Strategic retreat

Thomas Joscelyn and Bill Roggio have published an article at The Weekly Standard discussing the Obama administration’s strategy for dealing with al Qaeda and allied terrorist groups. After years of back-and-forth between the administration and elements of the military establishment over the strategy to deal with the terrorist threat, the proponents of a counterterrorism-based approach to dealing with al Qaeda and allied groups have won the fight. Counterinsurgency (COIN) efforts to uproot the jihadist insurgencies raging in Africa, the Middle East, and Central Asia have given way to drone strikes, limited special operations raids, and cooperation with local and often unreliable governments.

The Obama administration’s growing preference for counterterrorism over counterinsurgency operations is a topic that Thomas and Bill discussed in detail with respect to Afghanistan in October 2009, in Al Qaeda is the Tip of the Jihadist Spear.

The recent article at The Weekly Standard is titled “Strategic Retreat.” A short excerpt is below, but read the whole thing.

Drones are not enough to contain this menace. But President Obama has done away with COIN, the U.S. military’s counterinsurgency doctrine centered on building up allied local forces and good governance, for more limited counterterrorism measures such as drones and special forces raids. It apparently does not matter to the Obama administration that such tactics failed to stop al Qaeda’s armies from previously controlling parts of Iraq and continuing to control territory elsewhere.

Al Qaeda is hardly invincible. It has been greatly weakened, in some ways, during the past decade. But al Qaeda and its allies can only be strengthened by America’s retreat from the lands of jihad. And they are not the only ones watching as President Obama takes his eye off the ball. Terror-sponsoring regimes like those in Iran and Pakistan have learned that there is no substantial price to be paid for spilling American blood. They’ve learned, too, that America’s commitment to fight its enemies is severely constrained by domestic political considerations.

The Obama administration lauds its counterterrorism partnerships with friendly governments. Allies, indeed, are invaluable. But the Arab Spring has introduced uncertainty into some of these relationships. In Egypt, a government dominated by the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood has replaced the regime of the friendly, if despicable, Hosni Mubarak. In Yemen, a duplicitous but sometimes helpful President Ali Abdullah Saleh has given way to chaos and a growing al Qaeda insurgency. In Libya, the gangster-terrorist Muammar Qaddafi, who also occasionally provided counterterrorism assistance, has fallen to a coalition that includes jihadists. We should not be sad to see the Mubaraks, Salehs, and Qaddafis go. But now that they are gone, we should be worried that the American government under President Obama will not seek to influence the course their nations take.

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  • Devin Leonard says:

    Good argument. I do thimk Obama should be given credit for the many Al Qaida leaders and Taliabn/Haqqanni network commanders and fighters who HAVE been taken out under his leadership, including many in Yemen and Somalia. But the backing off of the counterinsurgency strategy is a massive problem. Obama needs to realize that counter-insurgency is the key to defeating Al Qaida in Afghanistan and Pakistan and the Pakistani Govt must be made to understand thier will be consequences for thier nation for not cooperating.
    As for Iran, they know we would waste them in any war…Naval or otherwise, but groups like Hezbollah must know that if they try to attack America on behalf of Iran, they will face the same decimation and pounding that Al Qaida is currently facing. Obama has done a good job up untill his latest re-configuring of the military and his droping of the COIN strategy…he needs to go back to that platform or maybe we need a new President.

  • m3fd2002 says:

    “Strategic Retreat”: more like “Strategic Mistake”. The special ops against alqaeda will probably suffice if sufficient pressure is maintained. But the apparent “strategic mistake” is with events unfolding in Egypt, Libya, Nigeria, and possibly Iraq. The arab spring has unfolded with stable authoritarian regimes being toppled without an Europe or USA support (ala Iran/ Shah), but the problem is a small disciplined and dedicated radical element can hijack these “revolutions” using the guise of democracy until they get power. Then they will not relinquish power under any circumstances. Mark these words. These autocratic regimes have few alternatives, just a power vacuum, where the religious fanatics will take advantage. The majority of the citizens of these countries want a “tolerant” society, and frankly don’t like the islamists, but they fear them. The current administration appears to have taken a “wait and see” approach that is dangerous at least and if history is a lesson (Iran), could be costly.

