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A Critique of the Obama Administration’s Approach to Counterterrorism, as Outlined in the 2015 National Security Strategy
The United States has been engaged in a self-declared War on Terror in the fifteen years since 9/11, and as such, it is clear that terrorism poses a clear challenge to our notion of National Security. Furthermore, it is increasingly evident with the rise of large movements like ISIS, that merely defeating individual terror groups such as Al Qaeda will not eliminate the threat posed by extreme political violence. New groups, with similar grievances and agendas, have been proven to spring up and continue the fight wherever the opportunity presents itself. New ways of thinking must guide an evolving counterterror policy, lest we find ourselves perpetually threatened by extremism. The Obama Administration’s 2015 National Security Strategy dedicates an entire chapter to the United States’ counterterrorism policy, in which it broadly highlights the shift away from costly, large-scale ground wars and occupations towards more targeted counterterrorism operations, and preventing the growth of violent extremism by supporting greater economic opportunities for “women and disaffected youth”[i]. These are certainly idealistic aims in theory. In practice, however, the effectiveness of such strategies has proven questionable at best.
The idea of promoting economic opportunity has long been touted in the popular narrative for deterring terrorism, and for good reason. The idea that terrorism is born out of economic desperation, propagated throughout the 2015 National Security Strategy, is not only a easy concept for the general public to grasp, but it also serves the United States’ neoliberal economic agenda for international growth. There is very little evidence, however, that promoting economic opportunity in the traditional positive-sum growth model actually has any measurable impact on reducing terrorism.
In a working paper titled Education, Poverty, Political Violence and Terrorism: Is There a Causal Connection? Princeton University experts with the National Bureau of Economic Research determined that there existed no real link between poverty and terrorism[ii]. In fact, this 2002 study, which has been reproduced numerous times with similar findings, actually purports that terrorists were more commonly associated with higher incomes and better educations. The National Security Strategy may find more success in countering terrorism by promoting a more equitable world economic system, however this policy would otherwise contradict longstanding US core trade principles.
The concept of women’s empowerment as a counterterror approach, as is presented in the National Security Strategy, is definitely more interesting from an academic perspective. In 2009, Major Leigh C. Matanov of the Air Command and Staff College published a report titled Combating Terrorism via the Womb: Empowering Iraqi Women which suggested that economically empowering Iraqi women could win their political support and result in their raising a generation of men less willing to conduct terrorism or participate in insurgency[iii]. A similar long-term sentiment is echoed in the US Army Counterinsurgency Field Manual FM 3-24, written by General David Patraeus, which states how “in traditional societies, women are hugely influential informing the social networks that insurgents use for support. When women support counterinsurgency efforts, families support counterinsurgency efforts. Getting the support of families is a big step toward mobilizing the local populace against the insurgency. Co-opting neutral or friendly women through targeted social and economic programs builds networks of enlightened self-interest that eventually undermine insurgents”[iv].
Unfortunately, there is inconclusive hard evidence as to the effectiveness of the gendered approach touted by the National Security Strategy. For example, one Georgetown University study conducted by Emily Becker, titled Women and Terrorism: How Does the Treatment of Women Affect Rates of Terrorism concluded that greater female empowerment, as measured by labor force participation and fertility rates in the areas studied, was actually correlated with increased instances of terrorist violence[v]. As promising as gender relations may seem to deciphering the mystery of terrorism, they hardly compare to the greater political ramifications of, say, ethno-national relations, which aren’t featured anywhere in the counterterrorism section of the National Security Strategy.
The Obama Administration’s strong and consistent rebuke of large-scale ground wars and military occupations offers a much more promising approach to dealing with terrorist threats. While the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, launched in the wake of 9/11, achieved a good deal of tactical success in eliminating senior Al Qaeda leadership, ultimately they may have fostered increased militant radicalization and resentment towards the United States throughout the Middle East and the Muslim world. This may have been Al Qaeda’s strategy from the onset. MIT researchers Andrew H. Kydd and Barbara F. Walter postulate in The Strategies of Terrorism that due to the generally poor rate of coercive success in the use of violent attacks on civilians, terrorists instead seek to provoke overwhelming military responses from their target states in order to radicalize moderates into their camp[vi]. Additionally, terrorism expert Robert Pape stressed in his article It’s the Occupation, Stupid that foreign military occupations, such as those imposed on Iraq and Afghanistan in the aftermath of 9/11, constitute a root cause for suicide terrorism[vii]. Louise Richardson echoes these claims his chapter What the Terrorists Want in our textbook.[viii] Taken together, these ideas can prove to be a useful lens in exploring the flawed logic of the War on Terror, and we should credit the Obama Administration for moving away from these tactics in their more recent National Security Strategy.
