Mixed results will test U.S. policies for years to come
The war on terrorism as we know it is coming to an end. For the United States, the big campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan are over or winding down. The campaign against al-Qaida-inspired terrorism has taken a sharp turn toward a better but more complex condition. Pushed by weakened but adaptive enemies, the active theaters are shifting, and the war we know is fading. With serious changes in all three of the major campaigns of this war, it is time to reassess the authorities that underpin the war and the ways and means that are needed for the future. The first step in getting the future right is to reassess the past 11½ years with an eye toward trends.
The U.S. war in Iraq — the second Gulf War in as many decades — began 10 years ago. Despite the benefits of not having Saddam Hussein or his evil brood in power, the war has been a net loss. Launched in pursuit of weapons of mass destruction that were not there, the war cost 40,000 allied casualties, at least 110,000 dead Iraqis, and a trillion dollars in direct costs. U.S. standing in the Middle East descended to new depths. The U.S presence in Iraq fueled the al-Qaida narrative for nearly a decade and strengthened Iran in the region. Adding to the harm, the war in Iraq diverted attention and resources from Afghanistan, which turned out to be more enduringly important than our foray into Iraq.
The single bright spot in U.S. policy in Iraq was the Surge, an act of great political courage by President Bush. The skill of the generals and the valor of coalition forces helped change the war for the better, diminished sectarian violence and allowed for a withdrawal with honor. Sadly, the Obama administration was unable to negotiate a follow-on U.S. security assistance force. The once-potent and influential U.S. presence has shriveled.
For our considerable pains, Iraq today is fractious, internally violent and decreasingly democratic. More civilians die every month in Iraq than in Afghanistan. Sectarian violence and al-Qaida terrorism are on the rise. Iran is more powerful in the region and arguably has more influence in Iraq than the United States does. This may all end one day, peace and stability may follow, and people may compare Baghdad to Philadelphia, but we should not hold our breath. For now, U.S. influence on the Iraqi government fades daily, and the internal situation worsens.
The war in Afghanistan — approaching its 12th anniversary for Americans — is in transition. Not only have the Afghan National Security Forces taken the lead in fighting the enemy, but elections in 2014 will bring in a new government, followed in eight months by the departure of the much-diminished allied expeditionary force. Corruption and inefficiency are still widespread, and despite considerable progress, Afghanistan still has most of the hallmarks of a state that has been at war for 35 years.
The armed struggle in the Hindu Kush is at a stalemate. The hard-pressed Taliban factions fight on, but the government forces have already proven much more capable than many pessimists expected. The allies have pledged security and economic aid for the next decade. Soon, NATO and the United States will announce the “force-after-ISAF,” likely an advisory and assistance force of 9,000 to 15,000 people. Relations with Pakistan are improving, and Islamabad is also looking forward to a first: an orderly transition from one democratic government to another. In Afghanistan, much will hinge on the election in April 2014, the skill and tenacity of the Afghan government forces and the unflagging will of the allies.
The final campaign, the war against al-Qaida terrorism — the most important of the campaigns — has met with great success. The U.S. homeland has not had any large-scale attacks. Al-Qaida Central is in tatters. Decimation does not begin to describe the toll exacted on its leadership. Some of its franchises, especially in Yemen and the Maghreb, are showing more life, but they are all under the gun and seem less interested in attacking the West than in fighting our local allies in the region.
In Libya and Mali, U.S. allies have stepped up their efforts, allowing the U.S. to limit its contributions to advice and support. Some have called this “leading from behind.” That unfortunate expression will never make a popular bumper sticker or an inspiring campaign slogan, but the policy behind it is re-energizing the regional balance of power and encouraging allied efforts to do more for the common defense. It is hard to criticize that.
Along with but apart from al-Qaida’s regional franchises, lone-wolf terrorists have moved to the forefront. These lone wolves — technically, a police and not a military problem — are more vexing but less dangerous than the centrally directed al-Qaida terrorism that dominated the last two decades. Twice in New York City, once at Fort Hood, Texas, and most recently at the Boston Marathon, lone-wolf terrorists — citizens or permanent U.S. residents — have attacked or tried to attack their neighbors with firearms or bombs.
Al-Qaida is on the run in many places, but its poisonous ideology lives on in cyberspace, stalking the humiliated, the alienated and the misfits. American culture is uncomfortable for many immigrants. For others, the American dream has never produced a decent reality. High expectations fall with devastating psychological effects. Waiting in the wings are the radical chat rooms, videos and websites. You can learn anything on the Internet, including how to make a bomb. You can rediscover religious fervor or find friends who share your radical views, even if you are in Missouri and they are physically or virtually in Waziristan.
In the fight against al-Qaida and its associates, armed drones — or more accurately, remotely piloted aircraft — have come into their own. Since 2004, according to the New America Foundation, more than 400 RPA strikes have killed between 2,000 and 3,300 militants in Yemen and Pakistan.
While enormously successful, the use of RPAs now faces many critics, who point out that these remotely piloted aircraft often violate the sovereignty of friendly nations, engage in opaque targeted killing, kill U.S. citizens abroad without due process, create new enemies for the United States, and cause collateral damage and unwanted casualties.
When George W. Bush was president, capturing terrorists and detaining them made for problems that still exist at the Guantanamo detention facility. President Obama’s expansion of the use of RPAs, in part to obviate those sorts of complications, has caused a whole new set of problems. The changing nature of the war today has left the Authorization for Use of Military Force Law looking like a blank check few want to honor.
