their activities, but are actually expanding in size and influence while now seeking to attack the U.S. How can the strategic defeat of al Qaeda be at hand if its affiliates are surging?
The apparent contradiction within these two statements suggests that there might be inconsistencies in how the U.S. assesses progress in the war against al Qaeda. Over the next few days I'll attempt to tease out these inconsistencies and provide some clarity on the four interrelated questions that the U.S. must answer if we want to understand where we are at in the war with al Qaeda: How do we define al Qaeda; what does al Qaeda want to achieve (i.e. what are its objectives); how well do we think al Qaeda is doing at achieving these objectives; and finally how well do we think we're doing at stopping al Qaeda.
Let's start with the most fundamental of these questions: What is al Qaeda? It might seem strange that more than ten years after 9-11 we are still struggling to answer this question, but understanding this enemy has never been an easy task. In their official remarks, both Brennan and Clapper provide the administration's answer: Al Qaeda is cleanly divided into a core that has as its key objective attacking the U.S., affiliates that have shown interest in attacking us but generally focus on local concerns, and "adherents" -- individuals who have been inspired by al Qaeda's ideology, but have no organizational connection to the core. Given this description, if asked to choose between describing al Qaeda as a movement that inspires and motivates or an organization that directs, commands, and controls a global war, I believe that the administration would answer "movement."
This seems like a plausible answer, and it has been used to guide successful U.S. counter-terrorism efforts, but it leaves out a necessary piece of the puzzle: it ignores how al Qaeda defines itself. In multiple statements, al Qaeda's leaders have consistently asserted that their group as an organization with a fully articulated bureaucracy and administrative committees, the vanguard or "High Command," of a global jihad against the Crusaders and Jews (and their allies). Another, more detailed, explication of their views is presented in a 2009 interview with Mustafa Abu al-Yazid, the now dead "General Manager" for al Qaeda. Abu al-Yazid was asked how large al Qaeda was, and he used the opportunity to describe three tiers within the organization: the leadership and those who have sworn an oath of loyalty to the leaders (what we call the core); multiple groups and individuals that joined directly with the command to fight in Pakistan and Afghanistan; and what he calls "branches," that al Qaeda has opened in "many Muslim countries."
Abu al-Yazid also claimed that the leadership had direct command and control over all these parts of its organization, despite the difficulties posed by distance and wartime conditions, ordering, for example, the branches to carry out attacks against the U.S. This was not just boasting. At the time of the interview, it was the official position of the U.S. government that AQAP, AQIM, and other affiliates were focused on local concerns and would never attempt to attack the homeland. Six months after Abu al-Yazid made this assertion, an AQAP member tried to set off a bomb in his underwear on a U.S. flight into Detroit, and since then a series of plots have been disrupted involving various affiliates.
It's now possible to understand, at least partially, the apparent contradiction between the two parts of Brennan and Clapper's statements: the U.S. has attempted to disaggregate the "high command" from the troops that they claim to be commanding. Our current CT (counter-terrorism) strategy targets the high command (the Core), and thus the claim that "al Qaeda" is almost defeated, while leaving the forces in the field (the "affiliates") relatively untouched. A rough analogy to current U.S. strategy -- although without the nation-state structures to provide a sturdy backbone -- would be if in a future war, an enemy targeted the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Pentagon, and the Combatant Commanders in an attempt to decapitate U.S. forces in the field, but was unable to take on U.S. troops directly.
Of course it is one thing for al Qaeda to claim command and control over all these forces, and quite another thing to actually exert it. Measuring this will require a further investigation of al Qaeda's objectives and the group's ability to achieve these objectives.
Mohamed Abdiwahab/AFP/Getty Images
I have a few additional thoughts beyond the ones I posted earlier on the implications of the historic drone strike that killed al-Awlaki and another U.S. citizen who had linked up with Al Qaeda:
* Shadow Government's house historian, Will Inboden, has chastised me for making this point before, but I am slow to learn from history (and historians) so I will make it again anyway: I think Obama's embrace of drone strikes and most of the rest of the Bush Administration Global War on Terror institutional edifice further solidifies the Bush-Obama/Truman-Eisenhower parallel. (The observant reader will note that I made this point exactly one year ago and am now making it again. Coincidence? Or is it because this is the week that my American Grand Strategy seminar studies the Truman-Eisenhower transition?) Obama, like Ike, campaigned on the premise that his predecessor had thoroughly botched the most important grand strategy challenges of the day and that he (Obama/Ike) would dramatically alter course if elected. However sincere that campaign critique may have been, once elected the new Administration ended up embracing most of the very same controversial elements -- in this case, Obama's embrace of secret legal memos to authorize unilateral uses of force outside of a formal UN process. Of course, containment policy remained a subject of bitter partisan debate after the Eisenhower Administration, but the parameters of that debate were narrowed considerably by the simple fact that Eisenhower embraced more than he replaced of the strategy he inherited from his predecessor. Obama has done the same and I expect a similar effect on the parameters of future debates over the war on terror.
