Is the War Model of Counterterrorism a Failure? A Response to Micah Zenko
In a scathing New York Times op-ed today, Micah Zenko lays into the Trump administration both for maintaining the “counterproductive” and “immoral” counterterrorism policies of its predecessors (particularly those involving the use of military force), and for making the situation worse for noncombatants. It is a passionate argument, and deserves serious attention. But does it hold water?
It seems to me that the answer to that question depends on what one makes of the many distinct claims Micah makes in the piece. Below, I pull out eight distinct points, each of which seems to me to be important in their own right. I find some persuasive, others not. In the end, I don’t think the overall case is made,. But I sure benefitted from thinking these thing through, and hope you will as well. Read his full op-ed, then read on to see what I made of some of the key points.
1. “There is little clarity about whom the United States is really at war with.”
This is clearly true in some respects, but not others.
To a large extent, it is perfectly clear with whom the United States is at war. The United States for sixteen years and counting has claimed to be engaged in armed conflict against the original al Qaeda network and the Afghan Taliban, and in more recent years has claimed the same as to the Islamic State. In addition, the United States has for most of that period claimed to be in an armed conflict with various other organized armed groups—such as the Haqqani Network—that are actively engaging in violence against U.S., Afghan, and other coalition forces in Afghanistan. Further, it has been very clear for many years that we claim the armed conflict with al Qaeda extends to AQAP in Yemen.
On the other hand, it also is clear that there are edge cases among the many groups and individuals that have varying degrees of connection to the aforementioned groups, and that it is not always clear to the public (or perhaps even to Congress) which of these groups our government believes at a given moment in time have come within the scope of the conflict (some of us have argued for legislation to compel more transparency on this point, in fact).
This suggests that this particular criticism is overstated, though if framed in a less sweeping way it points to a genuine concern.
2. Terrorist groups are proliferating
The op-ed observes that the “the number of foreign terrorist groups has grown from 28 in 2002, to 44 in 2009, to 61 today.” The implication is that our policy is failing. But it does not seem to me that one can leap from these numbers to that conclusion. There are so many complications that bear on the question. To what extent do these numbers owe to the fallout from the Arab Spring, in relation to Libya and Syria in particular? To what extent does the U.S. decision to invade Iraq (a decision obviously related to national security policies in the early Bush administration, but conceptually distinct from the ongoing set of CT policies that are the focus of Micah’s critique) account for it? What about the Obama administration’s policies relating to withdrawal from Iraq? Do the growing numbers wholly reflect an actual increase in the overall scale of the terrorist threat, or to some extent does the growth capture splintering of otherwise-larger but-equally-problematic organizational ties?
3. Don’t focus on “safe havens”
A central plank of US CT policy since 2001 has been the desire to deny “safe havens” to those groups that seek to carry out external operations against the United States (thus the intervention and continued presence in Afghanistan, the use of air power to make it at least harder to operate in the FATA in Pakistan, the more recent use of air power in Sirte, the intervention not just in Iraq but also in Syria against the Islamic State, and so forth). Micah blasts the Trump administration for maintaining that view, however, and indeed claims that the policy has been discredited (he says it is an “inexcusable” “misunderstanding” in fact). I was a bit mystified by this rather important disagreement at first glance. When I think of the “safe haven” concept in this setting, it means to me a geographic location in which the members of a known terrorist organization can live without substantial fear of arrest (let alone lethal force), and thus can engage in communications, planning, training, and other activities with relatively little fear of disruption by the United States or other governments. This is self-evidently a problematic situation, in my view, and though it is rarely clear how best to actually go about eliminating safe havens—and though there are many ways that such solutions can cause other problems—it surely cannot be said that the problematic nature of safe havens in this sense has been debunked. Even if one embraced a CT model resting exclusively on diplomacy, extradition, and prosecution, a central goal should and would be to prevent the emergence of safe havens. The fact that some amount of terrorism still would exist even if no safe havens did does not change that fact.
Caveat: One also must be equally careful not to assume that the existence of some particular group in some particular safe haven means that that particular group poses a serious threat to the United States in particular. I wonder if this is really what Micah is getting at, with Afghanistan and the Taliban in mind. That, I think, is a much more serious argument. We must be willing to consider the possibility that the net, long-term interest of the United States favors toleration of some “safe haven” situations. Whether that actually is the case with respect to Afghanistan, of course, is a different matter.
