Home The Washington Diplomat September 2011 Decade After 9/11, Taking Stock of America’s Terrorism Strategy

Decade After 9/11, Taking Stock of America’s Terrorism Strategy

Decade After 9/11, Taking Stock of America’s Terrorism Strategy

For years after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, many people said there wasn’t a day that went by when they weren’t haunted by those images now seared into our collective memory of planes tearing down America’s sense of security. And for so long it seemed that every bit of news was related in some way to a new threat level, a foiled plot, a strike somewhere overseas, or another victim’s poignant story revealed, or their remains identified. Of course, for all the people who lost someone, the reminders were much more tangible and horrific, and will last a lifetime.

And yet, much like Pearl Harbor before it, people have managed to heal this wound more than they might have ever imagined possible. They were asked to go on with their lives but to never forget, and eventually, for the most part, that’s what they did.

But when the 10-year anniversary of that fateful day arrives this month, there is sure to be an outpouring of reflection, and each of us will recall the unforgettable once again — the sudden cascade of emotions and thoughts that hit us when we learned what was happening. Quickly, here’s mine: I remember being on my college campus and watching on TV the second World Trade Center twin tower get swallowed by white plume like some magician’s colossal and cruel disappearing act, and, then about an hour later, it hit me that I guess I was going to be drafted.

While the 1970s-era policy to end conscription was — for good or bad — not revoked, soon enough more than 200,000 Americans were engulfed in two major conflicts overseas in the name of fighting a “global war on terror.”

Barack Obama was just an Illinois state senator at the time. On the day that President George W. Bush authorized an invasion of Iraq in October of 2002, Obama delivered a speech at the Federal Plaza in Chicago.

“I don’t oppose all wars,” he said. “After September 11, after witnessing the carnage and destruction, the dust and the tears, I supported this administration’s pledge to hunt down and root out those who would slaughter innocents in the name of intolerance, and I would willingly take up arms myself to prevent such tragedy from happening again.”

But the charismatic politician who was already attracting outsize attention for the modest office he held said that he strongly opposed the impending showdown with Saddam Hussein. “I know that even a successful war against Iraq will require a U.S. occupation of undetermined length, at undetermined cost, with undetermined consequences,” he warned.

“You want a fight, President Bush?” Obama asked the crowd of protesters. “Let’s finish the fight with bin Laden and al-Qaeda, through effective, coordinated intelligence, and a shutting down of the financial networks that support terrorism, and a homeland security program that involves more than color-coded warnings.”

That rhetoric was an early indicator of a fundamental shift in vision that would take place just several years later in how this country fights and views terrorist threats.

The Bush administration’s counterterrorism response to Sept. 11, 2001, was all-out war. Two U.S.-led invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq ensued, while the security landscape back home was upended as Americans found themselves in a state of constant vigilance. The federal government embarked on an unprecedented expansion, as did the Pentagon’s coffers, and the global war on terror framed U.S. foreign policy as the money flowed freely during an economic boom that even saw a period of widespread tax cuts, contrary to all other major military interventions in the past.

At the time though, the economy was roaring and not many people paid much heed to one of al-Qaeda’s stated goals of 9/11 — to bleed the United States “to the point of bankruptcy,” as Osama bin Laden himself put it (it’s estimated the terrorist group spent as little as $400,000 to finance the attacks).

But then, the money did run dry — and people began rethinking the costs of waging a global war. Obama’s presidential victory heralded a new approach to how the United States thinks about terrorism, a strategy that deserves inspection as the country marks the 10th anniversary this month of a defining moment in its history.

Costs of Conflict

Up until 2001, experts agree that terrorism was mostly fought on the law enforcement front, but America’s military and intelligence networks took over shortly after the attacks. The launching of what Bush’s team termed a war on terrorism changed both the way the battles would be fought and also the scale of adversaries by pitting the world’s most powerful armed forces against a loosely defined enemy that could be a lone-wolf jihadist with a poisonous biological powder or a battle-hardened dictator with his finger on Scud missiles.

Photo: Msgt. Robert Hargreaves Jr., USAF
From left, U.S. Air Force Senior Airman Ken Whelchel and Staff Sergeants Beth Roe, Sally Davis and Tracy Willen hold the U.S. flag during a 2003 ceremony to commemorate the 9/11 terrorist attacks at Baghdad International Airport in Iraq.