* While the continuity is mostly to be praised, not all of it is beyond critique. My former colleague John Bellinger has argued that Obama may be following Bush too closely in one respect: relying on secret legal reasoning rather than going to Congress and the international community to shore up the political foundations undergirding the most controversial legal aspects of the war. Circumstances eventually forced Bush to secure more explicit Congressional authorization for controversial features of his detainee policy, but Bellinger argues it would have been preferable to lock in Congressional and international buy-in earlier. The Obama Administration is following the Bush precedent and, ultimately, may be forced to deal with Congress and the international community as Bush was. Bellinger argues that Obama would be better served by initiating the legal conversation now, rather than delaying the inevitable. Former Congresswoman Jane Harman proposes an intriguing first step: declassify the legal memo that authorized the strike that killed al-Awlaki. My guess is that this would trigger more debate than consensus, for, as another former Bush official, Jack Goldsmith, has argued, many of the opponents of drone strikes have no interest in establishing a legal framework that would permit the strikes. The opponents want to stop the strikes, period. But Goldsmith also rightly points out that that debate is inevitable so perhaps Bellinger and Harmon are on to something.
* Speaking of legal memos, I think this strike may have killed the movement to prosecute Bush-era officials involved in detainee policy. An important part of Obama's political base has never been satisfied with the previous investigations that exonerated Bush officials, and has long called for prosecuting those who acted under the legal protection of official Justice Department memos and, indeed, has called for going after the lawyers who wrote those very memos. The Obama Administration has stopped short of launching the full witch-hunt the left is demanding, and it is hard to see how they could initiate it now. Any action against Bush officials who wrote the legal memos or who acted consistent with those memos would seem to open up a precedent that exposed all of the Obama team to the same risk once Obama's successor is in office. Perhaps there is a crafty legal strategy that would snare all Bush "witches" whilst allowing all the Obama ones to evade the net. But my guess is that the Obama team will not want to put that risky strategy to the test.
SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images
The news that Anwar al-Awlaki has been killed raises important issues for the continuing war on al Qaeda. First, al Qaeda has lost a vital asset, one that will be difficult to replace. Awlaki was a smart and articulate spokesman for the organization, giving an American voice to its extremist views and using contemporary terms and examples in a way that appealed to far more ordinary people than previous outreaches to Americans by al Qaeda -- including those led by Adam Gadahn and "Rakan Ben Williams." It is unclear just how many people have been radicalized by his work -- we know about Nidal Hasan (the Fort Hood killer) and Abdulmutallab (the Detroit "underwear" bomber) -- but there may be many more. Second, Awlaki's position within al Qaeda shows the importance that the group places on "inciting jihad" and dawa -- that is, on pushing young Muslims to join the jihad while inculcating them into al Qaeda's radical version of Islam. Awlaki performed both of these functions within the group, without which it would be unable to recruit new fighters for its global insurgency. Awlaki might also have been an important liaison for al Qaeda with the large Yemeni Awlaq tribe; his family -- and his father in particular -- are leading members of this influential tribe.
It has also been reported that the United States carried out the strike that killed Awlaki. If this is true, there are a few potential implications. This would be the first time that an American-born citizen was targeted and killed by the United States as part of its war, which might raise some lasting constitutional issues. Just as important is the issue of efficacy. Awlaki will be difficult for al Qaeda to replace, but not impossible, and his death will not end the war. His targeting in fact raises once again the issue of the proper strategy for taking on our enemy. Every airstrike in this conflict is based on an underlying strategy of attrition -- the belief that the United States can kill its way out of this problem. If the United States faces a low-level terrorism issue, attrition might just work, but if we are involved in a global insurgency, attrition alone will not solve, and might in fact exacerbate, the challenges we face. Killing off leaders -- even important ones like Awlaki -- creates martyrs, promotes younger and less inhibited fighters, and acts as a recruitment and radicalization tool for the insurgency. In other words, the death of Awlaki stops one important voice in this fight, but will not halt the slow collapse of Yemen into al Qaeda's hands, nor its use as a base for further action by the group.
