Foreign and Defense Policy, Terrorism

Fighting terrorists does not equal fighting terrorism

Image Credit: REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

Image Credit: REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

As he welcomed his cabinet in 2009, Obama promised that “transparency…would be the touchstone of [his] Presidency.” That was then, this is now. With the appointment of drone warfare advocate John Brennan, Obama has wholeheartedly embraced the quieter, less transparent tools of American foreign policy.  Even at a time of fiscal restraint, he has authorized the expansion of and increased powers for the Special Operations Command as well as for increased investments in the nation’s ability to collect intelligence and to monitor its enemies. Obama is cutting the conventional military forces that have been the hallmark of America’s rise to superpower status at the expense of the elements that comprise the Obama Way of War — drones, “cyber” and man-hunting Special Operations Forces. Yet it is not clear how these tools will be used or if they will help the US address the core causes of terrorism.

Brennan’s nomination yesterday to head CIA was largely overlooked amidst the uproar over Hagel. An Obama loyalist who was the first to openly argue for the legality and morality of a drone-driven counter-terrorism strategy, Brennan is a career CIA agent who, according to a Washington Post profile, “has not had a disagreement” with Obama. That resonance implicitly aligns with Obama’s surgical approach to counter-terrorism. Though conventional forces are facing reductions in active duty troop numbers in all of the services, the US Special Operations Command will add 3,350 service members and civilians in FY 2013. The administration apparently views Special Forces and CIA-driven operations as the key to eliminating enemies of the United States. But killing terrorists is not in itself enough to eradicate terrorism. Drones and night raids do nothing to address the systematic issues that fuel extremist groups.

Over the past ten years, US Special Operations forces have been increasingly used as elite hunting machines that track down and eliminate terrorists. Yet this isn’t the only—or even the most powerful—use of these forces. Although the ‘direct approach’ of the SEALS and Delta Force garner most of the media attention, the ‘indirect approach’ of the Green Berets and psychological operations units, who engage directly with the communities that terrorists exploit, are much more useful for deciphering and addressing the core issues that promulgate sympathy to extremism.

In her recent testimony before the HASC subcommittee on Emerging Threats and Capabilities, CFR Adjunct Senior Fellow Linda Robinson argues convincingly that the aspects of SOF that use ‘indirect’ methods need more reform and urgent attention than those that use ‘direct’ methods.  She also points out the important link between ‘indirect’ efforts and those of conventional forces. By decreasing the size of our conventional forces and not re-invigorating ‘indirect’ SOF efforts, we risk focusing on the elimination of individuals rather than on eradicating the factors that breed them.

3 thoughts on “Fighting terrorists does not equal fighting terrorism

  1. This indirect stuff is known to be a failure. Saudi Arabia is the largest backer of terrorists, as exemplified by the 9/11 attacks. Despite what should be huge, long term leverage with Arabia and other Moslem countries, the USA has clearly failed to make even a dent it their support for people who openly announce that they hate Americans and intend to kill us.

    Nation-building is a demonstrable failure, and foreigners hate us more for our interference in their governments than they love us for the free medical treatment.

    On the other hand, demonstrating that the USA can kill virtually any individual terrorist we choose at a distance from any battlefield while that individual is not engaged in any heroic exploit that might be construed as “martyrdom” should convince lesser terrorists to think twice about how committed they want to be to a cause where they can be killed in bed without ever even seeing an American.

    As the T-shirts say, “You mess with the best, you die like the rest.” It’s just that now we don’t have to put troops on the ground to arrange the dying part.

  2. Wow. Wow. Vinnie, you really seem to have it all figured out! I agree with you on one point: it would be “simple” if the infinite world of human experiences and conflicts could be boiled down to who shoots better. That’s an action movie fantasy, but I agree it would be simple.
    / /
    Phillip, this is an excellent piece and you masterfully capture the nuance of engagement while acknowledging the requirement for kinetics. Balance is the only way to long-term success. I’ll share this through the blog at
    PowerfulPeace.net. Thank you.

  3. I sense the fear of terrorism is overblown, by about 10000-to-1.

    About 35,000 Americans die every year in auto accidents. Another 30,000 by plain-vanilla gunshots.

    Since 9/11. about 650,000 Americans dead by these two causes.

    Since 9/11 dead by terrorism: 3,000.

    Imagine the hysteria, the panic, the security apparatus if the US Government could scare the citizens with figures like that 650,000, pertaining to terrorism.

    Terrorism is just a heinous PR stunt. By reacting to terrorism, you are letting the terrorist “win.”

    The Global War on Terror, like the War on Poverty and the War on Drugs, is designed to last forever and take money from your wallet and put into agency budgets and their contractors.

    We have created, through taxes taken from productive citizens, a anti-terrorism industry. It will become, like all federal undertakings, a permanent parasite on taxpayers.

    It is astonishing to see AEI buy into this.

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