Think Again

Think Again: Barack Obama and the War on Terror

Don’t hold your breath waiting for Barack Obama to end the war on terror.

Obama Will End the War on Terror

Don't bet on it. A misconceived war on terror has stoked Americans' nightmares since Sept. 11, 2001, and that will in all likelihood continue. Despite having anointed himself the candidate of change, Barack Obama remained wedded to crucial elements of the war on terror throughout his campaign. Not only did he embrace the term, but, like the Bush administration, he portrayed the 9/11 attacks as a turning point in global politics, suggested that transnational terrorism threatened the United States' survival, depicted the tactic of terrorism as the enemy, and laid out an apocalyptic vision of the next attack. The danger of terrorism was, he declared, no less grave than that posed by the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

This portrayal was more than campaign rhetoric. The war on terror has been the country's defining national security narrative since 9/11, and politicians across the political spectrum have paid obeisance to it. Indeed, shortly after the election, Obama portrayed the attacks in Mumbai as evidence of the grave and urgent threat of terrorism that the United States faces, as if the perpetrators of that tragedy were necessarily members of a global terrorist brotherhood. Introducing his national security team a few days later, he highlighted the threat posed by a poorly specified terror that cannot be contained by borders, rather than by specific U.S. adversaries who would use terrorist tactics.

As president, Obama will be hard-pressed to jettison the war on terror. His administration's foreign policy will look different from that of its predecessor in many respects, but not this one. With Obama in the Oval Office, the United States seems likely to remain in the war on terror's thrall -- to the detriment of the country's priorities, its foreign policy, the tenor of its discourse, and perhaps its people's liberties. Obama promised to lead America on a new path, but deviating from the course set in the past seven years will not be easy.

Obama Will Wage the Battle of Ideas' Better Than George W. Bush

Doubtful. Yes, Obama, by his presence and personality, has changed the atmospherics of U.S. foreign relations. America's reputation around the world has for some time been at a nadir, so there is nowhere to go but up. But the United States' poor image abroad has not been the result of a marketing failure, and, thus, better public diplomacy will not lead to victory in the Battle of Ideas. Anti-Americanism thrives, not because others misunderstand the United States, but because they perceive its aims and tactics all too well. The Bush administration's greatest perceived foreign-policy failures -- Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantnamo, unimpeded global warming -- could not have been overcome with better public diplomacy, and recent improvements in trans-Atlantic relations cannot be credited to an improved sales pitch. The world is rightly waiting to see if Obama will match his words with actions. Public diplomacy can matter only at the margins.

As much as he might wish it, Obama does not enter the Oval Office with a clean slate. The sizable U.S. presence in Iraq and Afghanistan, combined with the aggressive hunt for al Qaeda leaders in Pakistan's tribal areas, will continue to rankle in the Arab and Muslim worlds. Elsewhere, criticism of U.S. foreign policy predated Bush -- the French expressed alarm at American hyperpower during the good old days of Clintonian multilateralism -- and will persist after he leaves office. Notwithstanding the financial meltdown and U.S. travails in Iraq, the United States remains the world's largest economic and military power by far. Its penchant for pursuing its global interests unilaterally lies at the root of many others' suspicions, and there will be times that even an Obama administration will chafe at and throw off any self-imposed shackles. When that happens, those high-flying expectations will come crashing back to earth.

Withdrawing from Iraq Will Bring Victory Closer in Afghanistan

Wishful thinking. Sure, getting out of Iraq will in principle make available U.S. soldiers and materiel, but don't expect these additional resources to pay large dividends in Afghanistan.

First, insurgent fighters enjoy a safe haven in the North-West Frontier Province of Pakistan, and it is not for lack of U.S. firepower or troops in Afghanistan that they operate freely. The Pakistani government's reluctance and inability to bring the region to heel is the chief problem, and a reduced U.S. commitment to Iraq will not make that political nut easier to crack. Second, even if the security situation were to improve thanks to more U.S. troops and money, the challenge of governing Afghanistan's ethnically diverse and geographically challenging landscape will remain. Third, all this presumes that the United States has the political will to undertake and sustain a much more substantial long-term military presence in Afghanistan, and such political will -- if it ever existed -- is now at best a wasting asset.

Americans were ready to bring the troops home from Iraq even before the recession intensified the usual guns-versus-butter debates. The budget crunch has prompted calls for slashing military spending, and many will see in the troop drawdown in Iraq an opportunity to free funds to aid Americans at home -- not an opportunity to redouble U.S. commitment to Afghanistan.

Ending the War in Iraq Will Help the Fight Against Terrorism

Not really. A U.S. pullout from Iraq would, on its face, redress a grievance held not only by al Qaeda, but by many Muslims. Al Qaeda, however, found reason to target the United States and its interests before Iraq, and many of those reasons remain -- from U.S. support for Arab regimes perceived as illegitimate, to the U.S. role in the festering Israeli-Palestinian conflict, to the grand religiopolitical vision of reestablishing the caliphate. Iraq was an unusual recruiting boon, but al Qaeda and its affiliates have no shortage of justifications for continued violence, and some of these reasons remain highly resonant in the Muslim world.