America's entry into the European theater of World War II was a military disaster at Kasserine Pass. We suffered heavy casualties and were pushed back over fifty miles. Taking the measure of this force, the Axis powers were smug -- the Americans might be fresh to the fight and have enormous resources, but there was little reason to believe any of their advantages would make a difference.
But after his initial successes against the U.S. military, Rommel wrote worriedly to his wife that although the Americans made mistakes, they were learning from them. And indeed, after our losses in the Tobruk campaign, the American military replaced ineffectual commanders, reorganized units to improve operational control and coordination, trained better fundamental soldiering skills.
Looking back across the decade of America's response to the al Qaeda threat that resulted in the attacks of September 11th, both our government and our military made assessments and improvements of similar magnitude: revamping our intelligence collection and assessment, developing strategies for countering insurgencies, building intellectual capital on the nature of the threats and means for disrupting and destroying them, finding ways to balance liberties and security in ways our public will support and sustain.
We have made grievous and well-documented mistakes: circumventing legislative and judicial oversight of executive authority, underestimating the difficulty of successful regime change and its associated costs, isolated instances of brutality, misreading what we look like to friends and enemies. We responded to the attacks in ways expensive to ourselves and others.
Yet it is also important to note that our response has for the most part defanged the narrative of our enemies. We have fought our wars with an extraordinary care for being a positive force in shaping those societies. We have had domestic debate about the wars, as every society should, but still demonstrated the determination to prosecute those wars and bear the losses they imposed on us -- something our enemies believed we were too dissolute to do. We have demonstrated the resilience to question our own choices and find better solutions with time. We are not the brittle and overbearing leviathan they thought.
Forecasting America's decline has become a mainstay of punditry, yet the analyses almost always overlook the fact that our political culture and our political system are attuned to solving problems. Granted, it is difficult to see up close, amidst the dust and noise of our messy domestic debates; and our mistakes are many. But we are an impatient culture, one that demands solutions and excels at building better mousetraps.
In other words, America is a society that often doesn't have it right, but given a little time, generally gets it right. Fortunately, because of our prosperity and strength, our country has a wide margin of error that generally leaves us time to adapt. Whether future conditions will sustain that margin is an important question, but a question for another day. For now, it is enough to be thankful we have had the space to find solutions that have kept our country remarkably safe despite the threats to us.
On this sad anniversary for our country, let us mourn the people, the freedom, and the innocence we lost on September 11th, 2001. But let us also be proud of the vitality of our people and the institutions of our government. For all our mistakes, we have done passably well. And to America's enemies -- al Qaeda and others -- that should be as worrying as what Rommel observed in the aftermath of the battle at Kasserine Pass.
NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images
Reading through the various detailed accounts, and keeping in mind that we are still learning new things and unlearning things we thought we knew barely a day ago, I am struck by the following aspects of the affair:
Pete Souza/The White House via Getty Images
Osama bin Laden's death is an occasion for celebration. President Obama should be commended for launching the operation, and the quiet professionals who carried out the dangerous mission deserve our thanks. Those who lost family and friends that Tuesday morning nearly ten years ago should draw some solace from the fact that the man who was ultimately responsible for killing so many innocents can no longer do so.
Bin Laden's death will affect the course of the ongoing war on al Qaeda and its affiliates. Individuals matter a great deal in determining the course of history, a fact that applies to terrorist organizations as well as states. Who emerges as the leader of al Qaeda will be enormously consequential for the movement's direction and appeal throughout the Muslim world. Just as he served as the glue that held various factions within al Qaeda together over the years, so too will his death affect all Qaeda going forward. To take but one example, Bin Laden's longtime deputy, the Egyptian Ayman al Zawahiri, has repeatedly emphasized Egypt as the centerpiece of al Qaeda's quest to re-establish a caliphate in the heart of the Islamic world. At the same time, al Qaeda has become more decentralized in recent years with the emergence of al Qaeda's franchises: al Qaeda on the Arabian Peninsula, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), and al Qaeda in the Land of Two Rivers (Iraq). These groups appear to operate with little guidance from Bin Laden or his close associates in Pakistan.