What’s an aging superpower in an economic slump to do? First, as the United States reduces its budget and pivots toward the Pacific, it also needs to keep an eye on the evolving war. Today’s agreed-on trends can become yesterday’s newspaper. Years from now, the contemporary period may look like the calm before the next storm, one where conflicts in Nigeria, Syria or elsewhere take center stage. The Middle East and North Africa won’t necessarily be tranquil just because we are interested in East Asia. The Arab Spring may also not favor U.S. interests or even democracy in general. As in most national security endeavors, good intelligence is the first step in getting the policy and programs right. Force managers need to stay balanced; they ought not cash in their irregular warfare assets to build for the improbable East Asia scenarios being generated inside the Beltway.
If the coming years take America’s military in unexpected directions, Congress might bestir itself to amend or replace the 12-year-old Authorization for Use of Military Force. The goals may not change, but the new AUMF might have more explicit geographic limits or even consultation requirements that limit certain activities. Any new authorization will have to balance constitutional protections and the requirements for effective counterterrorism.
In a similar vein, the United States should have a more explicit policy toward using remotely piloted aircraft. The attentive public is ready to accept the downsides of these strikes, but only if they understand why they are necessary. There is another reason to have a more explicit policy: Dozens of nations now have RPAs of varied capability. The U.S. is a step in front of all of them. A sensible U.S. policy toward RPAs, and cyber weapons as well, may help to set a future international standard on the use of these potent weapons.
The new drive to close Guantanamo complicates the issue of killing or capturing terrorists. The sticking point here will remain the few dozen inmates who are clearly terrorists but cannot be tried or given a military commission for lack of detailed evidence. Their governments or third parties have already refused to take them back, and the U.S. Congress is unlikely to want them in the stateside penal system. For U.S. interests, detaining these terrorists at Guantanamo “for the duration” may well be the worst option, except for all of the others. Closing Guantanamo is likely to remain a goal but not a realistic objective in the second Obama administration.
Second, the allied coalition needs to follow through on its plans in Afghanistan. The Iraqis could afford to go it alone, but the Afghans need allied help. Most critically, we need to field our advisory and assistance force and work hard to help Afghans with their elections. The coalition has a decent plan and needs to stick to it. Working harder with Pakistan to create a stable peace will be Job One for Ambassador James Dobbins, the newly designated Special Coordinator for Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Third, while the current war is coming to an end, the entire government should reflect hard on its lessons. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin Dempsey, has made this a priority activity for the armed forces, but there is room for diplomats and intelligence officials to learn as well. Indeed, the “whole of government” lessons of this decade-plus of stability operations should be a major project undertaken by interagency outfits like the Center for Complex Operations at the National Defense University. The U.S. government and the armed forces must not ignore the lessons of Iraq and Afghanistan as they did the lessons of Vietnam.
Fourth, our assessment efforts must take a hard look at special operations forces, who have been the star players in all three campaigns of the war on terrorism. Their achievements are doubly significant when one considers that they represent only 5 percent of defense personnel and no more than 4 percent of the entire DoD budget. In the war on terrorism, their focal point has been the direct approach. In March 2012, Adm. William McRaven, the commander of the U.S. Special Operations Command, described this counterterrorist effort as a combination of “precision lethality, focused intelligence and interagency cooperation, all integrated on a digitally networked battlefield.” He believes SOCOM must now shift to an indirect approach to help U.S. allies fight their own battles and expand allied capacity to do that work in the future.
This will be a difficult shift. Few organizations easily abandon successful programs, especially when they are so popular with the public. The need for engagement, advice and training, however, will soon exceed the need for kinetic operations. It will require fewer shooters and more language-qualified trainers, less door-kicking and more cultural awareness. The nation’s leaders must also protect special operations forces from being used on missions that could be done by general-purpose forces.
A wide range of common-sense recommendations for the future of SOF can be found in an April Council on Foreign Relations report by Rand expert Linda Robinson. She calls for the United States to “raise the game of special operations forces” by emphasizing the indirect approach of engagement, training and assistance. She concludes the report with this important thought: “The phrase ‘You can’t kill your way to victory,’ coined by a special operator, is a useful signpost on the road to a more comprehensive approach to special operations as part of U.S. national security policy.”
Finally, we need to think hard about the evolving terrorist threat. The lone-wolf terrorist feeds on psychological discontent and terrorist information operations. The U.S. has killed Osama bin Laden and many of his senior comrades, but his poisonous ideology and other varieties of radical Islamist thought thrive on the Internet. For example, even after his death, the radical sermons of Anwar al-Awlaki motivated the Boston Marathon bombers, just as they had influenced Maj. Nidal Hassan, the lone-wolf terrorist accused of shooting his fellow soldiers at Fort Hood. Along with implementing better immigration controls and screening, the United States must take action against al-Qaida websites and propaganda outlets. While dealing with lone-wolf terrorists at home is a police issue, U.S. forces, diplomats and homeland security experts must help out by defeating the poisonous sites and the “magazines,” like Inspire, that train the wannabe lone wolf in how to build bombs.
It is difficult for the U.S. government to counter these poisonous sites by putting up sites of its own, but it can certainly encourage and even fund other civil organizations to counter al-Qaida’s slick, violent messages. The next war on terrorism is now and will increasingly be less about kinetic operations and more about information operations. AFJ
Joseph J. Collins teaches strategy at the National War College. A retired Army colonel, he served for nearly 12 years in the Pentagon. In his last assignment there, from 2001 to 2004, he was the deputy assistant secretary of defense for stability operations. This article is his alone and does not represent the policy or the opinion of any U.S. government agency.