  • David Forscey says:

    Shouldn’t one distinguish between COIN defined by a large foreign troop presence, and COIN defined by foreign internal defense operations? Is the Obama administration really retreating on the latter? Training missions in Afghanistan and throughout Africa will continue indefinitely, not to mention the training operations in the Philippines and Indonesia. I also think it is a stretch to say we are giving up on attempting to influence the Arab Spring nations. Where is the evidence of that? We are engaging with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, the opposition in Syria (albeit belatedly), the opposition in Iran (albeit covertly), a myriad of groups in Tunisia (through business connections and civil society), etc.

  • Mike says:

    While I agree that to achieve total victory against al qaeda/violent islamic extremism, it would require a generational commitment of perhaps a million troops to pacify and rebuild Afghanistan, as well as to extend the mission beyond Pakistan’s borders. It is wholly empty to simply demand we stay the course, when the course was massively insufficient and already far too costly. Fact is, the U.S. can’t afford to indefinitely occupy Yemen, Somalia, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, etc, and even if we could, it would be a horrendous strategy. If the threat can be contained at a fraction of the cost, then our interests have been better served by the much-derided “counter-terrorism” strategy. And I might add, we’d have been much better served had we had some counter-terrorism operations prior to 9/11, it certainly couldn’t have hurt.

  • Eric says:

    This article articulates the core problem better than anything I have read anywhere else in over a year.
    The US has insufficient domestic support for continuing the counter insurgency war, and a strategic withdrawal is necessary. It is the wrong way, but the only way open to NATO as a coalition.
    If the decision is reached to go the other way, and continue the counter-insurgency war, Pakistan must be strong-armed to force their cooperation. NATO will not participate in that. The US will go it alone, and India and China will oppose the US on some key parts of such a shift in the war. Their opposition may not have military weight, but the economic and political dimensions are substantial.
    The US has done the math, does not see a good outcome, and has decided to pull back. The fight is by no means over, but it seems we will need another 9/11, or another Mumbai, to re-light American and European popular will to see the counter-insurgeny war through.
    The argument that 500 billion already invested in the counter-insugency war is an investment that must be preserved at the expense of another 500 billion is not winning. New dimensions of the problem must emerge to shift the calculus in favor of continuing at a high rate of expense.
    This unhappy affair will not be concluded for many years. Counter-terrorism will not contain the resurgence of Al Qaeda and the Taliban, the ANA will gradually erode as US direct support is reduced, NATO will suffer politically after the withdrawal, but make no mistake – the west will return in force for another costly round of counter-insurgency. Something is sure to trigger Round 2.

  • mike merlo says:

    President Obama was, is & continues to be the most significant threat to US & global security. Much in the same way President Carter left US security in the lurch so to is President Obama with his ‘reorganizing’ the Defense Establishment by emasculating it.
    The US should take notice that much of this impetus is being driven by Donilon, Biden & Jarret. ‘All’ this ‘talk’ about releasing Gitmo ‘detainees’ yet nary a whisper about Spc Bowe Bergdhal tells ‘us’ everything we need to ‘know’ about the mindset of these ‘people.’
    President Obama’s cluelessness knows no bounds. His delusional misappropriation of US priorities with his grandiose statement in refocusing on the AsiaPacific while the Indian Ocean, Persian Gulf & Eastern Mediterranean have & continue to be the principal source of maritime threats, not to mention the adjoining ‘lands,’ to US, regional & global security.
    It’s been widely known & suspected for quite some time that President Obama is a geopolitical neophyte. ‘This’ just confirms ‘it.’