There will be a temptation among some quarters at home and abroad to declare, "Mission accomplished". Opponents of the war in Afghanistan will cite Bin Laden's death as evidence strengthening the case for reducing U.S. forces in the region. Those who oppose a vigorous internationalist strategy will escalate their calls for the United States to adopt more of an "offshore" role. The Pakistanis will attempt to tout their cooperation with the United States in bringing bin Laden to justice while diverting American attention from such uncomfortable questions as how and why bin Laden was able to live for months or years under the noses of Pakistani military and intelligence officers. Other partners, whose enthusiasm for defeating al Qaeda has been limited, may be perfectly willing to declare victory and go home.
This temptation must be resisted, however. Protracted wars are not decided on the outcome of any individual episode. Rather, they turn on the progressive attrition of the adversary's sources of power. Similarly, this conflict will not end in a single battle or campaign. Rather, al Qaeda and its extremist vision will be defeated through the patient accumulation of quiet successes. Victory will include discrediting extremist ideology, creating fissures between and among extremist groups, and reducing them to the level of a nuisance, groups that can be tracked and handled by local law enforcement groups.
An evil man can no do no more harm. However, an evil organization animated by a malignant ideology persists. Much work remains to be done.
CHRIS KLEPONIS/AFP/Getty Images
The death of bin Laden is unambiguous good news for the world and the continuing war on terror: the murderer responsible for 9/11 and tens of thousands of other deaths around the world has gone to meet his Maker and receive justice for his evil. Just as importantly the chief architect of al Qaeda, a charismatic leader who may have held the group together through the sheer force of his personality, is gone.
Here are three of the implications of this momentous event:
First, there is good reason to hope that the coalition that constitutes much of the global jihad will begin to unravel as individual leaders of jihadist groups are able to reconsider their oath of fealty (called "ba'ya") to bin Laden. These oaths, which have been used by al Qaeda to create its global coalition from many disparate groups, are binding only until the death of the person one swears to (the Amir), and do not automatically transfer to the Amir's deputy. We can expect that at least some of those who supported bin Laden will decide not to transfer their loyalty to the new Amir of al Qaeda and might be open to surrendering or negotiations.
Second, the news that bin Laden was found in a lavish mansion just outside Islamabad -- in a suburb that is the richest of the entire country of Pakistan -- and guarded by dozens if not hundreds of minions, shows that Pakistan has been at least partially assimilated by the global jihadist movement. There is no way in God's green earth that some part of official Pakistan -- the military, the intelligence agencies, or the political class -- was not somehow involved in protecting bin Laden from detection and capture. Punishing Pakistan is not the point, but rather that the country is much further along in its slide toward extremism and perhaps even civil war and needs more, not less, assistance from us.
Finally, it has been the modus operandi of the jihadist groups affiliated with al Qaeda to carry out revenge attacks after the death of leaders. Bin Laden has said since the 1990s that his group and movement are more than one person, and there are signs that he and his organization have long planned for his death or capture. Part of this planning is almost certainly raids and terrorist attacks carried out in his name, and we should be extra vigilant over the next few months for these new threats.
BAY ISMOYO/AFP/Getty Images
Osama bin Laden's death is welcome news. He symbolized the virulence of al Qaeda animosity to America and also symbolized the limits of American power in fighting this kind of war.
President Obama served our country well, both in his actions approving the operation and in his statement after its success. He commended the intelligence operatives and analysts who collected the clues and connected them, and the military folks who fought their way into the compound and killed bin Laden. He gracefully had been in touch with his predecessor and with Pakistani President Zardari. He praised cooperation with Pakistan that made the operation possible, which, even if untrue, it will assist future efforts.
The President put the achievement in context of the broader war we are fighting, allaying concerns the Administration might see this as justification for "ending" the war on terror (or whatever the polite term is for it now); because the grim truth is that this war will continue until the al Qaeda terrorists who threaten us finally conclude it isn't worth continuing.
The operation itself was shrewdly planned, even to the detail of having a body to demonstrate we'd killed bin Laden -- because of course al Qaeda has every reason to deny it -- and disposing of the body at sea to prevent any burial place becoming a shrine for al Qaeda.
