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

There was also an uneasy tension between traditional development and governance programs and CVE-specific programming. Particularly for development practitioners, the first-order concern is to respond to locally driven needs and priorities, and to determine how the international community can best support community goals. In contrast, CVE programming asks a fundamentally different question: to what extent can programming in local communities help achieve U.S. counterterrorism objectives? Such an approach risks overlooking local drivers of instability not directly related to extremism, allowing conflicts and grievances to fester. Additionally, CVE programs’ heavy focus on combating extremist ideologies meant that they often gave government actors a pass—even though state security forces are key drivers of insecurity.


AS THE Trump administration proceeds with the complex challenges of counterterrorism, it should bear in mind five lessons.

First, protecting civilians is not just a moral obligation derived from international human-rights and humanitarian law; it is also smart strategy. Violent extremist groups are adept at exploiting local outrage in response to civilian casualties. As dozens of former national-security officials wrote to Secretary of Defense James Mattis in an open letter in March, “Even small numbers of unintentional civilian deaths or injuries . . . can cause significant strategic setbacks.” Civilian casualties alienate local populations, reduce their willingness to cooperate with international forces and foster new grievances that can push individuals toward violence. President Trump should refrain from dismantling Obama’s legal and policy framework governing air strikes and civilian protection. While the Presidential Policy Guidance could be amended to facilitate accelerated prestrike deliberations, these shifts should not come at the expense of interagency input and civilian-protection standards that go beyond the criteria set out in international humanitarian law.

Second, providing greater transparency about U.S. air strikes is critical. The Trump administration should reinforce and bolster President Obama’s commitments to improving clarity around U.S. air strikes. In the face of public backlash over increasing civilian deaths, it may be tempting to once again veil the program in secrecy. This temptation should be resisted. The absence of independent investigations and data plays into the hands of terrorist groups, which can capitalize on civilian populations’ fear and uncertainty and misrepresent casualty numbers. Moreover, discrepancies between official U.S. government reporting on civilian deaths and numbers reported from independent outside sources undermine U.S. credibility, and make it harder to ensure that other countries will comply with civilian protection principles. If the United States underestimates actual levels of civilian casualties, it risks incorrectly prioritizing civilian protection in future operations and obstructing internal learning to mitigate civilian harm.

Third, conducting air strikes without an accompanying political strategy and civilian engagement will not lead to success. Targeted killings can accomplish key tactical objectives. For example, U.S. drone strikes have reduced the number of core Al Qaeda members in Pakistan, and helped thwart the Islamic State’s further territorial expansion in Iraq and Syria. Yet over the course of the past eight years, the limitations of the light-footprint approach have also become evident. According to Long (2014), decapitation strategies that consist of targeting high-level leaders and key middlemen tend to be less effective against highly institutionalized groups that can quickly absorb shocks to their leadership structure. In these cases, targeted attacks may create temporary disruptions and trigger tactical shifts, without diminishing the organization’s overall strength. In addition, a narrow focus on decapitation risks missing, and inadvertently exacerbating, broader conflict dynamics that allow terrorist groups to thrive. For example, while air strikes have dealt serious blows to AQAP in Yemen, the ongoing civil war has allowed the group to benefit from the local war economy and exploit growing sectarianism at the grassroots level.