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.