Trump's War on Terror

Members of Iraqi army are seen during the war between Iraqi army and Shi'ite Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) against the Islamic State militants in al-Ayadiya, northwest of Tal Afar, Iraq August 28, 2017. REUTERS/Thaier Al-Sudani

After eight exhausting years fighting terrorist groups, there are important insights from the Obama administration that President Trump would be wise to heed.

November-December 2017

The United States would deemphasize getting involved in expansive state-building efforts aimed at regenerating local governance systems. Obama doubted that these types of military interventions would help foster lasting political change in war-torn societies. Instead, he saw the United States’ role as defeating the most urgent terrorist threats through targeted strikes and operations while advising and supporting local actors. The results of this shift in strategy were stark: in 2016 alone, the United States dropped an estimated 26,172 bombs in seven countries: Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Yemen, Somalia and Pakistan. By the end of his second term, Obama had also placed 8,600 special-operations troops in ninety-seven countries, almost half of which operated in regions other than the Middle East and South Asia.

Many within and outside the Obama administration had concerns about the light-footprint model. For one, the geographic expansion of targeted U.S. military operations against violent nonstate actors led to the blurring of lines between conflict and nonconflict zones, with significant international legal and political implications.

Critics also contended that ensuring legitimate, effective and inclusive governance in terrorism-affected regions should be afforded equal, if not greater, status than pursuing short-term security goals. Counterterrorism officials did not necessarily oppose this view. Yet they typically argued that the United States could not afford to hold back while it slowly worked to resolve conflicts and rebuild governance in places like Yemen or Somalia. Their position often prevailed at key junctures when narrow counterterrorism objectives conflicted with longer-term political or regional considerations, partly because their task was more tangible, near-term and specific. According to a former senior official on President Obama’s NSC staff,

*** “counterterrorism officials could devise and execute a plan to accomplish the mission; the political side understandably found it much harder to do so, given the far more complex and long-term nature of the challenge of brokering and building peace in a war-torn society.” ***

The Obama administration’s investment in forging political solutions, of course, varied depending on the context. In Syria, significant effort was expended negotiating a political settlement to the war, without success. In Afghanistan, the United States not only dispensed billions of dollars in aid, but also helped broker a tenuous power-sharing agreement between Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah after a disputed presidential election. Yet efforts to negotiate a political deal between the Afghan government and the Taliban floundered. In contrast, the United States took a more hands-off approach in Yemen, Somalia and Libya, relying on regional or international allies to lead conflict-resolution efforts, and focusing U.S. involvement on targeted counterterrorism operations.

THE EFFECT of Obama’s counterterrorism strategy on safeguarding and protecting civilians was mixed. On one hand, undertaking precision strikes in lieu of ground operations certainly reduced potential U.S. military casualties, and likely resulted in a lower rate of civilian casualties as well. On the other hand, the strikes also enabled U.S. military action in areas that the United States would otherwise not have engaged in. As civilian casualties from the strikes began to rise, human-rights advocates criticized the administration’s lack of transparency regarding its targeting guidelines, and demanded greater accountability for civilian deaths—including publicly disclosed investigations and after-action reviews. They also pressed for explicit standards governing U.S. lethal-force operations, consistent with international human-rights and humanitarian law.