Experts, scholars and some members of Congress have called for the Obama administration to reevaluate its approach to combating terrorism. Ever since the Sept. 11 attacks, the United States has been in a perpetual war against terror. With a new chapter unfolding in Iraq and Syria, and recent events subsumed within these new operations, it is imperative that a new framework be designed in order to avoid mistakes made previously and to properly address the current threat faced.
For starters, the administration has relied on suspect legal footing for its new operations against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). While rightly criticized, the administration's legal rationale appears to narrowly pass constitutional and statutory muster among top legal scholars and commentators. However, such scholars and even the president himself stress the importance of a new authorization for Operation Inherent Resolve as "we are strongest as a nation when the [p]resident and Congress work together," President Obama orated in front of the nation in early September.
One of the key criticisms of the Obama approach in combating terrorism, especially al Qaeda, is that the administration does not fully understand the organization, which hinders or blinds efforts to thwart them. Thomas Joscelyn, senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, referenced at a House subcommittee hearing last spring the administration's approach to what is referred to as leadership decapitation. "I think the administration has had success in taking out certain key senior al Qaeda leaders. ... I think the problem, again, is I think both [the Obama and Bush] administrations early on made the same mistake, which is, they define al Qaeda as this sort of this top-down pyramid with a hierarchical structure, that if you sort of lop off the top of the pyramid, the whole thing crumbles," stated Joscelyn, who added that al Qaeda does not organize this way. This strategy has been the core of the Obama administration's counterterrorism policy, which, through the use of drones, high-value targets of al Qaeda are targeted to 1) wipe them off the battlefield, nullifying their threat; and 2) attempt to disrupt al Qaeda's leadership. As has been demonstrated throughout the 13-year War on Terror, such a strategy has only yielded tactical gains. Al Qaeda and its affiliates remain resilient, as they are able to replace fallen leaders relatively quickly.
In terms of the new offensive in Iraq and Syria, the administration and potential congressional authority must address the distinction between counterterror and war. The president has described Operation Inherent Resolve from the beginning as a counterterrorism operation vis a vis Somalia and Yemen — not a new war. However, the air campaign has strayed from the sole decapitation strategy to strikes targeting command and control facilities as well as oil fields ISIS controls in order to cripple its military and financial capabilities. This strategy has not been widely used in Yemen, Somalia or Pakistan against terrorist groups, as the administration has simply targeted specific individuals. While semantics may seem like nitpicking, it is important in terms of defining a path for the future.
The administration must also be mindful of not following the route of its NATO ally, Turkey, in trying to defeat ISIS at all costs. Turkey has been accused of not enforcing their borders and allowing certain terrorist groups to move freely in the name of defeating the Bashar Assad regime, their main objective in Syria. The United States has provided assistance to besieged Kurds in Syria, who are fighting ISIS along with their ally, the Turkish Kurdistan Worker's Party (PKK), which was designated by the U.S. State Department as a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) in 1997. The U.S. acknowledged its arms are likely going to the PKK, which has aided in defending the Syrian town of Kobane. The U.S. demeanor toward the PKK is best summed up by Hannah Allam of McClatchy's Washington bureau: "Thanks for the help, but you're staying on the [terrorist] list." This two-way street undermines the FTO designation and further contributes to diplomatic woes with Turkey.
Back to Joscelyn's point of mischaracterizing terrorist organizations. U.S. Central Command seems to be either inadvertently or blatantly mischaracterizing certain terrorist cells in Syria for various reasons. Reports last week stated that the United States hit the Khorasan Group for the first time since it first approved air strikes inside Syria in September. The Khorasan Group is believed to be a small cell of senior al Qaeda members tucked within Jabhat al-Nusra, al Qaeda's official Syrian branch, who are exploiting the security vacuum and focusing on external operations — or operations aimed at harming the West. However, Army Gen. Lloyd Austin, commander of U.S. Central Command, flat-out denied that the strikes hit the Nusra Front when asked point blank by CNN's Jake Tapper at the Atlantic Council last week, although he did acknowledge that U.S. strikes hit the Khorasan Group. In addition to targeting the Khorasan Group, the U.S. also hit a group called Ahrar al-Sham, a Syrian rebel faction thought to have very close ties to the Nusra Front and thought to be one of the more extreme rebel groups. Ahrar al-Sham is not designated a terrorist group by the U.S. government and it has not overtly pledged allegiance to al Qaeda, meaning the strikes might run the risk of escalating the Syrian offensive beyond domestic legal authority (unless the U.S. government was targeting specific members known to be affiliated with al Qaeda) as well as alienating other key rebel groups. Such ambiguity is reason enough to define and clarify the conflict. The administration's confusing determination that ISIS — despite its public split from al Qaeda — is the inheritor of Osama bin Laden's group and message must also be reevaluated.
The administration must not lose sight of its objectives as President Obama announced the increase in troop levels in Iraq to train more Iraqi soldiers. The Afghanistan War is coming to a close at the end of this year and with it, myriad lessons for the future. With several pundits offering their advice as to how to avoid the mistakes of the previous 13 years combating terrorism, the U.S. should not allow itself to get dragged into another major conflict, relying on the same outdated statutory authority or incorrect terrorism assessments. It is imperative that Congress acts as soon as possible — yes, even during the lame-duck session — to adhere to the president's request in authorizing force in Iraq and Syria, of which there are several proposals already introduced. In addition, the U.S. counterterrorism apparatus must reexamine its approach and adapt to the threat beyond Syria, which is much different than when the U.S. first set out to overtly fight extremism 13 years ago. Clearly, the current model is unsustainable.
Pomerleau is a freelance journalist based in Washington covering politics and policy. Follow him @MpoM24.