The Obama Administration recently made public the new “National Strategy for Counterterrorism.” If you didn’t notice (and missed Phil’s earlier post referencing the strategy and Brennan’s public roll-out ), no worries, as little has changed since the last such strategy was released by the former Administration.
There are differences between the plans, however they reflect different viewpoints of the same problem set, namely the threat posed by one specific terrorist group: Al Qaeda. The Obama Administration’s strategy is crystal clear about the focus:
This Strategy recognizes there are numerous nations and groups that support terrorism to oppose U.S. interests, including Iran, Syria, Hezbollah and HAMAS, and we will use the full range of our foreign policy tools to protect the United States against these threats.
However, the principal focus of this counterterrorism strategy is the network that poses the most direct and significant threat to the United States—al-Qa’ida, its affiliates and its adherents.
The focus begins to widen when a definition of the enemy is offered:
- Al-Qa’ida has murdered thousands of our citizens, including on 9/11.
- Al-Qa’ida affiliates—groups that have aligned with al-Qa’ida—have attempted to attack us, such as Yemen-based al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula’s (AQAP) failed attempt to bomb a Detroit-bound airliner on December 25, 2009.
- Al-Qa’ida adherents—individuals, sometimes American citizens, who cooperate with or are inspired by al-Qa’ida—have engaged in terrorism, including the tragic slaughter of our service members at Fort Hood in 2009.
If one only has to be “inspired” by the ideology to be considered part of the war, is there any possible end in sight for the war against Al-Qa’ida? New Defense Secretary Leon Panetta seems to think so:
The United States is “within reach” of defeating al-Qaeda and is targeting 10 to 20 leaders who are key to the terrorist network’s survival, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said on Saturday during his first trip to Afghanistan since taking charge at the Pentagon.
“Now is the moment, following what happened with bin Laden, to put maximum pressure on them, because I do believe that if we continue this effort that we can really cripple al-Qaeda as a threat to this country,” he told reporters on his plane en route to Afghanistan.
“I’m convinced,” he added, “that we’re within reach of strategically defeating al-Qaeda.”
Bruce Hoffman disagrees, and if he is correct, the U.S. may be in a war with “affiliates” and “adherents” for quite some time:
“Al-Qaeda’s obituary has been written countless times over the past decade,” said Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism expert and professor of security studies at Georgetown University. “Each iteration has proved to be ephemeral, as the moment has continually shown itself to have a deeper bench than we imagine.”
“While it is certainly true that al-Qaeda’s leadership has been significantly eroded over the past two years, there is no empirical evidence that either the appeal of its message or the flow of its recruits has actually diminished,” Hoffman added.
The Bush Administration’s last “National Strategy for Combating Terrorism” also focused on Al Qaeda:
Our strategy involved destroying the larger al-Qaida network and also confronting the radical ideology that inspired others to join or support the terrorist movement. Since 9/11, we have made substantial progress in degrading the al–Qaida network, killing or capturing key lieutenants, eliminating safehavens, and disrupting existing lines of support. Through the freedom agenda, we also have promoted the best long-term answer to al–Qaida’s agenda: the freedom and dignity that comes when human liberty is protected by effective democratic institutions.
However, it laid out U.S. counterterror efforts in a more general (almost strategic) framework as opposed to the regional focus of the Obama strategy:
As laid out in this strategy, to win the War on Terror, we will:
- Advance effective democracies as the long–term antidote to the ideology of terrorism;
- Prevent attacks by terrorist networks;
- Deny terrorists the support and sanctuary of rogue states;
- Deny terrorists control of any nation they would use as a base and launching pad for terror; and
- Lay the foundations and build the institutions and structures we need to carry the fight forward against terror and help ensure our ultimate success.
On the surface, it would seem that the new strategy is a significant departure from what came before. Yet both focused almost entirely on Al-Qa’ida, and except for the Bush Strategy’s efforts attempting to assert the primacy of the Iraq war in the Global War on Terrorism, most of the same tools and tactics are on display: concerns about WMD; eliminating safehavens; the importance of international partnerships; countering Al-Qa’da ideology; etc.
Same wine, different bottles?