Counterterrorism in the State of the Union: A Tale of Two Paragraphs
Posted by Eric Martin
Given that the State of the Union address tilted heavily toward domestic issues, should come as no surprise that US counterterrorism policy was allotted a mere two paragraphs. That said, the two paragraphs are instructive, and offer a stark contrast in approaches and, ultimately, efficacy.
First, the good:
Of course, as we speak, al Qaeda and their affiliates continue to plan attacks against us. Thanks to our intelligence and law enforcement professionals, we're disrupting plots and securing our cities and skies. And as extremists try to inspire acts of violence within our borders, we are responding with the strength of our communities, with respect for the rule of law, and with the conviction that American Muslims are a part of our American family.
Here, Obama hits all the right notes in highlighting what are by far the most effective tools in our counterterrorism kit: intelligence and law enforcement, as buttressed by cooperation from local communities, which can act as a tripwire in terms of detecting and reporting nascent plots.
Obama's direct reference to the American Muslim community is particularly timely considering some of the noxious anti-Muslim bigotry finding favor amongst certain elected Republican officials and pundits - notably, Peter King and his planned hearings focusing on Muslim-American terror activities and support for same.
As mentioned above, local communities can play a vital role in interdicting terror plots before they are carried out, and, contra Peter King, American Muslims have been instrumental in these efforts. According to the Muslim Public Affairs Council database:
7 out of the last 10 Al-Qaeda plots threatening the U.S. since 9/11 have been prevented with the help of Muslims.
Overall, almost 40% of all Al-Qaeda terror plots threatening the U.S since 9/11 were foiled with the assistance of Muslim communities.
However, that support could begin to wane if perceptions of persecution lead to alienation, fear and ambivalence.
While Obama's first paragraph was near-flawless, his second misses the mark in many ways:
We've also taken the fight to al Qaeda and their allies abroad. In Afghanistan, our troops have taken Taliban strongholds and trained Afghan security forces. Our purpose is clear: By preventing the Taliban from reestablishing a stranglehold over the Afghan people, we will deny al Qaeda the safe haven that served as a launching pad for 9/11.
Here, Obama highlights the militarized approach to counterterrorism which can be effective when applied judiciously in limited circumstances, though becomes far less so when such an approach entails a heavy-handed reliance on military force, such as pursuant to a near decade long occupation of a foreign country without any significant terrorist presence.
While Obama is correct to note that taking "the fight to al-Qaeda" with the aid of the US military in the early days of the Afghanistan campaign was key in disrupting al-Qaeda's network, as well as in killing and capturing numerous operatives, it is no longer clear that a war effort that has metastasized over time to a nation-building, Taliban-focused campaign is the best means to address the threats from al-Qaeda. After all, al-Qaeda is now largely absent from Afghan territory, and is instead dispersed around the globe, with a concentration in Pakistan.
Despite Obama's assertion, it is not certain that the Taliban could gain a stranglehold over Afghan territory or that, should some factions of the Taliban regain some form of political power, they would necessarily welcome al-Qaeda back. For example, Mullah Omar's rhetoric and public statements have begun to signal that space exists between the two groups, and it is no secret that many Taliban leaders blame al-Qaeda's brazen attacks on the US for their loss of power and subsequent hardships.
While certain Taliban factions find al-Qaeda's footsoldiers valuable in times of armed conflict, and other Taliban factions (the Haqqanis, ie) may be more ideologically sympathetic, there is room to pursue negotiations with Taliban groups that could, in part, explore ways to separate Taliban factions from al-Qaeda, a task that could be aided by the fundamental rift in the two groups' respective worldviews. Though some ideological cross-pollination has occurred, Taliban groups still mostly focus inward on Afghan matters, while al-Qaeda is more globally oriented. This divergence can lead to actions that, when not lacking in synergy, can actually work at cross purposes.
Further, al-Qaeda might not choose to relocate to Afghanistan should a sympathetic Taliban regime regain power, given the advantages of its current Pakistani locale (harder for the US to conduct military operations in Pakistan), as well as other potential destinations around the globe. In truth, al-Qaeda can operate from within even developed Western democracies - though there is value to such a group in having a central location for training/indoctrination/networking, which can enhance the lethality and effectiveness of attacks.
But such a locus exists now in Pakistan, and our effort in Afghanistan is only tangentially related, at best, and has certainly not prevented that outcome.
Additionally, a pre-9/11 style safe haven in Afghanistan is unlikely regardless of the outcome of the war effort given that the US security establishment is infinitely more focused on al-Qaeda than before, and would undoubtedly have much looser rules of engagement in terms of calling in airstrikes and initiating other military actions than than those that prevailed during more cautious pre-9/11 era.
Some argue that without a massive troop presence in Afghanistan, we would lack the intelligence necessary to effectively target al-Qaeda operatives in the region, to which there are two responses. First, we had pretty good targeting intelligence pre-9/11 without such a presence, and with far, far less resources and brainpower dedicated to the task. Second, as Christine Fair points out, "intelligence is just as likely to improve as Afghans, who dislike al-Qaeda, may be more open to sharing information when the disliked [troop-intensive military] effort is scaled back and abandoned."
Given that our one overriding goal in Afghanistan should be to counter al-Qaeda, and that our current incoherent (and extremely costly) strategy is not necessarily serving that goal in anything approaching an efficient manner, it would have sparked some optimism had the President hinted that he understood the depths of the disconnect between our current policy and what should be our primary objective, and that a new course was being charted.