Perhaps the most gratifying part of bin Laden's death is the demise of al Qaeda that preceded it. They are still virulently dangerous, but they no longer represent a major political force in the so-called Arab world. The really good news that bin Laden's death is that al Qaeda's violent ideology has been on the wane for years now.
Muslims have not embraced a variant of their faith that legitimizes killing innocent people; the debate among the faithful has moved decidedly in the direction of opposing such butchery. And the wave of political change sweeping across the Middle East refutes al Qaeda's claim that only violence and intolerance can produce the change that the people of the Middle East are craving.
NOEL CELIS/AFP/Getty Images
The killing of Osama bin Laden is the culmination of years of hard work by military, intelligence, law enforcement, and diplomatic professionals -- thousands upon thousands of hours of arduous physical and mental labor. It is not their only achievement, of course, but in symbolic terms, it is surely one of the most satisfying.
This is also the signal national security achievement of the Obama Administration and they are taking a well-earned victory lap. The Administration is to be commended for many things -- and as we learn more about the mission, we may learn yet additional ways the team performed well -- but two things in particular struck me as praiseworthy: first, the Administration managed to keep this operation secret despite months of lead time and internal deliberations; and second, the decision to bury bin Laden at sea (assuming that they have otherwise secured indisputable evidence that they got the right man) deftly dealt with the problem of a martyrdom shrine. The President may have struck a few discordant notes in his remarks, but this is not the time for cavils. This is a time to honor the efforts of everyone involved, from the nitty-gritty tactical trigger-puller to the President himself.
Yet, as President Obama rightly emphasized, killing bin Laden does not mean that the war against terrorists inspired by militant Islamism to wage war against the United States and our allies is over.
Indeed, in some ways the details of this operation remind us that we still face daunting challenges. Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the entire affair is the news that bin Laden was not hiding out in a cave in the remote parts of ungoverned areas but in an affluent Pakistani neighborhood close to an Army base. This fact raises inevitable questions about the degree to which some Pakistani authorities might have helped bin Laden to elude us, whether by acts of omission or commission. From the earliest hours after the 9/11 attacks, it was recognized that a transnational terrorist network would be far more lethal if it could leverage state sponsorship. A few men in a cave is not as dangerous as a few men in a cave with access to select resources of a state.
A deeper challenge can be found closer to home. President Obama will enjoy a much-needed boost in public and bipartisan confidence. But the aspects that unite the country -- the success of this tactical mission -- will soon enough give way to the aspects that do not. What does this mean for the larger war against the Taliban in Afghanistan? Will Americans, understandably tired of the costs of a lengthy war, rush to declare victory and demand a premature end to operations there and elsewhere?
In an eerie coincidence, I was watching the movie Charlie Wilson's War as news of the operation against bin Laden filtered out. That movie celebrates another significant American achievement -- the covert operation to assist the mujahideen in defeating the Soviet Union in Afghanistan in the 1980's. The script deftly pairs the celebration of this achievement with the reminder that the United States failed to follow through with the implications of success and within a few short years was confronting a new menace we barely understood.
We have just killed the most significant leader of that menace, and we should honor that achievement. But we should not pretend that there is no more work to be done. President Obama and his team understand that. Will they be able to persuade the American people and our partners around the world to understand that?
Pete Souza/The White House via Getty Images
For an administration that claims there is no conflict between our interests and our values, the Obama administration has sure seemed to have a difficult time balancing U.S. interests in a stable Egypt with the U.S. values of a democratic Egypt.
The administration is in a legitimately tough position deciding how much support to continue giving an authoritarian government that has proved useful to us. But as the protests have worn on, the president, like Secretary Clinton, hit a better balance, calling on the Mubarak government to set in motion a transition to free elections. Vice President Biden was characteristically maladroit, claiming Mubarak was not a dictator and explaining that all the Egyptian protesters were seeking was "a little more opportunity." The Pentagon was characteristically calm and forward leaning, reaching out to the Egyptian defense establishment -- which is indistinguishable from the Egyptian government at its highest levels -- to urge professionalism and restraint.
The Egyptian military has already delivered on the only important near-term military request the United States is likely to make: not using force against the protesters. How might democratization in Egypt affect U.S.-Egyptian military cooperation? Short of an Iranian-style Islamic government overtly hostile to the United States, Mubarak's departure is unlikely to affect military cooperation with the United States. The United States does not actually rely on the Egyptian military for much militarily, and most of that which the United States does is very much in their interests to continue. But it could affect Egyptian-Israeli cooperation, with enormous consequences for the United States.