“All terrorists with global reach was the way the president put it, and so they also wanted to target any governments that they thought might be either helping terrorists or not doing enough to deal with the terrorist problem,” said Stephen Walt, a professor of international affairs at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government and a writer for Foreign Policy magazine. “The whole so-called Bush doctrine, in a sense, had a lot to do with threatening other countries with dire consequences if they didn’t get on board with the American counterterrorist campaign.”

He added: “One consequence of that was the whole invasion of Iraq, which was very much framed as an anti-terrorism activity. Saddam Hussein was linked to al-Qaeda in various ways by the administration and the justification of course was that we can’t allow any possible marriage between terrorists and weapons of mass destruction.”

That huge undertaking was what counterterrorism meant in the years immediately after the attacks that killed nearly 3,000 Americans: Anybody, anywhere who means America ill and might be able to do something about it, or any state that might abet anyone with such intentions, would meet the full force of U.S. military power. As early as 2002, there were reports the Defense Department was seeking to create mini-nukes that could dislodge underground bunkers where terrorists were believed to be hiding. After the United States went to war with Iraq in 2003, there were many neoconservative proponents for extending the military campaign into other nations designated as state sponsors of terror, such as Iraq’s neighbors, Syria and Iran.

This zeal for regime change underpinned by grander visions of installing democracy throughout the Middle East as a hedge against Islamic-inspired terrorism may seem like overreach now, but it’s important to remember that such ambitions were propelled by easy victories in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 that galvanized American confidence.

The Taliban in Afghanistan fell about as effortlessly as Saddam Hussein’s iconic statue in Baghdad was toppled by cheering Iraqis. It seems almost just as quickly though, those scenes of “mission accomplished” devolved into full-scale nation-building campaigns whose real outcomes, even a decade later, remain dubious at best.

By most indications, the Bush administration never anticipated the depths of the conflicts it had plunged into. In the 10 years since U.S. troops invaded Afghanistan to root out al-Qaeda — surpassing Vietnam recently to become the longest war the nation has ever fought — Congress has allotted at least $1.4 trillion through the fiscal 2012 year for both Iraq and Afghanistan, although many experts estimate the two wars may ultimately cost around $3 trillion, or even more depending on the definition of what constitutes a “war-related cost.” According to the “Costs of War” research project by Brown University’s Watson Institute for International Studies, which took into account factors such as veterans’ long-term medical care and interest paid on the deficit spending used to finance the conflicts, the final tab could run at least $3.7 trillion and as high as $4.4 trillion.

In addition to treasure, America’s proverbial blood has been spilled over a decade of fighting. More than 4,400 U.S. service members have been killed in Iraq since 2003, and another 1,700 have died in Afghanistan. Casualty figures for the other side vary wildly since no accurate counts have ever been kept, but the Costs of War report estimates that a quarter of a million people have died in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, including possibly 125,000 civilians in Iraq, while millions more — 7.8 million according to the project — have been displaced, roughly the size of Connecticut and Kentucky fleeing their homes. Earlier studies had put the loss of life in the hundreds of thousands, albeit using much broader definitions of war-related deaths that are hard to statistically verify — and indeed, in the end we may never know who really perished in both wars.

Geopolitically, the ouster of Saddam Hussein, who’d served as a check on Iranian hegemony, gave Tehran an opening to reassert its influence in the region, and critics of the Iraq war say it may have even spurred the Iranian government to accelerate its nuclear program in response to a possible impending attack by the Bush administration, which famously labeled Iran, along with Iraq and North Korea, on its “axis of evil.” On the flip side, many of Bush’s supporters credit his unwavering focus on democracy promotion for in part inspiring the historic revolutions and protests now under way in the Arab Spring.

Economic Reality Rears Its Head

Yet over the years, despite the enormous human, financial and geopolitical repercussions of the Afghan and Iraq wars, the hard truth is that most Americans — never as concerned with foreign policy as they are with domestic issues — weren’t heavily invested in either overseas conflict. But after the recession struck in 2008, questions over financing a global war on terrorism began firmly creeping into the national dialogue and would inevitably force, or at least guide, Obama’s hand.

Cash-strapped Americans are simply not as willing to stomach spending more than $100 billion a year in Afghanistan — which had a gross domestic product of about $27 billion in 2010, 97 percent of which came from foreign military and development funds — when schools and police forces in the United States are struggling against deep budget cuts, and millions of workers are unable to find jobs.