  • David says:

    The problem with our effort in the Afghanistan theater, which the authors have well noted in other articles but do not mention here, is that our strategic position in Afghanistan is hopeless, if we now agree that the real fight is against Pakistan.
    Back when we all believed that the fight was against some nuts in Afghanistan running an insurgency, and our friend Pakistan would help us in the fight, a resource-intensive COIN strategy in Afghanistan made sense. But now that we all realize that the actual enemy is Pakistan, who have never stopped funding the Taliban, and even order them to make attacks against us, we are in the position where the enemy can squeeze our supply lines at will. Even after we are gone, we cannot supply the ANA without the permission of either Pakistan or Russia, another power who does not wish us well.
    If we all agree that it is Pakistan whom we are fighting, then it is foolish to fight them this way. It would be like running our supply lines for DDay up the Rhine river. We have to squeeze Pakistan into giving up its support for jihadis. Just as we cut Iran off from the international payments system, and finally managed to make them feel some economic pain, we need to pull out of Afghanistan, cut the Pakistanis off from aid, and THEN apply severe sanctions, which will starve out their generals.
    This won’t make us popular over there, but we can hardly be less popular there now — they still seem happy to have harbored Osama bin Laden, and angry only that he was killed.

  • Passer by says:

    The Obama Administration is not confused; it knows what’s happening very well. They are simply afraid. They can not stop Iran from getting nuclear capability. They can not stop the Saudis from developing their own nuclear capability as a response. They lost Iraq. They cannot stop Pakistan from working with terrorist groups. They cannot stop the spread of Islamism in North Africa. They cannot defeat the Taliban. The afghan government will be unable to finance its security forces for another 15 years. And the Administration chose to go the European way, the dhimmi way.
    The alternative is a Cold War with the Muslim World, and this is considered too costly by the current elites.
    There are 3 basic demands by the Muslim World that America must meet in order to be left alone.
    1 Witdraw from Muslim Lands and do not interfere there. Intervention will only be accepted if it helps Islam.
    2 Do not side with non-muslims against muslims, especially with India and Israel.
    3 Remove obstacles to the spread of Islam in America, including free speech.
    These demands were already accepted by Europe after the 1973 Oil Embargo. It appears that historical shift is taking place, and american elites are gradually choosing dhimmitude as well.

  • gary siebel says:

    I hear echoes of MacArthur.
    “Let’s nuke China,” he said.
    Horn of Africa is militarily more important than Afghanistan, and drones are definitely the way to deal with it. Just how exactly are we supposed to pay for endless ground wars? It will take several more years to overcome the errors of the Bush presidency, like his tax cuts during an expensive war.
    Switching emphasis to the Horn of Africa from Afghanistan is a wise idea, which means drones and more drones, and special ops. Somalia has a main line into numerous American cities that has the FBI working overtime. Taliban lack that direct connection. The authors are asking us to skew our priorities again — maybe we should reinvade Iraq?
    As I have said before, the way to thwart the jihad is to target the religious authorities themselves — the mullahs, et al who run the madrassas that provide the cannon fodder — and that means drones.

  • RT says:

    This article is ignoring some glaring, fundamental realties.
    AQ might as well be invincible with sanctuary in a country that is now going to try the good Doctor who aided the CIA in the UBL hunt, with treason. So much hinged on Pakistan simply being rational, and they have gone the complete opposite direction.
    People at the NWC commented to me about how Salala basically ended this war. It came at such a crucial period, with the US pushing hard for action in N Waziristan. They felt it was their last chance to do so – and then the unthinkable. We had just negotiated for better border coordination, etc. Even some grapevine talk of substantial cross-border SOF operations against Haqqani.
    My connections to the region often make it hard to be honest with myself when it comes to what this military action has – and can now achieve. The funny thing is, the people on the deck are plenty honest about what they find themselves involved in, etc, and it isn’t positive. Obama isn’t killing COIN, it was dying a slow death on its own, for various reasons. This is over. All Obama is doing is acting on that reality.

