Obama backs off drone strikes

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President Obama is relying less on drones and more on foreign governments in the global fight against terrorists.

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The shift, which also includes fewer unilateral special operations raids of the type that killed Osama bin Laden, is prompting criticism that Washington depends on unstable governments such as in Nigeria, where Boko Haram, an extremist group, has emerged as a new threat.

The Pentagon has hiked its budget for “Section 1206” counterterrorism programs to train and equip foreign militaries from $218.6 million in 2012 to a requested $290.2 million in 2014, according to a recent Congressional Research Service report.

Its budget for “Section 1208” counterterrorism programs, which train and equip foreign militaries and also include more specific operational activities, is classified, but defense officials say that while the amount has stayed stable, money has shifted from Afghanistan to North Africa and the Middle East.

The administration zealously used drones at the beginning of Obama’s term, a strategy that angered partner governments and drew criticism from both the left and the right.

The scrutiny led the president to announce last spring that the U.S. would be more tempered in its use of unmanned airstrikes against terrorists.

The administration provides no statistics on these attacks, but the nonprofit organization The Long War Journal found the number in Yemen fell from 41 in 2012 to 26 in 2013. In Pakistan, the number dropped from an estimated 117 in 2010 to 28 in 2013.

The White House formally rejects the idea that the government is relying more on foreign governments in the war on terrorism.

But in a speech at the National Defense University in Washington last May where Obama laid out his plans on fighting terrorism, the president spoke of the need to work with other nations.

“Beyond Afghanistan, we must define our effort not as a boundless ‘global war on terror’ but rather as a series of persistent, targeted efforts to dismantle specific networks of violent extremists that threaten America,” Obama said. “In many cases, this will involve partnerships with other countries. Much of our best counter-terrorism cooperation results in the gathering and sharing of intelligence and the arrest and prosecution of terrorists.”

Critics say the limits of the strategy can be seen around the world.

“That makes sense where there’s capability, but there’s no substitute for American counterterrorism expertise,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) told The Hill.

For example, the U.S. has been relying heavily on Yemen’s military to go after al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which experts and officials say poses the greatest threat to the U.S. homeland of all al Qaeda affiliates.

Yet in a video obtained and aired last month by CNN, hundreds of al Qaeda militants were seen gathering in the open in Yemen, prompting the U.S. to react with drone strikes and forcing the Yemeni military to undertake a massive military campaign.

“In Yemen, our partner has been overall ineffective in really going after Al Qaeda there,” said Katherine Zimmerman, senior analyst at the American Enterprise Institute. “Honestly I think that we don’t need to implement a boots-on-the-ground strategy but we need to be very clear about what our partners are able to do and what they are not able to do.”

To address the growing al Qaeda threat in Syria, the U.S. has trained small numbers of vetted moderate opposition forces and provided small amounts of military aid, as well as supplied its neighbor Iraq with surveillance drones and hellfire missiles, but that has not stopped eastern Syria and western Iraq from becoming al Qaeda’s largest safe haven, with foreign fighters flocking to the region in numbers beyond that of Afghanistan in the 1980s.

The U.S. has been training the Afghan military and local forces to take on the fight against the Taliban and al Qaeda after 2014, but a new report from the International Crisis Group said that insurgent violence was increasing and U.S. forces need to stay in the country longer.

The U.S. is also trying to train militias in Libya, but is finding it difficult to identify suitable forces, according to sources.

Defenders of the strategy say a war-weary public supports a less direct strategy because voters don’t want the U.S. intervening in countries all over the world.

“It’s a lot smarter than our previous strategy of ‘Let’s pursue regime change across the Middle East,’ ” said Clinton Watts, a senior fellow at George Washington University’s Homeland Security Policy Institute.

Special operations raids are still undertaken, with the last known ones conducted by Special Forces and SEALs on the same day in Libya and Somalia last October.

However, these are rare, said Daniel R. Green, al Qaeda expert and defense fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

“It’s increasingly about coaching, training and mentoring other nations’ forces, and assisting them with intelligence, airlift and logistics,” he said.

To implement this strategy, the U.S. will continue to rely on its global network of signals and geospatial intelligence gathering that includes snooping on phone calls, human moles and tracking locations from spy satellites and drones, which will help partner militaries better fight al Qaeda.

The Pentagon is planning to expand its intelligence assets and the number of special operations forces over the next several years, which could help yield better results in the future.

Critics worry that al Qaeda groups that don’t seem like they post an immediate threat to the U.S. will only grow if they’re not cut off now.

Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula was once a regional terrorist group, but has tried to attack the U.S. several times in the last five years.

Syria is producing a number of foreign fighters that have many Western government agents concerned they will cause trouble when they return home.

“You also can’t anticipate the point at which these movements are going to come back to haunt or react,” said Anthony Cordesman, an analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. 

Julian Hattem contributed to this story.