These economic constraints have exposed what is perhaps the sharpest divide between the Bush and Obama post-9/11 mindset — for the former, American power was projected abroad, for the latter, strength begins at home.

Shortly after assuming office, Obama fulfilled his campaign pledge of shifting resources away from the “dumb war” in Iraq and toward what he viewed as the real threat in Afghanistan. Yet despite the president’s 2009 surge of 33,000 troops into Afghanistan, the war effort there will also inevitably wind down as Obama seeks to extricate U.S. forces from both unpopular wars. The Congressional Budget Office has estimated that concluding the two wars would shave a substantial $1.4 trillion from the U.S. deficit over the next decade.

Some of the additional surge troops in Afghanistan were already being pulled back this summer, with the remainder scheduled to be home by summer 2012. In announcing the drawdown in a June televised address, Obama said the country must shift its attention from the war front back to the home front.

“Over the last decade, we have spent $1 trillion on war, at a time of rising debt and hard economic times,” he said, declaring, “America, it is time to focus on nation-building here at home.”

To that end, Obama is unlikely to mire an overstretched U.S. military in yet another conflict — a posture most recently evidenced in Libya, where even though the U.S. has supported the NATO coalition to topple Col. Muammar Qaddafi, the president has adamantly refused to put American boots on the ground in a third Muslim nation. More important, the caution Obama has shown toward Libya reflects his larger strategy to force other allies to shoulder the responsibilities of military intervention — building an international coalition of the willing that includes major powers actually willing to make hard sacrifices.

Even in Syria, the administration hesitated for weeks to openly call for President Bashar Al-Assad to step down despite his violent crackdown on protesters, on the stated premise that it was better to first secure the backing of key allies in the region. “It’s not just brute force, it’s not just unilateralism. It’s being smart enough to say, ‘You know what? We want a bunch of people singing out of the same hymn book,'” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in a joint forum with Defense Secretary Leon Panetta days before Obama finally called for the Syrian president to resign amid growing global outrage.

Supporters of the administration cite the recent breakthrough by Libya’s rebels into Tripoli as proof that Obama’s strategy of patiently pushing for regime change alongside international partners was bearing fruit.

“I think this is a tremendous achievement,” James Steinberg, the recently departed deputy secretary of state, told Michael Hirsh of the National Journal. “People aren’t saying the Americans are trying to do regime change. Whether in Tunisia or Libya or Egypt, we are seen as supportive of others. It’s an obvious contrast with the previous administration…. And the fact that tyrants are not able to rally their people against us shows the nuance and skill of this.”

Restoring Strength, or Retrenching?

Yet Obama’s uneven response to Libya, Syria and some say the Arab Spring in general has led to charges of “leading from behind” — coined by a member of his own administration — as critics accuse him of half-heartedly pursuing U.S. objectives overseas and shirking America’s pre-eminence on the world stage at a time when emerging powers are competing for influence.”We cannot neglect or defer international issues in favor of domestic matters. Our well-being depends not only on political and economic conditions at home, but also those overseas,” Michael Singh of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy wrote in Foreign Policy online, arguing that “our economic health is the foundation of our national security” and “our willingness to (wisely) exercise leadership overseas, shoulder global responsibilities, and shape rather than passively accept the international order reinforces our own economic prosperity and vibrancy.”

“For decades we have understood this and sought to promote political and economic liberty abroad even while dealing with crises at home,” he wrote. “Should we now set aside these burdens and turn inward, it will be not only to the world’s detriment, but our own.”

Yet others counter that those burdens have already been to our detriment, and leading from behind could ultimately put us out in front. In “Three Cheers for Decline,” Charles Kenny of the Center for Global Development argues that reviving America’s fiscal health and leadership in areas such as climate change and education would go a long way toward restoring its exceptionalism abroad — based not just on military might, but on the values that helped the United States trump communist ideology during the Cold War.

“Perhaps Washington could take a baby step or two toward scaling back its global commitments by returning the defense budget to its Reagan-era average, a move that would save about $250 billion a year. Surely what was good enough for a world riven by the Cold War, when … we lived in constant threat of global thermonuclear Armageddon, is also good enough for the United States today — at a time when al-Qaeda apparently has fewer than 100 fighters left in Afghanistan,” Kenny wrote, noting that even with $250 billion less, the United States would still outspend China about four times over. “Defense cuts would allow the United States to tend to a few other priorities, which just might take Americans’ minds off the fact that their country is no longer No. 1. Perhaps the United States could focus on constructing a high-speed rail line or two, or maybe even finish the job on extending health care.”