Liberals sometimes argue that because the war in Iraq became a rallying cry for Islamist terrorist groups, drawing thousands into the fold, its end will dry up the pool of recruits. But the ardor of those converted by Iraq will not quickly cool, and the war's memory will continue to inspire would-be terrorists for the foreseeable future. Conservatives sometimes argue that the country's terrorist enemies will take heart at even a gradual U.S. withdrawal from Iraq and undertake a new wave of mass-casualty attacks. But it is hard to imagine that America's adversaries will be any more emboldened by the withdrawal from Iraq than they were by the United States' flailing and failures there.

Most fundamentally, the United States has found itself the victim of terrorism because it is so strong and its adversaries are so weak. That will not change soon, and terrorist tactics will continue to appeal to America's enemies -- less because they are especially bloodthirsty or immoral (though they may be), than because, given the imbalance of power, more conventional tactics don't promise the same payoff.

Capturing Osama bin Laden Should Be a Top Priority

Not now. As a candidate, Obama pledged that he would capture or kill Osama bin Laden if he were elected president. This pledge was good politics, but it does not make for an effective counterterrorism strategy. Although the capture or death of bin Laden would be welcome, the U.S. military and intelligence community have better ways to spend their time and money.

Eliminating bin Laden would undoubtedly please Americans, boost Obama's ratings, and undermine morale within al Qaeda. But al Qaeda has recovered, perhaps substantially, from the beating it took immediately after 9/11, and the death of its leader is unlikely to be devastating. It is a resilient organization: Dozens of high-ranking al Qaeda officials have been killed or captured since 2001, but they were eventually, and often swiftly, replaced. And beware what one wishes for: A younger, more energetic, equally charismatic, and more organizationally skilled leader might take bin Laden's place.

The benefits of capturing or killing bin Laden are likely to be short-lived, and the intelligence and military assets diverted to the task could be better used elsewhere. Rather than devote resources to hunting bin Laden, the Obama administration should instead target both the instability off which violent Islamism feeds and the local organizations, usually affiliated only loosely with al Qaeda, that have more often been responsible than al Qaeda itself for the terrorist attacks carried out since 9/11.

Americans' ramped-up expectations about the war on terror are exceeded only by the challenges the Obama administration will face. The politics of the war on terror have the potential to upset the Obama administration's priorities, but the economic crisis offers an opportunity to right America's foreign policy and consign the war on terror to its proper place. In this sense, the economic crisis, as Obama's Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel has suggested, would be a terrible thing to waste.

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Think Again

Think Again: Counterinsurgency

Why the U.S. Army's focus on nation-building at the expense of warfighting is misguided and dangerous.

The U.S. military is still too focused on conventional warfare.

Absolutely not. In fact, over the past six-plus years of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. Army has become a counterinsurgency-only force. The notion that there are still some conventional-minded bogeymen lurking in the shadows and waiting for the chance to take the Army back to the 1980s so that it can prepare to fight the Soviets in the Fulda Gap is a chimera.

There are understandable reasons why the Army has become so focused on counterinsurgency: The operational demands of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan demand it. Counterinsurgency expert John Nagl is thus correct when he calls for winning the wars we are in now. Currently, when Army combat brigades go to any of the national training centers for preparation for deployment to Afghanistan or Iraq, they primarily train on counterinsurgency operations.

Yet the Army has allowed its understandable operational focus on counterinsurgency to dominate its current intellectual climate. Three Army colonels, all former combat brigade commanders in Iraq, warned Army Chief of Staff General George Casey last year that field artillery, because of its recent focus on counterinsurgency operations, had lost its traditional warfighting skills and had become a dead branch walking.

The group of counterinsurgency experts within the Army and other parts of the greater U.S. defense establishment, moreover, has narrowly selected and employed a certain, situational form of counterinsurgency operations called the population centric approach. It's really nothing more than a rehash of the counter-Maoist approaches of the 1960s formulated by Sir Robert Thompson, a British officer in Malaya, and David Galula, a French officer in Algeria. This narrow approach -- known in the current military vernacular as clear, hold, and build -- dominates the Army so much that it permeates the service's professional journals. Now, whenever a problem of instability or insurgency presents itself, it's the only approach that seems to be considered, yet different situations might call for different methods. In this sense, the Army has become dogmatic.

Small wars are the wars of the future.

Perhaps. But for the Army, the term small wars has become synonymous with nation-building. The future of war certainly holds more than that.

