Nevertheless, while recognizing these considerations, U.S. policymakers should begin each indirect-action campaign with the assumption that the full range of enabling support will be offered to partners fighting Al Qaeda, the Islamic State and their affiliates. Should a convincing case be made to the president to limit U.S. support in specific circumstances—some will merit holding back—such a decision could be taken. But given the especially high opportunity cost of early inaction, the burden of proof should rest on those who would argue to do less. Too often, however, the reflexive inclination across multiple U.S. administrations has been to do the opposite. The implicit assumption is that indirect-action support should be started slowly, at the outset be limited only to the less risky (and thus less impactful) options, and expanded only incrementally and after lengthy review at the highest levels of the U.S. government. From the perspective of U.S. partners, this approach does not instill confidence in American commitment.
The trust and confidence of America’s partners is, of course, the center of gravity for a successful indirect-action campaign. And that is why “partnering” must always be a two-way street. A decision to rely on indirect action instead of direct U.S. military action means that Washington no longer has the luxury of viewing problems through the narrow prism of its own interests. If the U.S. military is going to be working by, with and through others, then its objectives must take their wider interests into account. This doesn’t mean that America needs to adopt all foreign interests as its own, but it does mean that the objectives of U.S. policies and the resulting scope of its assistance must be a product of negotiations with its partners, not a unilateral diktat to them.
For instance, a key element of Colombia’s successful military campaign against the FARC was the Clinton administration’s decision to approach the problem holistically. No longer would Washington pursue its counternarcotics objectives with tunnel vision; Colombia’s counterinsurgency and counterterrorism agenda were intertwined. In contrast, the United States publicly limited its military support for Yemen to focus on counterterrorism and not on Yemen’s wider counterinsurgency—at least until the Houthi insurgency took Sanaa and thus upended America’s counterterrorism campaign against AQAP. And since then, Washington has found itself supporting Riyadh’s air campaign against the Houthis to a greater degree than it previously supported the government of Yemen itself. A predictable rash of civilian casualties ensued. So once again, with a healthy dose of irony, a policy that was intended to limit U.S. involvement in a faraway war ultimately—as a by-product of the failure that resulted from those limits—expanded U.S. involvement far beyond the level initially feared.
A MILITARY strategy focused on indirect action requires more than just the military. It requires integrated actions across numerous U.S. government agencies. It requires a nimble flexibility in execution to manage relationships and adjust areas of emphasis on a tactical basis. It requires activist and creative U.S. diplomacy to manage coalitions of the willing and help local parties reach agreement on countless problems. This, in turn, requires empowered presidential emissaries to constantly be at the side of local actors—figuratively and literally—encouraging, cajoling and pressuring when necessary.
When America sends large numbers of conventional forces to war, the U.S. military commander can lead such an effort. But when the president has chosen to rely primarily on indirect action, the only person in the government properly positioned to play this role is the U.S. ambassador. Ideally, the ambassador in question wields an uncommon combination of skills that extend beyond the diplomatic prowess of the typical State Department officer to also include the ability to provide detailed, day-to-day oversight of all indirect-action operations, holding accountable the Chief of Station, law-enforcement attachés and military commanders in country. Fortunately, the Foreign Service has thus far been able to produce enough of these rare individuals. And where the U.S. military and other operational agencies have had success in indirect-action campaigns, it is typically due to the strong leadership they received from the ambassador.
In some cases, Washington-based policymakers eager to micromanage from afar risk undercutting the effectiveness of the ambassador and the operational teams he or she leads. Instead, once the president has established the policy direction, and his principals have defined the operational latitude and acceptable risks, the vast majority of operational and tactical decisions should then be delegated to the ambassador. Regular review of indirect-action campaigns should, of course, still take place inside the Beltway, and the president should hold the ambassador personally accountable if a pattern of failures emerges.
As has been the case during other successful indirect-action campaigns, U.S. military commanders in the field will come to regard their ambassador as an approval authority rather than merely one of many voices with whom they need to consult before taking action. The higher-level combatant commands will need to put aside their natural reluctance to allow civilian influence inside the chain of command. Chiefs of station will play important roles as civilian advisers to the ambassador for all indirect-action operations. Special-operations forces have historically been more comfortable with these kinds of relationships than have conventional military forces. Processes to raise fundamental disagreements up the formal chains of command must remain, but the benefit of the doubt should go to the U.S. ambassador in the field.
The most important role for senior policymakers in an indirect-action campaign, after they provide strategic policy guidance, is to project confidence and consistency in the strategy both at home and abroad. As much as possible, this support should be bipartisan and continue across multiple administrations, which requires thorough and transparent consultations with congressional leaders. Successful indirect-action campaigns take many years and are likely to encounter failures along the way—some will be public, and some may become the subject of partisan rancor back home. It is precisely at these moments that public support from the White House to stay the course is most critical. Similarly, when terrorist threats to a U.S. embassy emerge, policymakers should resist the urge to reduce presence—this is exactly what the terrorists desire. Past experience shows that once personnel have been withdrawn, it can take many years to restore them to their posts. Those absent years can setback an indirect-action campaign disproportionately.
A counterterrorism policy dependent on indirect action requires policymakers to fundamentally increase their willingness to accept measured risk, even the political variety. America’s partners will make mistakes. Its alliances will be uncertain. Tactical failures are inevitable. Money will be spent on programs that, in the end, don’t come to fruition. These risks need to be accepted up front.
And, most importantly, despite the best of efforts, some Americans conducting these indirect action campaigns near the front lines will likely die. This risk in the short term is much lower when indirect action is sharply constrained and U.S. counterterrorism operations are limited to merely shooting Hellfire missiles from remotely piloted aircraft. But targeted killing alone will not secure our enduring counterterrorism objectives. And then, when terrorist groups have expanded their reach and are planning external attacks—and the only remaining policy option is to start sliding down the slippery slope to a conventional war—the risk of U.S. casualties will increase exponentially. It would be far preferable to learn the lesson of the past two administrations and focus on indirect action.
William F. Wechsler, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, was deputy assistant secretary of defense for Special Operations and Combatting Terrorism from 2012 to 2015, and deputy assistant secretary of defense for Counternarcotics and Global Threats from 2009 to 2012.
Image: A U.S. Army soldier fires a simulated M136 AT4 anti-armor weapon. Flickr/U.S. Army