Moreover, experts such as Richard Haass of the Council on Foreign Relations have argued that refocusing on domestic priorities doesn’t mean the United States would abandon its international responsibilities, as the CFR president wrote in Time magazine. “My term for such a doctrine is restoration: a U.S. foreign policy based on restoring this country’s strength and replenishing its resources — economic, human and physical. Restoration is not isolationism,” he wrote. “Restoration is very different. The U.S. would continue to carry out an active foreign policy…. But under a doctrine of restoration, there would be fewer wars of choice — armed interventions when either the interests at stake are less than vital or when there are alternative policies that appear viable. Recent wars of choice include Vietnam, the second Iraq war and the current Libyan intervention. There would, however, continue to be wars of necessity, which involve vital interests when no alternatives to using military force exist.”

Others argue that the United States has to be wary about launching any military intervention, whether in Somalia, Haiti, Afghanistan or Iraq. “Different as these operations have been, they have all saddled the United States with the unwanted, protracted, expensive, and frustrating task of nation-building,” wrote Michael Mandelbaum in the Foreign Affairs article “America’s Coming Retrenchment,” citing three drawbacks to nation-building endeavors.

“First, it is not popular with the American people, who are willing to pay to defend themselves but not to govern others, or to help others govern themselves. Second, it has enjoyed modest success at best because neither the United States nor any other country knows how to create working, competent, democratic institutions quickly and cheaply. Third, however successful post-Cold War American nation-building has been, it has not contributed much to the well-being or security of the United States.

“Should Afghanistan be appreciably more peaceful and prosperous when American troops leave than it was when they arrived, it will certainly be of great benefit to the people of that country but it will do little for the people of the country from which the troops came,” Mandelbaum wrote, although like Haass, he too argues that paring down military adventures overseas “would still leave the United States with a major global role.”

Regardless of whether Obama is retrenching from or restoring American power, his predecessor’s all-encompassing view of counterterrorism required an incredible amount of resources that was hard to sustain politically, militarily and financially. Moreover, the question remains whether the strategy was commensurate with the actual threat — or did the Bush administration wield a bludgeon to defeat a shadowy, nimble group that may only number a few hundred hard-core fighters?

Perhaps more importantly, many experts surmised that the war on terrorism may even have been counterintuitive, damaging U.S. foreign policy interests as the United States became seen as an occupier in the Muslim world, imposing democracy at the barrel of a gun. Early on, Bush repeatedly stressed that America was not at war with Islam, a message Obama has sought to convey as well, although Obama’s counterterrorism strategy has more definitively honed in on al-Qaeda as the primary threat to U.S. security, not nation-states.

“I think what you’ve seen over time from the second term of the Bush administration and into the Obama administration is an increasingly focused approach on specific terrorism organizations and especially al-Qaeda,” Harvard University’s Walt said. “So the idea that the United States is going to go run around the world overthrowing governments and creating pro-American democracies as a way to deal with terrorism — that’s fallen out of favor. Instead, the United States is going to use its intelligence and military capabilities to eliminate as many bad guys as it can.”

Target: al-Qaeda

Whether guided by his belief of how to more effectively wage a counterterrorism campaign or simply adapting to current limitations, or some combination of the two, President Obama has redefined America’s approach to terrorism in the 10 years since 9/11, eschewing ground war and regime change for targeted assaults on a core group of enemies.

A good indication of what the Obama administration is thinking going forward can be found in the National Strategy for Counterterrorism that the White House quietly released in June. The document spells out this shift in focus from deploying large armies to “delivering targeted, surgical pressure to the groups that threaten us,” John O. Brennan, Obama’s top counterterrorism advisor, said in a discussion on the strategy at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.

In the president’s opening statement of the document, he notes that as we approach the 10th anniversary of 9/11, “it is a time to mark the progress we have made in our war against al-Qa’ida and to rededicate ourselves to meeting the challenges that remain” — writing that he specifically views those challenges as a “significant terrorist threat from al-Qa’ida, its affiliates, and its adherents.”