  • This article makes good points, but failed to paint a broader picture of the roots of the Al-Qaeda problem. Of course, the same can be said of the current and past U.S. administrations.
    First and foremost, Al-Qaeda and its allied organizations are an eventual symptom of the propagation of radical, Islam-based ideologies by the likes of Saudi Arabia, since the late 1970s. As a result, non-Arab nations, from Malaysia to Indonesia have been radicalized. In particular, in the formerly moderate Indonesia, this is how conditions favorable to Al-Qaeda’s formation were created.
    Yet, this propagation continues unabated, ten years into the 9/11 attacks, setting the stage for regeneration of jihadists and from new lands. With Mubharaks and Gaddafis out of the way and Islamists taking to power, Egyptians and Libyans are soon set to join the jihadist party.
    This propagation, by implication, points to state-sponsorship and suggests that the Sunni-based Al-Qaeda in the final analysis is a proxy quasi-state-sponsored entity, with the states, predominantly being Sunni-majority Saudi Arabia and Pakistan.
    In line with these arguments, counter-terrorism is the direction to go, but the emphasis should shift to the ideological front. However, there is little evidence that this has happened; “the strategic guidance” is largely silent on this issue. That is, the U.S. has no credible strategy put in place to nullify the formation of new generation of jihadists and jihadist groups including in the homeland.
    The continued focus on Al-Qaeda tells us that the large part of the U.S. establishment has yet to figure out how the threat is being formed.

  • m3fd2002 says:

    You may be correct. Dealing with these factions in that part of the world is like trying to reason with a sociopath. The Bush adm. kept a small footprint in that arena for that reason. It’s very expensive and difficult to maintain supply lines for such a large force, in a mountainous, land locked country. We can achieve our goals (the slow death of Al Qaeda and its philosophy) through other means. Frankly, I believe that the world is heading for another conflagaration. We’ve hade a 67 year hiatus from a major, large scale war, and that historically is quite a long time. Where it will be ignited, who knows. Will we be involoved heavily, I hope not. Keep with the Monroe Doctrine.

  • mike merlo says:

    As much as you or anybody else would like to believe how significant a ‘hinged’ Pakistan is is seriously mistaken. Everything Pakistan has ‘engaged’ in since the Partition of 1947 has backfired on them & ‘this event’ will finalize no differently, “a Pakistan standing on the outside looking in wondering what went wrong & wondering why their wondering.”
    ‘People’ are welcome to comment all they want & the Afghans will decide for themselves. Salala only matters if one wants it to. Afghans have already moved on.
    Who cares what your ‘connections’ are & who cares what Obama is or isn’t ‘killing.’ As long as Afghanistan has a reliable sources for weapons, ammo & a handful of other ‘mainstays’ it makes little or no difference what you, I or any ‘outsider’ thinks or feels.
    If the US had never shut down the weapons ‘spigot’ the KMT would probably still be on the Chinese mainland. The US shut down the flow of weapons & ammo to South Viet Nam & they suffered for it. The Soviet Union shut down the flow of weapons & ammo to Najibullah.
    After whats transpired over the last 35 years the Afghans are more than prepared to defend themselves.

  • Mr Wolf says:

    I often wonder if there isn’t a plan to settle for a Taliban office in Qatar as long as we keep our Navy contract. With that contract, can we place all 100,000 troops onto one base, use it as a launch for most spec ops in the area for the next 15 years, and allow for the security of the Straits through agreements with regional cooperation (ie. Saudi, India, Oman, Kuwait). It keeps the troops off the peninsula, and allows for a DMZ type of situation with the Saudis. Shipping lanes need to be protected – Iran & Pakistan might implode with another coup by then – thus a strategic need to concentrate on smaller theaters and their threats. Piracy, support for AQ, market bombs, and intercontinental travel are the threats of today, not the invasion of Afghanistan by Iran and/or Pakistan to take the pressure off their internal strife, those drums of war have been silent at least.


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