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.