The document offers little new information but does cement Obama’s belief that the U.S. must target terrorists, not their mode of fighting. “The United States deliberately uses the word ‘war’ to describe our relentless campaign against al-Qa’ida. However, this Administration has made clear that we are not at war with the tactic of terrorism or the religion of Islam.”

While the term “war on terror” was immediately discarded by Obama, this document seems to show that he’s further winnowed down the counterterrorism emphasis toward exclusively thwarting al-Qaeda and its ability to launch attacks on U.S. soil from peripheral battlegrounds by using a “broad, sustained, and integrated campaign that harnesses every tool of American power — military, civilian, and the power of our values.” For example, it aims to chip away at al-Qaeda’s ideology by upholding core U.S. values and calls for “disrupting terrorist plots, measurably reducing the financial support available to the group, and inflicting significant leadership losses.”

“Our efforts in Afghanistan and Pakistan have destroyed much of al-Qa’ida’s leadership and weakened the organization substantially. Meanwhile, in recent years the source of the threat to the United States and its allies has shifted in part toward the periphery — to groups affiliated with but separate from the core of the group in Pakistan and Afghanistan,” the strategy says. “Therefore, this National Strategy for Counterterrorism maintains our focus on pressuring al-Qa’ida’s core while emphasizing the need to build foreign partnerships and capacity and to strengthen our resilience. At the same time, our strategy augments our focus on confronting the al-Qa’ida-linked threats that continue to emerge from beyond its core safehaven in South Asia.”

Perhaps most significantly, the unwritten centerpiece of Obama’s counterterrorism strategy is surgical strikes against high-level militants — attacks based on increased intelligence-gathering that are largely carried out by unmanned aerial drones. For better or worse, these remotely piloted drones have revolutionized warfare for years to come and, in a sense, outsourced the terrorism fight from man to machine.

Like the increased deployments of U.S. Special Forces teams to conduct highly targeted raids, the use of Predator drones against terrorists began under Bush but greatly expanded under Obama, who’s conducted more drone strikes in the past two years than were waged during Bush’s entire eight-year presidency. Obama has also reportedly authorized the drone program to operate in six countries — Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen — which is twice as many as Bush.

The U.S. government doesn’t comment on the classified CIA program, but the Long War Journal, which has tracked the drone strikes, estimates that nearly 2,000 insurgents in Pakistan’s tribal areas have been killed since 2006. Although drone attacks have taken out many top-level commanders, the program has come under increased criticism as a counterproductive copout. Some ethicists question the growing reliance on unmanned weaponry that puts no American lives at risk to kill foreigners — especially in countries that the United States is not technically at war with, as seen in Pakistan’s tribal areas.

Credit: U.S. Marine Corps Photo by LCpl. Robert R. Carrasco
A U.S. MQ-1 Predator unmanned aerial vehicle flies over Camp Dwyer in Afghanistan’s Helmand province.

America’s tactical successes with drones have also led to a global race with nations such as China eager to develop the technology for their own purposes. Beyond the moral implications of extrajudicial assassinations, drones sever America’s ability to potentially gain valuable intelligence from captured operatives.

Even former top officials have come out against the overreliance on drones, including retired Adm. Dennis C. Blair, who was Obama’s director of national intelligence until May 2010.

“Qaeda officials who are killed by drones will be replaced. The group’s structure will survive and it will still be able to inspire, finance and train individuals and teams to kill Americans,” Blair wrote in an Aug. 14 New York Times op-ed. “Moreover, as the drone campaign wears on, hatred of America is increasing in Pakistan. American officials may praise the precision of the drone attacks. But in Pakistan, news media accounts of heavy civilian casualties are widely believed. Our reliance on high-tech strikes that pose no risk to our soldiers is bitterly resented in a country that cannot duplicate such feats of warfare without cost to its own troops.”

And although the drones are considered highly accurate, their toll on civilians has been hotly disputed. Counterterrorism advisor Brennan said in June that for nearly a year, “there hasn’t been a single collateral death because of the exceptional proficiency, precision of the capabilities we’ve been able to develop” — a claim that many experts derided as highly unlikely. One recent investigation by the British Bureau of Investigative Journalism concluded that at least 45 civilians were killed in 10 strikes inside Pakistan’s tribal area over the last year.

