SIXTEEN YEARS into the United States’ “global war on terror,” terrorist groups continue to proliferate in states that are either unwilling or incapable of defeating them. Not only has the threat of terrorism persisted, but it is escalating and intensifying in dangerous ways. The United States needs a comprehensive strategy to combat this threat. Such a strategy must be properly resourced, balancing civilian engagement with military tools and strengthening civilian-protection standards. After eight exhausting years fighting terrorist groups, there are important insights from the Obama administration that President Donald Trump would be wise to heed.
President Trump’s immediate predecessors responded to terrorist threats in different ways. President George W. Bush put the United States on a wartime footing. While he initially counted on a speedy and targeted intervention to topple the Taliban and weaken Al Qaeda in Afghanistan, the Iraq War and subsequent state-building failures pushed his administration toward an increasingly resource-intensive counterinsurgency strategy. President Barack Obama distanced himself from his predecessor’s counterinsurgency model, shifting instead to a light-footprint approach that consisted of expanded air strikes, wide use of special forces and greater reliance on host-government militaries.
As for President Trump, in the heat of the presidential campaign he was very clear about how he intended to confront terrorist groups, particularly the Islamic State (ISIS): “I will quickly and decisively bomb the hell out of ISIS, will rebuild our military and make it so strong no one—and I mean, no one—will mess with us.” Nine months into his presidency, Trump has indeed prioritized military action and downplayed diplomacy, soft power and political engagement. Without announcing a radical shift in strategy, he has loosened a number of constraints on the use of force. He has delegated authority to the military to set troop levels and undertake a much wider range of strikes, he has geographically expanded areas of active hostilities and he endorsed a dramatic escalation in air strikes in the spring, including dropping the largest nonnuclear bomb ever deployed in combat. While a new draft counterterrorism strategy notes that the United States should avoid costly military commitments and demands that U.S. allies shoulder a greater share of the burden, the Trump administration to date has largely followed the Obama administration’s plans to scale up military operations against violent extremist groups.
In the near term, this strategy of military escalation will likely kill more terrorists, in more places and at a faster rate. Taking fighters off the battlefield demonstrates that these groups are not invincible, and may deter recruitment and spur defections. It will also deny terrorists the freedom of action to plot and carry out further attacks.
But the experience of the last eight years shows that an effective counterterrorism strategy must do more. It should minimize civilian casualties and avoid playing into extremist groups’ recruitment strategies. It needs to mobilize effective and professional local forces that can hold territory liberated from terrorist groups, and help legitimate governance structures to take root. This will require sustained political efforts to broker durable political settlements in conflict zones where terrorists take safe haven and exploit sectarian divisions. And a successful strategy must mobilize international partners, especially from Muslim-majority countries, to confront common threats—while using U.S. leverage to push for greater accountability and compliance with international human-rights standards.
The Obama administration made real progress on the first task: putting in place an initial legal and policy framework to protect civilians in U.S. counterterrorism operations. But its progress on the other elements was incomplete. There is ample room for the Trump administration to do better. This will require Trump to preserve and strengthen the civilian protection gains that have already been made, while advancing and resourcing the right strategy to fulfill long-term strategic goals. In specific terms, this means that the Trump administration should bolster its diplomatic capability—rather than gutting the State Department’s budget and capacity—in order to forge and manage relations with local, regional and international partners, and to undertake more effective peacemaking efforts. Likewise, Trump should invest in the development capabilities of USAID, multilateral institutions and civil-society partners, all of which are critical to sustaining long-term rebuilding efforts in fragile areas. Finally, Trump should think very carefully about pursuing transactional counterterrorism partnerships with corrupt autocrats and human-rights abusers, whose poor governance records fuel the grievances and instability exploited by extremist groups. There is much Trump can learn from the difficulties of his predecessor to craft a thoughtful and effective counterterrorism policy. Whether he chooses to take heed is another matter.
THE TRUMP administration’s early counterterrorism decisions indicate a strong preference for forceful military responses, and a willingness to downgrade civilian-protection concerns to enable speedier military action.
In fact, the Trump administration has escalated military operations in Yemen, Somalia, Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. In Yemen, for example, the United States has ramped up its air campaign against Al Qaeda targets, dropping forty strikes over the course of five days in March—more than the Obama administration’s annual total for the past two years. The nonprofit monitoring group Airwars reports that civilian casualties in Syria and Iraq due to coalition air strikes have also increased sharply under Trump, with over 2,200 deaths estimated during his first five and a half months in office. In addition to intensifying air strikes, the White House has increased the number of troops deployed on the ground, particularly in Iraq and Syria. In the operation to retake Mosul, U.S. military advisers cooperated with Iraqi forces in a much “closer and deeper” manner than permitted under the Obama administration. Likewise, in Syria, the United States sent a team of Army Rangers, as well as a Marine artillery unit, to support efforts to liberate Raqqa from the so-called Islamic State.
