Sunday, 2 June 2013

A few thoughts on Obama's terrorism speech

United States President Barack Obama’s recent talk about disengaging from the 12-year war on terror is ruffling a few feathers. His sentiment seems to be well-placed, as is his desire to increase peace throughout the worlds. After all, if the power to limit death and destruction is in your hands, then that is the moral thing to do. And it is no secret that America has had a lot to do with the current state of semi-anarchy in many places around the globe.

But as Charles Krauthammer at the Washington Post points out, ending a war takes two to tango. One side can’t simply declare hostilities arbitrarily concluded while the other side continues to fight and even rearms to prepare for new offensives. The idea that Islamic militancy can be assuaged by holding a press conference is not exactly what’s on Mr Obama’s mind. The problem with his thinking comes from believing that because a war has continued for so long, then it must be time to end it. Results be damned.
President Barack Obama - (Doug Mills, NYT)

But wars end when strategic objectives are reached, never before and never just because “it’s time” to do so. After 9/11 the immediate strategic objectives were to crush Al Qaeda’s core in Afghanistan and ensure America could not be attacked so devastatingly again. The first objective was reached within a few months. The remaining Al Qaeda members lost their communication network, their operational capabilities, and funding all at the same time.

The second objective has proven more amorphous. The problem comes because there really won’t be a time in the future where the United States can announce complete and utter security against all types of aggression. Amending laws or sending troops overseas will always be a part of civilised life if the goal is greater protection.

Americans are rightly worried about their freedoms in this new world, but the balance between security and freedom is constantly changing and the conversation will carry on for years. Mr Obama’s talk indicated a willingness to revise some of the more unpalatable security laws passed in the fearful days of the early 21st century, and he should be commended for this. Some of those laws have led to an uncomfortable amount of snooping and invasions of privacy. Mr Obama recognises a coming digital world ready to mature with some rules, and old-fashioned ideas and techniques of spying will need to be rethought as America’s war winds down.

After all, the decade-long war really is winding down. It is entirely understandable that America wishes to disengage from the world. They have spent trillions on two poorly thought-out wars and the time is coming to control this trajectory. The United States homeland needs more attention, as the recent bridge collapse plastered all over world media points out. American infrastructure is in poor shape and their economy, while still the world’s largest, probably needs a good kick to fire back into life.

But the United States has a responsibility in the world that deserves recognition. They might not like it, but there are hundreds of countries which rely directly on American military power for protection. Of course, this reliance was not always requested by the host country. American troops were simply stationed there without debate or fought wars in places they never left.

Yet as US military and political attention focuses elsewhere, countries which until recently could defer their defence needs to an amiable American superpower seem to be panic-buying their own military technology to compensate for the sucking vacuum.

For instance, France, while no stranger to wars in Africa, plan to use their recent intervention in Mali as a template for future tensions where its national interests need protection. Paris issued a defence white paper recently specifically pointing out how its military will need more attention and can’t expect American intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) to be there in the next conflict. For a European country, which is also part of NATO, to be considering increasing its military budget should be viewed as a good thing.

But France has a history, just like the United States, of intervening in countries without cleaning up afterwards. This has led to simmering militancy in Algeria and elsewhere which in part created the problem of militancy in Mali in the first place. Does Washington think increasing French military involvement in Africa is a good thing? Paris certainly does.

US Special Forces train the AFP (Armed Forces of the Philippines)
and take part in counter-insurgency operations.
And the spread of Al Qaeda as a brand is inexorable. Nodes have sprung up all over the world where state control is impotent. The Al Qaeda franchises are certainly evolving the original doctrine formulated by Osama bin Laden and associates to reflect the current battlefield, but the central tenant of a long struggle against the West remains. Most of these groups don’t have the operational capabilities to strike internationally in Western nations, but give them time. If the Americans choose to rely on drones, Special Forces, and intelligence officers to break apart these groups, instead of boots-on-the ground, then Washington will have to be satisfied with the likely mediocre results.

Firstly, this approach will not have the desired effect of decisively removing militant threats. A few well-placed missiles and targeted raids will remove high-profile fighters, but they will not defeat the movement as an ideology. It’s not entirely clear that a more overt military presence in a troubled country will be the answer either, because US experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan were not perfect examples of employing the benefits of hard power correctly. In those theatres, the planning and execution of military strategy was poorly conceived and plenty of lessons were learned. But the Obama administration’s knee-jerk response of never trying this strategy again, just because it “failed” previously, is in many ways throwing the baby out with the bath water.

Secondly, not using American troops to complete tasks aligned with American interests, and relying on indigenous forces instead, is a worrying trend for global stability. Without US forces doing the dirty work, local troops are being brought in to walk the streets and conduct raids. Few local troops in equatorial Africa, South East Asia, or the Middle East are suitably equipped to do these jobs in the first place. So Washington always needs to deliver weapons. Each time the United States sends weapons or trainers just so the troops can function, the unintended consequences multiply.

There’s no telling what those troops will do with their guns and new skills once the temporary oversight from Washington disappears. Washington doesn’t usually hang around too long after their strategic interests shift. And history is full of young men and ambitious generals falling for the temptations of power. Arming foreign troops to do the work America is either too sensitive or too unwilling to finish will spread weapons and power in ways chaos theory can only begin to explain.

In 50 years from now, or even by the next American election cycle, it shouldn’t surprise many people if the United States has to jump back into a burning mess of fighting to fix what they very easily could have prevented years ago by staying engaged in the first place.

So while it’s a nice idea, and an important idea, for US President Barack Obama to withdraw American military presence, hopefully he doesn’t pull it too far. Without Washington willing to help secure parts of the world’s most dangerous areas, countries like Syria are approaching Iran and Russia to dig them out of the mud.

Is Washington happy to let Moscow and Tehran reinforce their clutches over the Middle East’s most despotic regimes? Or will covert assistance be enough, even while Russian military hardware shows up in high definition on the TV screens of similarly stricken despotic leaders around the globe?


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