For military purposes, the United States relies on the Egyptian government in three main ways: 1) acting as a transit for U.S. military forces, 2) preventing Egypt from becoming a base for terrorist activity that would affect the United States, and 3) protecting Israel.
CHRIS KLEPONIS/AFP/Getty Images
Signals from the White House indicate that President Obama's State of the Union (SOTU) address tomorrow night will focus heavily on domestic and economic policy. Understandably so, as domestic and economic issues spurred the GOP's massive Congressional gains, and remain the nation's predominant concerns. The SOTU is President Obama's best platform to regain the political initiative and point the country towards his preferred course over the next two years.
Yet the president should not neglect national security policy in the SOTU, for two reasons. First, while the American people are his primary audience, we are not his only audience. Foreign leaders -- friends, foes, and fence-sitters alike -- will be watching keenly for signs from Obama about strategic priorities and U.S. resolve. Second, while domestic and economic policy has thus far defined this presidency, the future by its nature will surprise, and national security could reemerge as a defining concern.
Here are three issues President Obama should address tomorrow night:
Afghanistan. The administration continues to send conflicting and conflicted signals about the Afghanistan war and the meaning of July 2011 as a "drawdown" date. As Peter Feaver has argued, the White House's rhetorical neglect of Afghanistan threatens to erode tenuous public support. Meanwhile, key actors -- ranging from our NATO allies, India, and the Afghan people and government to Pakistan and the Taliban -- all remain uncertain about the United States' commitment to success in the Afghan mission. And all will in their own ways hedge accordingly. The Congressional audience tomorrow night will be essential for supporting and continuing to fund the war effort -- and needs to know it is a priority for the president. Most important, U.S. forces currently deployed in theater need to hear from their commander-in-chief that he is resolved to see their efforts through.
Darren McCollester/Getty Images
A series of bomb scares and plots in Europe -- combined with a stepped-up campaign against jihadists in Pakistan -- reminds us once again of the threat posed by al Qaeda and the groups that support its ideology.
Let's start with Europe where France, perhaps because of its vote to ban the Islamic veil in public, has become a special target for the extremists. The bomb scares began on Sept. 14, when a Metro station and the Eiffel Tower were evacuated, and have continued since then with three further evacuations of both Metro stations and the Eiffel Tower, the last of which occurred just yesterday. France's security threat warning was raised to "reinforced red," the second highest possible level, and French officials announced that they were searching for a female suicide bomber who might attempt to attack public transportation. Counterterrorism officials in France linked the threats to al Qaeda's branch in North Africa (al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghab, or AQIM) as well as to sleeper cells in France that were activated by extremists arriving from Afghanistan and Pakistan.
FRED DUFOUR/AFP/Getty Images
The 9/11 anniversary is a traditional time for taking stock of the war on terror, and the conventional wisdom has issued its verdict: the United States "over-reacted." The evidence the pundits offer includes the following: (a) the United States spent a great deal of money; (b) thousands of U.S. soldiers lost their lives; (c) the anti-terror bureaucracy is much larger than it was before; (d) policy favored the national security end of the long-standing continuum running from unfettered civil-liberties to absolute national security; and (e) al Qaeda has not launched another successful 9/11 sized attack on U.S. soil. Indeed, Osama Bin Laden is on the run and has become a marginalized figure.
The conventional wisdom would be more persuasive if the pundits engaged systematically and critically with the hypothesis that (a) plus (b) plus (c) plus (d) contributed to (e). As far as I can tell, they simply ignore that possibility.
However, the conventional wisdom does get one thing right: With a national security challenge of the magnitude posed by the 9/11 attacks, it is likely that U.S. strategists got some things wrong (and some things right... that part seems to have eluded the pundits). Strategy has an unavoidable trial-and-error element to it, and anniversaries are good moments for stock-taking.
I won't pretend to offer a complete list, but here are two I would flag in each column.
Two things we got wrong in the weeks immediately following 9/11:
Two things we got right in the weeks immediately following 9/11:
In sum, the record is mixed, but hardly as negative as the conventional wisdom paints.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Shadow Government is a blog about U.S. foreign policy under the Obama administration, written by experienced policy makers from the loyal opposition and curated by Peter D. Feaver and William Inboden.