At the same time, Trump has initiated a policy review aimed at rolling back Obama-era constraints on air strikes and commando raids outside of designated battle zones. Trump has already approved a Pentagon request to declare parts of Yemen and Somalia areas of active hostilities, in which looser-civilian protection rules apply. The administration has also decided to delegate greater operational authority back to the Pentagon and the CIA without requiring high-level interagency sign-off. In Yemen, these changes enabled the controversial ground raid on an Al Qaeda compound that resulted in the death of a Navy SEAL as well as a dozen or more civilians. There has also been a surge of recent reports about friendly fire and civilian deaths from coalition air strikes, raising additional troubling questions about the effect of the rules changes.
The Trump administration’s budget request also signals a clear prioritization for military counterterrorism tools. It calls for unprecedented cuts in foreign aid and slashes the U.S. State Department’s budget by almost a third—while increasing defense spending by 10 percent. The administration has also pushed for significant reductions in UN funding, including for peacekeeping operations and UN development work. These proposed cuts suggest that the Trump administration does not view diplomacy and development efforts as key components of its counterterrorism strategy.
Lastly, Trump appears willing to overlook human-rights concerns associated with its counterterrorism partners in favor of assertive military action. In early March, the State Department approved resuming arms sales to Saudi Arabia that had been blocked by President Obama due to concerns that Saudi strikes in Yemen were causing widespread civilian casualties. Likewise, the State Department approved $3.8 billion in arms sales to Bahrain in September—including F-16 fighter jets—despite the Bahraini government’s ongoing crackdown against the country’s Shia population. The Trump administration has also sold ground-attack aircraft to Nigeria, despite widespread security-force abuses there, including the mistaken bombing of an internally displaced persons’ (IDP) camp in January by the Nigerian Air Force that left over one hundred civilians dead. Finally, Trump has invited leaders like Egyptian president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte to the White House, invitations that President Obama refused to give because of grave human-rights concerns.
The Trump administration’s early counterterrorism moves may not yet constitute a dramatic break with previous strategy. However, they highlight a real risk that important lessons learned over the past eight years will be discarded and costly mistakes repeated. It is therefore instructive to take a closer look at key counterterrorism choices faced by President Obama and the internal debates that unfolded.
In the Obama administration, four counterterrorism decisions stand out: whether to move away from large-scale military interventions to more targeted operations; how to balance an aggressive counterterrorism campaign with appropriate civilian protection; whether to strategically partner with countries with unsavory democracy and human-rights records; and balancing a light-footprint counterterrorism approach with longer-term commitments to democracy, governance and development.
PRESIDENT OBAMA came into office intent on moving the United States off a “permanent war footing.” He was skeptical that large-scale counterinsurgency missions were the right strategy to defeat terrorist threats. Obama’s team considered existing counterinsurgency doctrine unwieldy, risky and resource-intensive. His advisers were unconvinced that it would bring successful outcomes absent a massive investment spanning multiple decades. This stance also reflected Obama’s worldview that terrorism did not represent an existential threat to the United States equivalent to multigenerational challenges like climate change.
Obama therefore proposed moving toward a light-footprint approach that emphasized disrupting terrorist networks via the use of sophisticated weaponry (drones and laser-guided missiles), supported through an expanded use of special-operations forces and partnerships with host-country militaries. Missions would be conducted wherever terrorist networks were active—both in areas of active hostilities (e.g., Iraq and Afghanistan) and beyond conventional war zones (e.g., Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and Libya).
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.
Partially in response to these pressures, the Obama administration developed a set of legal and policy guidelines aimed at clarifying targeting criteria and minimizing civilian harm. The recently declassified 2013 Presidential Policy Guidance for Approving Direct Action Against Terrorist Targets sets out rules to determine the legality of a proposed strike. It mandates high-level interagency deliberations before strikes are approved and requires “near certainty” that no civilian casualties will be killed. The president’s July 2016 executive order on civilian harm amplified this guidance. It established heightened standards to minimize civilian casualties from U.S. military actions and mandated the public release of certain information about strikes against terrorist targets. In July 2016, the administration revealed its first set of civilian casualty figures, acknowledging between sixty-four and 116 aggregate civilian deaths from 473 counterterrorism strikes taking place between 2009 and 2015 (not including Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria). In the waning days of his presidency, Obama also issued a comprehensive report documenting key legal bases governing the use of force in counterterrorism operations and the main policy and legal frameworks constraining U.S. actions. While the report did not bring any real surprises, it provided a remarkable compilation and record of how and why the Obama administration reached its counterterrorism policy and legal conclusions over the past eight years.
President Obama’s actions partly stemmed from the recognition that significant casualty numbers would impede U.S. counterterrorism objectives and reinforce terrorists’ recruiting narratives. His administration’s efforts to mitigate civilian casualties did have an impact: for example, existing data indicates that improved targeting rules and reduced signature strikes lowered the incidence of civilian casualties from U.S. air strikes in Pakistan after 2011. Yet the steps taken by the Obama administration to increase the transparency of U.S. counterterrorism operations remained tentative—it only published the Presidential Policy Guidance after a federal court mandated its release, and its aggregate casualty estimates were significantly lower than those put forward by nongovernmental monitoring groups. It is also worth noting that the Trump administration can easily reverse Obama’s steps to increase transparency and establish a set of criteria governing lethal action outside of conventional war zones.