Still, U.S. officials have clearly sought to minimize civilian casualties, and oftentimes the Pakistani government has been tacitly on board with the strikes. Moreover, unlike other weaponry, the drones and intelligence driving them have indeed been highly precise — and hugely successful — forcing al-Qaeda to scramble and hunker down in the face of a constant, invisible aerial onslaught that’s picked off its top leadership.

To that end, in perhaps the most dramatic moment in a decade-long fight for the United States that’s produced few clear-cut victories, Obama announced in a national address in May that he had overseen the killing of Osama bin Laden — in part by using the very “effective, coordinated intelligence” he called for back when he wasn’t commander in chief in his Chicago speech in 2002.

“I think it was a pretty gutsy call and it paid huge dividends and brought to justice a figure that we’ve been after for 10 years. So I think that’s a pretty positive reflection on Obama’s character and his courage to make a tough decision,” said David Barno, a retired Army lieutenant general who was the top commander of U.S. and coalition troops in Afghanistan from 2003 to 2005 and is now a senior advisor and fellow at the Center for a New American Security in D.C.

Politicians and pundits came together in a rare moment of bipartisan praise for the Obama administration and the U.S. military for hunting down the world’s most wanted man. Some have even speculated about whether the demise of al-Qaeda is now finally in sight. “U.S. counterterrorism officials are increasingly convinced that the killing of Osama bin Laden and the toll of seven years of CIA drone strikes have pushed al-­Qaeda to the brink of collapse,” wrote Greg Miller in the Washington Post.

Although the Pakistani-based organization may never be formally defeated, and offshoots such as its Yemini-based affiliate remain extremely dangerous, al-Qaeda’s power has clearly been weakened.

Counterterrorism Continuity

Obama has generally won plaudits for eroding al-Qaeda’s strength and killing its top-ranking leaders, but how much credit one administration deserves over the other remains a point of contention. After the initial elation over the bin Laden operation faded, subtle sniping between Republicans and Democrats erupted over how much of the intelligence initially used to track the 9/11 mastermind had been gathered under the previous administration.

Yet whether it’s thanks to hard work or sheer luck, the fact remains that since 9/11, under both the Bush and Obama administrations, al-Qaeda has not been able to carry out another catastrophic attack on U.S. soil. And in a much broader sense, the country’s national security apparatus has benefited immeasurably from the sheer experience of having been in combat for almost a decade, experts say.

U.S. Special Forces, for instance, racked up countless raids before the bin Laden mission. Barno pointed out that it was this know-how acquired by the Navy Seal Team Six having been at war for years in the region that allowed Obama to make his bold gambit to raid bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan. “Hands down, without question you now have the most capable Special Forces that the United States has ever had due to having done so many of these kinds of missions,” he said.

Barno and others contend that on the first day of Obama’s presidency, he basically inherited the same tools and challenges as Bush had, which is why there’s been an overall continuity between the two administrations’ approaches to counterterrorism that’s largely gone unnoticed.

“In practical terms, as far as I can tell, there is not two degrees of difference between what we are doing globally in terms of our counterterrorism enterprise today than what we were doing in 2008 or 2007,” Barno argued. “The labeling of it is different … the optics of it are different … the public international perception of it may be significantly different. But the realities of it are not.”

Yet one big reality is strikingly different: the state of the U.S. economy. Asked if he thought Obama has narrowed his counterterrorism ambitions because of economic constraints, Barno was careful to distinguish between the counterinsurgency efforts that have been under way for years in Afghanistan and Iraq and what the United States is doing to combat terrorism around the world. “Oftentimes there’s a conflation between the counterinsurgency effort in Afghanistan of 100,000 troops and counterterrorism worldwide,” Barno said. “Those are not the same efforts.”

Counterterrorism tactics and missions are an element of the counterinsurgency in Afghanistan that is winding down now, but the entirety of the U.S. counterterrorism strategy is much broader than that, and that larger effort is unabated from what it was a few years ago, he explained.

Barno said that drawing down troops in Afghanistan and Iraq may be due to financial pressures and a reassessment of what kind of counterinsurgency campaign the U.S. government wants to wage in those places, but it does not signal a major shift in the underlying counterterrorism fight.

