How Obama Thinks About Counterterrorism

The president wants to fight militants with partnerships rather than U.S. troops.
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Obama and Michael Bloomberg at New York's new 9/11 museum, in May (Reuters/Kevin Lamarque)

In a foreign-policy address last week, President Obama gave his clearest outline yet of his counterterrorism strategy. Al-Qaeda splinter groups remain the largest threat to the United States, he said, but Washington must respond to it in a new way: by training local security forces, not deploying American ground troops.

“We have to develop a strategy that matches this diffuse threat—one that expands our reach without sending forces that stretch our military too thin, or stir up local resentments,” Obama said. “We need partners to fight terrorists alongside us.”

But critics say America's past efforts to train local security forces have had mixed results. Washington has a poor track record of applying the long-term resources, funding, and attention needed to carry out such efforts successfully. In Libya, training by U.S. Special Forces soldiers was suspended after a local militia stole a cache of American-provided weapons. In Mali, American-trained military officers carried out a coup. And in Afghanistan, the United States failed to mount a major training effort until nine years after the fall of the Taliban.

Finding the effective partners Obama described has proven challenging as well. For years, the United States has struggled to get Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey to coordinate their support to Syria’s panoply of rebel factions. And the kidnapping of 200 Nigerian school girls in April exposed the inability of American officials to get the Nigerian government to address the endemic corruption that helps fuel the al-Qaeda splinter group Boko Haram.

Bruce Hoffman, an expert on terrorism and Georgetown University professor, said a cardinal failing of the American counterterrorism effort since 2001 has been its haphazard nature. Hoffman said the United States focused its effort on Afghanistan in 2001, shifted to Iraq in 2003, and returned to Afghanistan in 2009. Now, Obama has announced a shift from Afghanistan to Syria.

“It continues our pathology,” Hoffman said. “Our attention has shifted from one trouble spot to another with disastrous results.”

In his address on Wednesday, Obama unveiled a $5-billion “Counterterrorism Partnerships Fund” to train local forces in the Middle East and Africa and voiced support for increasing American training and assistance to “moderate” Syrian rebels. “A strategy that involves invading every country that harbors terrorist networks is naive and unsustainable,” he said.

Obama said the new fund would allow the United States to expand training of security forces in Yemen fighting al-Qaeda, support a multinational force trying to stabilize Somalia, and work with European allies training local forces in Libya and Mali. Citing the 2012 attack on the American consulate in Benghazi and last September's attack on a shopping mall in Nairobi, he said the United States faced a different type of threat.

“Today’s principal threat no longer comes from a centralized al-Qaeda leadership,” he said. “Instead, it comes from decentralized al-Qaeda affiliates and extremists, many with agendas focused in the countries where they operate.”

Peter Bergen, a terrorism expert at the New America Foundation think tank, praised Obama’s address and approach. In the Philippines, he said, local commandos trained by American forces had severely weakened the Abu Sayyaf militant movement. Over the long term, training locals was far cheaper and more politically sustainable than deploying large numbers of American troops, he argued.

"It’s pennies on the dollar,” he said. “It’s less than one percent of the defense budget.”

In his speech, Obama cited the training of “hundreds of thousands” of Afghan soldiers and police officers as a success. Afghan forces secured the country’s recent presidential election, he said, and set the stage for the first peaceful transfer of power in the country’s history later this year.

But Graeme Smith, an Afghanistan-based analyst for the International Crisis Group, said Obama’s pullout would destabilize the country. He said a planned cut in American and foreign military aid will result in a rapid reduction in the size of the Afghan security forces.

“If they quickly implement the plan to reduce Afghan security forces from roughly 370,000 to 228,000, we will have a serious problem in this country,” Smith said in an email. “You can't axe the personnel roster that dramatically without destabilizing many districts.” At the same time, according to Smith, Taliban attacks are rising and the broad direction of the conflict is escalation.

Obama said a critical focus of the new training effort would be moderate rebel groups in Syria. Reversing his past opposition to large-scale American arming and training of Syrian rebels, Obama said that strengthened moderate rebel groups could serve as a counterweight to radical Islamist groups.

Analysts say the proposed effort is too small to have any serious impact. Noah Bonsey, the Syria analyst for the International Crisis Group, said that moderates—groups he defined as “largely non-ideological or mildly Islamist”—have gained strength recently but overall remain military weak.

“We have seen in the last few months that increases in funding, weapons, and training to certain non-ideological rebel groups have strengthened their relative power within the rebel spectrum,” Bonsey said in an email from Turkey. “Thus far however, the levels of support provided—and apparently under consideration within the U.S. administration—are not sufficient to meaningfully shift the balance of power between the opposition and the regime.”

Bergen was more optimistic about Obama’s approach. He said future presidents could increase American force levels in Afghanistan, if needed, and aiding Syria’s rebels was a step forward. He argued that training local forces was the only approach that was politically acceptable to Americans and foreigners alike.

“You buy yourself influence without a large footprint,” Bergen said. “It’s the only sensible model on all sorts of levels.”

Hoffman agreed that ground invasions were a mistake, but he said the American counterterrorism effort must be more consistent. Otherwise, Washington appears to be a fickle ally to those it is asking to fight al-Qaeda splinter groups.


This post originally appeared on Reuters.com, an Atlantic partner site.

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David Rohde is an investigative reporter for Reuters and a contributing editor for The Atlantic. A two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize, he is a former foreign correspondent for The New York Times and The Christian Science Monitor. His latest book, Beyond War: Reimagining American Influence in a New Middle East, was published in 2013. More

He is also the author of Endgame and, with Kristen Mulvihill, A Rope and a Prayer. He lives in New York City.

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