ANOTHER CENTRAL component of Obama’s light-footprint counterterrorism strategy was to place greater emphasis on outsourcing the fight against terrorist groups to foreign militaries and local proxies. Describing this approach, then U.S. defense secretary Robert Gates asserted in 2010 that the United States should do more to help “other countries defend themselves or, if necessary, fight alongside U.S. forces by providing them with equipment, training, and other forms of security assistance.” This strategy has been central to U.S. policy in Yemen, Libya, Nigeria, Mali and Somalia, as well as U.S. efforts to combat the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. For example, in the case of Somalia, direct financial support to the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) and bilateral assistance to troop-contributing countries have allowed the United States to avoid getting pulled into an expensive conflict with no clear exit strategy.
Engaging in these types of alliances was not new or specific to the Obama administration. What was unique was the extent to which the Obama administration relied upon other countries as a central plank in its counterterrorism efforts. As a result, the United States frequently entered into unsavory partnerships with repressive governments and armies with poor civilian-protection records.
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.
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.
Fourth, unconditionally embracing repressive governments with poor human-rights records comes with a high cost. Over the long term, these regimes are brittle and prone to collapse. Their regional interests often do not or only partially align with U.S. counterterrorism and stabilization objectives—and even if they do, partner governments may lack the capacity to effectively absorb U.S. assistance. For example, a recent RAND Corporation study found that U.S. military aid aimed at reducing fragility tends to be much less effective in regions with weak state institutions, low state reach and autocratic regimes. Many partner countries advance U.S. counterterrorism objectives in some ways while blocking them in others. The challenge is, thus, to accurately assess partner interests and incentives to maximize gains and avoid doing further harm. In the most extreme cases, U.S. security assistance can prop up governments and security forces that breed further extremism and insecurity. As former NSC Senior Director for Counterterrorism Luke Hartig remarked to us in an interview, “The reality is that we have a very spotty record on military partnerships sustainably mitigating terrorist threats, much less promoting the development, better governance and the rule of law.”
The Trump administration should prioritize strengthening partner accountability. This involves improved intelligence and analysis of the political, economic and social dynamics of partner countries, and how they affect U.S. strategic objectives. Security-sector assistance should take into account the recipients’ domestic and regional political interests, rather than follow an apolitical capacity-building model. The United States should condition training, support and arms transfers on clear benchmarks linked to partner compliance with civilian-protection standards and international humanitarian law. This will likely require withholding or reducing assistance in case of underperformance. If the United States lacks the leverage to press for meaningful security-sector and governance reforms, then it should not be afraid to walk away from the security relationship. In such cases, more U.S. assistance is unlikely to solve underlying tensions, and may instead fuel corruption and insecurity.
Fifth, for U.S. counterterrorism strategy to be effective beyond the near term, the United States needs to support the development of legitimate governance institutions in regions and countries prone to terrorism. Such assistance should go beyond training security forces. Instead, it should include support for meaningful reforms of political institutions to mitigate corruption and bolster inclusive participation. Institution building is a long-term process, and the influence of external actors tends to be limited. Yet by adapting a “security first” approach that disregards governance challenges as secondary objectives, the United States risks further exacerbating the problem.
For example, in Iraq, selective and politicized governance and the systematic torture of Sunni Iraqis by Shia security forces undermined the government and facilitated the Islamic State’s capture of western Iraq. Likewise, gross human-rights abuses propagated by the Nigerian government in response to the Boko Haram insurgency have arguably bolstered the group’s standing and undermined government efforts to retake and stabilize the northeast. In countries like Yemen and Libya, effectively tackling terrorist threats will require renewed efforts to attain political settlements to ongoing conflict. If the Trump administration prevails in its plan to cut governance and development aid and slash the State Department’s budget, the United States will weaken essential tools in the long-term fight against violent extremism. Not surprisingly, many high-ranking military officers have spoken out against the proposed cuts, noting that the military needs “strong civilian partners in the battle against the drivers of extremism—lack of opportunity, insecurity, injustice, and hopelessness.”
The nine months of Trump’s presidency have witnessed some showy moments—Tomahawk missiles raining down on a Syrian airfield, the detonation of the “Mother of All Bombs” in a distant corner of Afghanistan. There has been less evidence of a serious commitment and strategy to truly reduce the threat of terrorism. In fact, signs have pointed in the opposite direction—toward a diminished emphasis on diplomacy and development, and a less rigorous adherence to civilian protection. As Trump’s national-security team continues to take shape, they should pay close attention to the lessons of past presidencies and the accumulated evidence from sixteen years of fighting terrorism.
Saskia Brechenmacher is an associate fellow in the Democracy and Rule of Law Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Steven Feldstein is a nonresident fellow in the same program and the Frank and Bethine Chair of Public Affairs at Boise State University.