“Yes, the counterinsurgency in Afghanistan that we’ve chosen to prosecute is extremely expensive. It’s $100 billion a year for us to put those troops there and we’re looking for other ways to accomplish those objectives. We’re starting to march down our troop strength there at the end of the summer. And so there is a small, or at least partially economic, component to that,” he said. “But I don’t think that’s what’s driving the counterterrorism fight into some new more surgical, cheaper direction.”

Walt of Harvard University, however, believes there is more of a cost-cutting component to the way Obama’s strategy has developed.

“I don’t think you want to underestimate the impact of the financial crisis because that has forced a number of people to say that our resources are not infinite and that we’re going to have to be smarter about this,” he told The Diplomat. “We can’t go after every conceivable bad guy who’s out there. We want to focus on the bad guys who are trying to attack the United States and we want to focus on al-Qaeda. And I think one manifestation of that has been the fact that we actually did finally get Osama bin Laden in part, I think, because the Obama people did put more time and resources into trying to do that.”

Barno says one reason why U.S. counterterrorism efforts have become more precise is because that is just what the commanders and intelligence officials have learned works best. And our armed forces have simply honed their skills over the last 10 years. He also emphasized that even if Obama has taken steps to reduce America’s presence in Afghanistan and Iraq, the resources that have been dedicated to targeting terrorism worldwide have not changed, either since Bush or during the course of Obama’s term.

“I think the counterterrorist fight is staying a constant in all of this,” he said, adding that the fight has been highly effective under both administrations. And cost, he said, is not as much of a factor in strict counterterrorism campaigns compared to what it takes to put down an insurgency. “It does not consume anything like those kinds of dollars and it operates in a very focused, precise, surgical way that’s integrated with intelligence and law enforcement all around the world. That’s going to remain steady and, more likely than not, it will actually grow in the coming years.”

Barno and Walt both pointed to the bang-for-your-buck success that can be achieved with drone strikes and Special Forces teams. But Walt went further than Barno in saying that Obama was deliberately choosing these methods to harness the same fighting power over the enemy because they are cheaper and “less politically visible.” Overall, given today’s economic realities, any realignment of a counterterrorism strategy would have to accomplish the task at hand while “avoiding costly, reputation-damaging wars,” he said.

“And so we see in the Obama administration an increased reliance on Special Forces, an increased reliance on drone strokes — that is, more strikes and in more places — as a way of aiming the power directly on the problem rather than seeing the goal as being a vast reorganization of whole societies as a way of dealing with the problem,” Walt explained. “We do now know how to run drones and do Special Forces raids. And, for the most part, that kind of activity is off of the headlines, it’s not on the front pages every day, it can happen sort of off there in the shadows,” he said. “So I’m not surprised Obama has found this as a tempting way to proceed. It is certainly a lot better than trying to invade and conquer countries that we don’t understand very well.”

Barno also points out that the expansion of the drone program under Obama is a natural progression because this “tool” has become markedly better in recent years.

“The sophistication and integration of the military and intelligence capabilities have grown immeasurably. Whereas five years ago even, the fidelity you could have in your intelligence to be able to create the confidence in the targets that are being presumably struck by the current drone program — that wasn’t there,” Barno said. “You simply didn’t have the intelligence networks. You didn’t have the granularity in your intelligence, the sophisticated system that you’ve got today.”

He added: “I think the reality is that there’s been a growing recognition that those strikes have been very effective in hitting the targets that they’ve been aimed at. So that I think contributes to the desire to use them.”

Barno noted that another seldom-recognized aspect of America’s counterterrorism work is that U.S. Special Forces are increasingly being used in training programs around the world to help the troops of other countries in their fight against insurgents and terrorists. That is part of a continuing strategy to help America’s adversaries boost their own strength, which in turn furthers our interests by easing the demands on U.S. forces.

“I think there’s a policy recognition that that’s not the best option for the United States,” Barno said of large deployments of U.S. soldiers overseas. “It embroils us in long-term conflicts with a lot of troops and a lot of expense and a lot of American lives lost at the end of the day. And there’s some lessons learned from the last 10 years that we’re going to try to use to steer us in a different direction for the next 10 years.

“And one way you’re going to do that is through early pre-emption and through the use of special ops forces and the use of intelligence and the use of other countries’ military intelligence capabilities and a lot of collaborative efforts with them — to get at these things at the front end before they grow into these large fights.”

About the Authors

Luke Jerod Kummer is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.
Anna Gawel is managing editor of The Washington Diplomat.