Moving away from counterproductive military interventions certainly sounds good on paper, however in practice, there is less of a consensus on how best to achieve strategic counterterror success without overwhelming force. The Obama Administration proposes “targeted counterterrorism operations” as a viable such alternative, but gives very little insight as to what this might mean. Taking a step back from the National Security Strategy and examining our counterterror efforts in the real world, we might notice a vastly increased use of drones, air strikes, and special operations forces. Initially, these may seem like much cheaper and favorable alternatives to costly invasions. The political costs of these endeavors may be a bit harder to quantify, however.
The Huffington Post reported in 2015 that “Nearly 90% of people killed in recent drone strikes were not the target”, which poses very grave concerns over the potential for collateral damage in these allegedly targeted, precise operations[ix]. Collateral damage at these rates can seriously undermine US counterterror efforts, as outlined by Princeton University experts Luke Condra and Jacob Shapiro in their 2012 article Who Takes the Blame? The Strategic Effects of Collateral Damage. The findings of this research conclude that high levels of collateral damage resulted in higher levels of terrorist violence in the areas studied[x]. Potentially contradicting this reasoning, however, is research published at Oxford University titled The Impact of US Drone Strike on Terrorism in Pakistan, which found that drone strikes were actually correlated with a decreased incidence of terrorist violence, although this study did not account for the impact of collateral damage, nor did it gauge fluctuations in terrorist recruitment for later attacks[xi]. Nonetheless, these findings do call into question the long-term effectiveness of the Obama Administration’s targeted approach to counterterrorism.
While the counterterror approach outlined in the 2015 National Security Strategy certainly marks a progressive shift in the right direction, away from the inherently counterproductive policies of the Bush Administration, it does leave many questions unanswered as to its real effectiveness. The push for global economic growth and women’s empowerment, for example, are certainly admirable liberal aims, yet they seem to lack any empirical relevance to counterterror policy. The Administration’s move away from large military interventions does show more promise for counterterror success, but only if other appropriate policy instruments are employed in their absence. The jury is still out on the use of drone strikes, however, and as such, the Administration ought to proceed with more caution with regard to their potential for collateral damage and civilian casualties. Terrorism will pose a threat to US National Security for years to come, and as an evolving and complex phenomenon, the government must constantly find ways to adapt and counter this threat. The policy outlined in the 2015 National Security Strategy is simply inadequate for dealing with it.
[ii] Krueger, Alan B. and Jitka Maleckova. "Education, Poverty And Terrorism: Is There A Causal Connection?," Journal of Economic Perspectives, 2003, v17(4,Fall), 119-144.
[iii] Matanov, Leigh C., Maj. Combating Terrorism via the Womb: Empowering Iraqi Women. Air Commanyd and Staff College Air University, Apr. 2009. Web.
[iv] "Counterinsurgency FM 3-24." (n.d.): n. pag. Army.mil. Headquarters Department of the Army, Dec. 2006. Web.
[v] Becker, Emily. Women and Terrorism: How Does the Treatment of Women Affect Rates of Terrorism? Thesis. Georgetown University, 2010. N.p.: n.p., n.d. Print.
[vi] Kydd, Andrew H., and Barbara F. Walter. “The Strategies of Terrorism”. International Security 31.1 (2006): 49–80. Web.
[vii] Pape, Robert A. "It’s the Occupation, Stupid." ForeignPolicy.com. N.p., 18 Oct. 2010. Web. 04 Mar. 2016.
[viii] Art, Robert J., and Kelly M. Greenhill, eds. The Use of Force: Military Power and International Politics. 8th ed. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2015. Print.
[ix] Fang, Marina. "Nearly 90 Percent Of People Killed In Recent Drone Strikes Were Not The Target." The Huffington Post, 15 Oct. 2015. Web. 4 Mar. 2016.
[x] Shapiro, Jacob N., and Luke Condra. Who Takes the Blame? The Strategic Effects of Collateral Damage. American Journal of Political Science 56(1), 167-187, 2012. Web.
[xi] Johnston, Patrick B., and Anoop K. Sarbahi. "The Impact of US Drone Strikes on Terrorism in Pakistan." International Studies Quarterly (2016): n. pag. Web.