Delegating the Dirty Work to U.S. Allies Is Smart Counterterrorism

A U.S. Army soldier fires a simulated M136 AT4 anti-armor weapon. Flickr/U.S. Army

Teach a man to fish—terrorists.

March-April 2017

ONE OF the few things that Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama have in common is that they reversed their long-standing approaches to counterterrorism during their very last years in office. They initially held diametrically opposed military policies, with Bush choosing invasion and occupation and Obama preferring disengagement and drone strikes. But by the end of their second terms they had both ended up in roughly the same place, with a central focus on indirect action—enabling local forces to achieve U.S. counterterrorism objectives.

Through long periods of trial and error, constrained by a common reluctance to change course, but in the end having their hands forced by growing terrorist threats and events spiraling out of control, both presidents finally came to adopt the only set of counterterrorism policies that have been shown to succeed over the long run. It is important that President Donald Trump avoid repeating this painful and time-consuming learning curve.

Doing so will require him to accept lessons from his predecessors’ experiences. President Bush’s central mistakes are relatively easy to avoid. Simply follow the advice offered repeatedly by strategists from Gen. Douglas MacArthur to Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and, if at all possible, avoid having American forces fight large conventional land wars in Asia. Eventually, President Bush largely extricated the United States from his self-dug hole through the combination of shifting to counterinsurgency operations, cultivating the Sons of Iraq, building the Iraqi Counter Terrorism Service and supporting the revolution in U.S. special-operations targeting led by Gen. Stanley McChrystal. But the success of “the surge” came only after the deaths of hundreds of thousands and the explosion of Salafi jihadist terrorism. It is difficult to argue that Al Qaeda in Iraq and the Islamic State would have emerged in the absence of the initial U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq.

From the outset of his administration, President Obama clearly learned this lesson and was appropriately wary of any policy proposal that risked starting down the proverbial “slippery slope” to a large conventional land war. Even as the frequency of drone strikes against terrorists in multiple countries greatly expanded, he consistently stressed the need to marry these discrete direct actions to wider campaigns focused on indirect action. Obama seemed to understand that while U.S. direct actions can disrupt and even degrade foreign terrorist or insurgent groups, they rarely defeat and almost never destroy them. In military terms, direct action is a necessary line of operation, but indirect action is the decisive line of operation.

Some have caricatured this emphasis on indirect action as “leading from behind” and dismissed it as somehow being a sharp break from American tradition. This critique is itself ahistorical and more than a little ironic, since indirect action was a central element of the Reagan Doctrine that supported anti-Communist fighters in Afghanistan—which itself took a page from the Truman Doctrine that supported anti-Communist fighters in Greece. In both cases, the United States successfully enabled others to fight to meet its own national-security objectives.

But given the mixed record of the Obama administration—and the near certainty that future presidents will also want to combat terrorists indirectly rather than send hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops to occupy another country—it is critical that the Trump administration officials understand why indirect-action campaigns can fail, and what those same policymakers can do to maximize their likelihood of success.


SOME RECENT U.S. military campaigns focused on indirect action have been remarkably successful and thus attracted bipartisan support. Plan Colombia, which began under President Bill Clinton and expanded under President Bush, provided U.S. arms and advisers to fight the FARC, a group officially designated by Democratic and Republican administrations alike as both a terrorist organization and a leading drug cartel. This effort helped bring Colombia back from being a failed state in the 1990s and provided the necessary prerequisite to the recent agreement that promises an end to the Western Hemisphere’s longest insurgency. Less well known, but similarly successful, was the support provided by the Joint Special Operations Task Force in the Philippines under Presidents Bush and Obama. This task force, which was officially shut down in 2015 after over a decade of operation, sharply reduced the threat from terrorists allied with Al Qaeda and now the Islamic State, and improved the capacity of the Philippine armed forces to combat those who still remain in Mindanao.

Indirect action currently defines U.S. counterterrorism policy throughout Africa. Campaigns led by U.S. special-operations forces are successfully supporting counterterrorism operations by the African Union in Somalia, by the French and their partners across the Sahel, by the Ugandans against the Lord’s Resistance Army, and, most recently, by a multinational West African force in Cameroon against Boko Haram. These campaigns are far from complete, but have made real progress in degrading the capabilities of al-Shabaab, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, and Joseph Kony and his followers.