Indeed, the dustbin of history is full of mistaken predictions about the future nature of war. An aide to Josef Stalin told the Russian dictator in 1939 that mechanized warfare was not the wave of the future. German armored columns proved that prediction utterly wrong when they came sweeping across the Russian steppes in the summer 1941. Between World War I and World War II, the British saw the future of conflict more in terms of policing their empire rather than major battles fought between land armies. Their muddled thinking led, at least in part, to the near-disaster for the British Expeditionary Force in France in 1940 and its fortunate evacuation from Dunkirk.

More recently, the Israeli Army that stumbled its way into south Lebanon in 2006 received a sharp response by Hezbollah fighters who operated like-small unit infantry. One of the reasons for the Israeli Army's poor performance (as shown by analysts like Mat Matthews and Avi Kober) was their heavy focus on counterinsurgency operations in the Palestinian territories for the six preceding years.

It is true that the future may not necessarily be centered on state-on-state warfare. But future wars will involve fighting terrorists, insurgents, and possible hostile states, or combinations thereof, even if they also involve softer tasks. The Army must organize itself around the principle of fighting with the knowledge that if called on, it can easily shift to nation-building and counterinsurgency, as it has done in Iraq. But doing the opposite -- building an Army that is great at building schools and negotiating with tribal sheikhs but is unprepared to fight at the higher end of the conflict spectrum -- will only ensure that most of the blood and guts will be ours.

The surge worked in Iraq.

Not quite. It depends how you define surge. If the surge is defined as follows, then yes, it worked: 1) a set of key decisions on the part of senior U.S. leaders in Iraq to ally with Sunni insurgents to fight al Qaeda; 2) Shiite militia leader Moqtada al-Sadr's decision to stand down in summer 2007; 3) the fact that many areas of Iraq, especially Baghdad, had already become ethnically cleansed by the time the surge started; 4) the addition of an additional five combat brigades, which sent a message to Sunni insurgents and Sadr's militia that the United States did not intend to depart in the near future.

However, the notion that the additional five brigades practicing new counterinsurgency methods under inspired leadership was the primary causative factor that lowered violence is not supported by the operational record. As early as the fall of 2003, prior to the surge, most Army and Marine units were already conducting best practices in counterinsurgency operations, according to a recent and authoritative history of the Iraq war by the Army's own Combat Studies Institute.

Yes, General Petraeus and the surge did give coherence to these practices with the introduction of the Army's new counterinsurgency doctrine, Field Manual 23-4. However, that coherence was not decisive and would not have made an appreciable difference without the other critical conditions in place. It was those conditions, followed by the additional troops, that led to the reduction in violence, not the other way around.

General Petraeus is a military genius.

Time will tell. General Petraeus has worked against long odds and proven himself to be a forward-looking thinker. But evaluating generalship in counterinsurgency warfare is a murky matter, unlike in conventional war, where at least at the fighting level a general's performance is readily knowable. In World War II in North Africa, for instance, U.S. General Lloyd Fredendall was relieved shortly his Army's dismal performance at Kasserine Pass, which resulted in great losses of men and equipment and a clear tactical defeat. In most cases of evaluating generalship in Iraq and Afghanistan, however, it is simply too early to tell. Objective histories of generals' performance have yet to be written.

One should further show caution when proclaiming this or that U.S. general in Iraq to be a genius and the next Ulysses S. Grant or, conversely, another general to be a consummate failure. In the years after the American Civil War, Grant received mixed reviews by historians for his battlefield performance. It wasn't until relatively recently that historians and most other Americans have come to see him -- correctly -- as one of the best. And, ironically and interestingly, General William C Westmoreland in 1965 was Time Magazine's man of the year. Nowadays, Westmoreland has come to be seen as the symbol for American failure in Vietnam. And his replacement, General Creighton Abrams, who is currently seen by misinformed counterinsurgency pundits as one of the greatest counterinsurgency generals ever, was actually considered for relief in 1971 by President Nixon.

The military should embrace nation-building.

If those are the orders. The U.S. military should do what it is told to do by its civilian masters. If the mission is building an Afghan nation from scratch where none existed before -- as the counterinsurgency experts would have it -- then we in the rest of the military must figure out how to do it.

The danger, however, is that the military has shown a tendency in Afghanistan to replace sound, resourced strategy informed by a realistic assessment of what is feasible with clever counterinsurgency tactics and methods, based on a wrong-headed view that those same tactics and methods worked in Iraq. This, tragically, is a recipe for long-term nation-building in Afghanistan but without the resources needed to succeed. Does anybody really think that Afghanistan, a ravaged, ethnically divided country of 25 million with 72 percent illiteracy and little history of centralized rule, can be turned into a real state any time soon, on a budget that US. taxpayers can support?

There is an opportunity now for change in the Army. The future security environment demands it. But we should not view the past seven years of counterinsurgency warfare in Afghanistan and Iraq as prologue. Nor should we view the surge of troops in Iraq as the template for future action. If we do, then we tempt the fate of many past states and their militaries that thought that they had become smarter than war and had divined its future, only to find out they were wrong after squandering much blood and treasure.

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