Shadow Government

What the al-Awlaki strike tells us about Obama as a wartime commander-in-chief

The news that U.S. forces have killed radical cleric Anwar al-Aulaqi marks an important threshold in the war on terror.  

Reasonable people can disagree about whether this will constitute a demoralizing blow to the global terrorist network -- aside from bin Laden's successor, Ayman al-Zawahiri, al-Awlaki was probably the most prominent al Qaeda linked figure at large -- or whether it will simply inspire more "martyrs" to AQ's cause.  And they can disagree about whether it was legal/ethical for Obama to target an American citizen who was not convicted in court, or whether the Obama administration is over-relying on targeted drone strikes and is  insufficiently attentive to the downsides.  My own sense is that this dramatic event will intensify the international debate about the drone strikes and that the clamor could come to resemble similar complaints about Gitmo and the interrogation of detainees in the first decade of the war.

But I don't think reasonable people can disagree about two other things: first, whether the Obama administration is treating this struggle as a war and second, whether the Obama administration is across-the-board too soft on terrorists.  I should say, they can't disagree about this any longer since I understand why there were doubts before.  Those doubts are hard to sustain now.

First, it is clear that the administration views this struggle as a war, whatever silly spin they tried out before regarding "overseas contingency operations" against "man-made disasters." This latest drone strike is only lawful under the laws of armed conflict (i.e. the laws of war), and even then only under the particular (expansive) interpretation of the legal regime that Bush invoked when he declared this a war.  President Obama may be squeamish about being explicit and clear in his rhetoric, and he is certainly ambivalent about his role as wartime commander-in-chief and all of the associated responsibilities that entails, but he has repeatedly ordered kinetic action that can only be justified if one understands that America is at war with an adversary that does not resemble the adversaries we used to fight in so-called traditional wars. You can claim Obama should not be treating this as a war, and you can claim that Obama has not applied the war-frame consistently across the range of his policies.  But there can be no doubt that, at least in this one area, Obama views this as a war: He has to, otherwise he has ordered unlawful actions.

Second, it is beyond dispute that in one important area Obama is tough on terrorists, arguably tougher in this one respect than Bush.  Bush inaugurated the use of drone strikes in the war, but Obama dramatically ramped up the pace, has been willing to sustain this pace despite the corrosive effect it has had on our crucial partnership with Pakistan, and now has been willing to cross another symbolic threshold with today's strike.  And as was the case with the bin Laden raid, today's strike reflects a military unilateralism that rivals anything done in the Bush era.

Obama is, in short, the Rambo of drone warfare and so it is not fair to accuse him of being soft on terrorists. This is a heavily caveated assessment, for one of the differences between Obama and Bush is that Bush developed a more coherent and systematic strategy and embedded the kinetic dimension within that larger strategy (reasonable people can debate how effective the Bush administration was in implementing that strategy). Obama's overall strategy is not as coherent and systematic (cf. Iraq policy, artificial and arbitrary timelines, inattention to mobilizing support, etc.).  And on some of his terror policies, the incoherence does seem tied in part to what critics could consider "softness."  But there is no doubt that Obama, as he promised during the 2008 campaign, has shown a vigor in deploying one important weapon in his arsenal: drone strikes.

This strike doesn't mean that Obama is invulnerable to campaign critiques about his handling of the war on terrorism, let alone critiques about his handling of national security more broadly.  But it does mean that his Republican challenger will have to develop a sophisticated critique, and can't rely on the kinds of  caricatures that were so effective against, say, Dukakis, or even Carter.  There are plenty of areas where one could argue that Obama has been too "soft," but when it comes to kinetic military action, Obama presents a more complex picture and so will warrant a more nuanced critique.


Shadow Government

Responding to Pakistan’s civil war

Dan and Kori have great posts about U.S. policy towards Pakistan. Dan seems to suggest that we should war game what it would look like to walk away from our 57-year-old alliance with Pakistan, come what may. Kori thinks that is impractical and we are stuck with the ally we have, not with the ally we want. Both are primarily focused on Pakistan's foreign policy and how it affects American interests. But the thing we need to recognize is that Pakistan today is teetering on the brink of civil war, and this may be the greater danger to the United States than anything it does in Afghanistan or India.

According to the Brookings Index on Pakistan, insurgents, militants, and terrorists regularly launch more than 150 attacks on Pakistani government, military, and infrastructure targets per month, and have been for at least the last three years. Pakistan has deployed nearly 100,000 regular army soldiers to its western provinces since 2001 -- to combat fellow Pakistanis, not to counter an external threat. Nearly 3,000 soldiers have been killed in combat with militants since 2007. Tens of thousands of Pakistani civilians and militants -- the distinction between which is not always clear -- have been killed in daily insurgent and counterinsurgent operations that have accelerated dramatically in recent years across Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, and Baluchistan. Pakistan is facing its gravest domestic crisis since the Civil War of 1971 sundered the country in two and changed the map of South Asia.

The war is, broadly, between Islamist jihadists and the autocratic Pakistani Army. That is a vast simplification, because the jihadists are split into dozens of factions who all have different agendas, and the Pakistani military is hiding behind the fiction of civilian authority. (And, of course, the Pakistani military has ties to other militant groups and uses them as proxies in Afghanistan and India. They are mostly different groups from those waging an insurgency inside Pakistan). But the real contest for power is between those who want an Islamic State in all or part of Pakistan and those who want to continue the military-enforced secular order that has held power for most of Pakistan's national existence.

