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

A close look at the U.S. military’s partner countries in Africa is revealing. Of the fifteen countries actively supported by the U.S. military, five rank in the bottom quartile of Freedom House’s 2017 rankings. Two additional countries—Gabon and Uganda—experienced highly irregular elections in 2016 that most observers deemed rigged. These partner governments have used their counterterrorism roles very effectively to push back against any criticism of their domestic-governance track records. For example, after Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni signaled his intent to withdraw Ugandan troops from AMISOM, U.S. statements on democracy and human-rights concerns became much more infrequent. The United States also continued its security partnership with Ethiopia, despite a brutal internal crackdown that killed hundreds and put tens of thousands in detention. This pattern is not unique to Ethiopia: across sub-Saharan Africa, U.S. security partners have used counterterrorism laws to intimidate and repress internal opponents.

The Obama administration’s rationale for entering into these partnerships was the urgent need for local allies and the lack of viable alternatives. Yet in a number of cases, U.S.-supported partners impeded rather than advanced U.S. strategic objectives. Often, their interests did not necessarily align with U.S. goals; many governments used external security assistance to appease internal rivals or consolidate regional power.

Somalia is a case a point. Ethiopia and Kenya’s interests heavily shaped U.S. counterterrorism efforts in the country—even as Kenya’s military operations led to polarization and weakened the prospects for an inclusive political dialogue. In Yemen, the United States has provided intelligence, logistics and arms to a Saudi-led military coalition, which has repeatedly bombarded targets with no apparent military value and demonstrated little regard for civilian protection. Rather than weakening terrorist threats, the Saudi air campaign appears to have strengthened Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), as the escalating war has provided a fertile environment for the group’s expansion.

The Obama administration tried to steer the behavior of partner forces by highlighting human-rights concerns in bilateral meetings and applying limited conditionality. For example, in the case of Saudi Arabia and Nigeria, it halted specific weapon sales without cutting off all assistance. The Leahy Law, which prohibits U.S. military aid to security forces that have committed gross violations of human rights, provided a framework for vetting partner forces and pressing for security-sector reforms. Yet monitoring partners in a comprehensive manner is costly and difficult. Research by Biddle, Macdonald and Baker (2017) underscores that the effective use of conditionality requires not only political commitment but also careful management of credibility dilemmas: the United States has to reassure its partners of continued assistance in case of compliance with U.S. conditions, but repeated reassurances undermine the credibility of U.S. threats. As a result, U.S. pressure on partners often remained inconsistent.

While shifting to a light-footprint approach, the Obama administration did not make an equivalent investment in nonmilitary counterterrorism approaches. Through 2015, democracy spending by the Obama administration actually shrunk by significant portions. It was only in the Fiscal Year 2017 budget that the administration reversed course and requested more resources for democracy programming. Obama did make a big push in his second term to elevate “countering violent extremism” (CVE) as a major programmatic area of practice, hoping to shift the focus to the long-term drivers of radicalization and violent extremism. The administration convened an international CVE summit, established an interagency CVE task force and refocused the State Department’s Bureau of Counterterrorism on violent extremism. In 2016, the Obama administration requested $187 million for State Department programs and policies to counter violent extremism—more than twice as much as in 2015.

Yet the CVE agenda brought varying results. Domestically, some civil-rights groups criticized the CVE agenda for unfairly stigmatizing American Muslim communities. On a broader level, CVE programs suffered from a lack of rigorous empirical knowledge about individual and community-level drivers of radicalization in different contexts. In addition, CVE efforts were largely divorced from hard-security approaches, thereby diminishing their influence. As Larry Attree writes, for CVE programs to have a real effect, they cannot “merely go alongside problematic military and rule of law approaches. CVE will only work if it actually stands to change the tactics used by military and criminal justice actors.” This type of integration remained more aspirational than actual.