Neither side is very nice. Neither likes the United States very much. And neither side is committed to democracy or human rights. But between the two, the Pakistani military is plainly the better option. A jihadist-controlled nuclear Pakistan would be the gravest threat to American national security since the Axis Powers signed the Tripartite Pact in 1940 (more dangerous than the Soviet Union because the latter was more predictable and could be deterred). We need the military autocrats to win. We need them to win even though they support militant groups in Afghanistan, even though they actively oppose U.S. interests, even though they are themselves a source of instability and danger. If there were a third option, I'd take it, but there isn't.

That should be the starting point for U.S. Pakistan policy. It pains me to say it, but this is more important than the war in Afghanistan. Pakistan is too big to fail -- which, like Lehman, doesn't necessarily mean we can stop its failure, only that the consequences are so dire as to require our attention and effort. And for those bothered by the weakness of democracy in a military-controlled Pakistan, consider which side is more likely to consider reform and liberalization after the civil war is over.

That perspective I think can help us rethink through some of the issues Dan and Kori raised.

Military Aid. We should continue limited aid to the Pakistani military -- limited, that is, to counterinsurgency-relevant equipment and training. Helicopters and night-vision goggles, yes. F-16s and artillery, no. And we certainly should insist on more conditionality and transparency, even if that is unpopular with Pakistanis.  

Civilian Aid. Civilian aid is probably dispensable. We are kidding ourselves if we think we can bolster the civilian government in Pakistan with $1 - 2 billion per year. The price tag to make a real difference is probably too high for our deficit-obsessed Congress, which means the amount of civilian aid we are giving now is too small and effectively a waste. Cutting off civilian aid might make us look fickle, but I'm not too worried about appearing unreliable to Pakistan. The Pakistanis already believe we're unreliable, they have believed it since 1965, and nothing we do will ever change that perception. Meanwhile, since 2001, America has emphatically not been the unreliable partner in this relationship. Pakistan has. Putting strings and priorities on our aid to Pakistan is an overdue, fully-justified move.

Intelligence ties. Both Dan and Kori raise alleged CIA ties to the ISI. Of course no one really knows for sure what, if any, ties there are because such ties are kept secret and never officially acknowledged. But it is a matter of historical record that the U.S. and Pakistan worked together during the Afghan-Soviet war, and those kinds of relationships have a tendency to continue by inertia. That means we may have decades' worth of investment in relationships, shared infrastructure, and common operating procedures with Pakistani intelligence. That would act as a force multiplier for our intelligence collection and operations in the heart of Asia -- an extremely valuable resource, one very difficult to walk away from. That would in turn be one of the primary reasons that Pakistan has us over a barrel today: our Pakistan policy may be hostage to our alleged dependence on Pakistani intelligence. If so, fixing that should be an absolutely top tier priority for the DNI and for the next administration.

Spheres of influence. Both Dan and Kori worry about limiting Pakistan's sphere of influence. That seems an odd worry. I'd much rather see Pakistan's sphere of influence expand to include all of Pakistan, which would be a helpful change from the past century. It plainly plays an unhelpful role in Afghanistan which we should counter if we can, but I am more worried about Pakistan's internal dynamics. That is not an excuse to withdraw from Afghanistan. Winning in Kabul will be a fillip to the Pakistani counterinsurgency, but the Pakistani one is the more consequential in the long run.

India. Kori doubts that we can strengthen ties to India fast enough to make a difference in Afghanistan. That misses the point. Strengthening ties to India is not a tactical move to improve our position in the war in Afghanistan. It is part of our grand strategy in the 21st Century, far more important than whatever happens in Kabul. We should bolster ties to India no matter what happens in Afghanistan. Or in Pakistan, for that matter.

China. Pakistan turned to China after the United States did not come to Pakistan's aid in the 1965 war with India. China has always been the card Pakistan plays to manipulate us into renewing ties with them. If we are pushed, it would not be the end of the world to call their bluff. The Pakistanis will see if anyone else is really willing to dump the amount of aid on them that we have ($49 billion from 1954 to 2009, including $8.3 billion since 2001, according to the Green Book [2009 dollars]). The Chinese will see how fun it is to be a hegemon. The move might revive some of our depleted leverage with Pakistan by forcing a renewed appreciation for what we can offer.

Long Term Alliance. In the long term, Dan is right. We need to start asking questions about what sort of relationship we ought to pursue with Pakistan, and we need to start war-gaming alternative scenarios for South Asia. The Pakistani military, by all accounts, has pursued a decades-long policy of supporting militants, undermining its neighborhood, and proliferating technology related to weapons of mass destruction. So long as they remain committed to those policies, this is not an "alliance" with a future. We can and should help them out of their immediate crisis -- because the alternative is worse -- but, as soon as possible, a reevaluation of the relationship is overdue.

Our South Asia policy has to aim simultaneously at bolstering ties to a rising India, avoiding state failure in Pakistan, and finishing the job in Afghanistan, the latter two of which are both necessary to deny safe haven to terrorists in the region. That is a tall order, but that is what we need to do to meet the challenges of the moment and be postured for the future. I wish the Republican candidates would spend more than five minutes thinking about it.