4. “Each president has consistently provided less transparency into military campaigns, and the Trump administration is set to be even worse.”
I don’t quibble with the claim that the Trump administration is likely to cut back considerably on transparency about military activities as compared to the Obama administration. I’m quite surprised to see the suggestion, however, that the Obama administration cut back on transparency in comparison to the Bush administration. Particularly on the subject of harm to civilians, I have the impression it is rather the opposite. And insofar as the claim is that the Bush administration provided less transparency into its military operations than its predecessors, I’m unclear which predecessors provide a relevant comparison.
It seems to me that the effort to portray a steady, sixteen year downhill slope away from transparency is an unpersuasive distraction from the point that matters: The Trump Administration is reducing public disclosures of important information. That should be the focus going forward.
5. The volume of bombing has increased, everywhere, since Trump took office
I’m not sure this is true. Consider Libya, where there was a sustained air campaign in 2016 in support of the effort to evict IS from Sirte. I’m pretty sure the pace of airstrikes has dropped considerably this year. I don’t think that drop proves the Trump administration is interested in greater constraint; I think it’s just the facts on the ground requiring different forms of support at different times. By the same token, the increase in bombings in other locations at least sometimes is also dictated by operational developments rather than the fact that we now have Trump rather than Obama as commander in chief. Operations in Iraq—which this year featured the massive operation to retake Mosul—are a case in point.
But look: we all know that President Trump does in fact want a more aggressive military effort in many locations around the world, and I don’t doubt for a second that we would still see an uptick in raw numbers in at least some locations even if we could control for the increases attributable to the timing of particular operations like Mosul and Sirte. I just think we have to be much more precise and nuanced in trying to employ data like this.
6. “…[Trump] is also killing unacceptably high numbers of civilians…”
Harm to civilians is a massively-important moral issue, diplomatic issue, legal issue, and strategic issue. It is good and right to constantly question whether we are doing all we can to minimize death and injury to civilians. This is true under any president, and it is especially true with respect to President Trump in light of some of his rhetoric. But has Micah made his case that we not only need to be watchful of a change under Trump that results in unacceptable harm to civilians, but that such a change already occurred?
He offers at least two items of evidence:
 In July, the United Nations revealed that in Afghanistan, there have been 70 percent more civilian casualties from American airstrikes in the first six months of 2017 than in the first half of 2016.
 In Iraq and Syria, at least 55 percent of all civilians killed by airstrikes since the air war began in August 2014 have died under Mr. Trump’s watch.
We have to be careful with these numbers for much the same reason that we have to be careful about drawing conclusions from raw numbers about the number of bombs dropped. Take the Afghanistan data, which compares the first half of 2016 to the first half of 2017. I don’t doubt the number of civilian casualties have increased a great deal. I’m less sure that it is the Trump administration’s policies that explain it, however. President Obama in 2014 had imposed substantial constraints on the range of circumstances in which U.S. forces could conduct air strikes in Afghanistan. That policy came under increasing pressure over the years, and my understanding is that some of the key constraints were relaxed in the summer of 2016. If that is correct, numbers from the second half of 2016 onward were bound to be higher in terms of both sorties and casualties. And if during the same period either Kabul or the Taliban decided to increase their operations, that too can be expected to have increased U.S. airstrikes—and that in turn also would cause an increase in civilian casualties.
What about Iraq and Syria? As noted above, the long-awaited urban warfare operation to evict the Islamic States from Mosul looms incredibly large here, as does Raqqa in Syria. Civilian casualty figures in Iraq and Syria unquestionably would have spiked in 2017 no matter who was president.
What follows from this? It does not mean there is no reason for concern. Trump’s rhetoric provides ample reason to scrutinize policy and practice relating to civilian casualties. And it does not mean that Micah is wrong about his overarching claim (to wit, that over time we have shown too little regard for the costs of using lethal force abroad, and that we should be especially concerned about making such mistakes now). But it does counsel more caution in assuming that rhetoric has become reality already.
7. Trump “endorses further harm to noncombatants” in Afghanistan
During his recent Afghanistan speech, President Trump conspicuously mentioned his intent to relax “rules of engagement” in Afghanistan. Micah interpreted that as Trump “endors[ing] further harm to noncombatants.” Is that right?
At a certain level, it must be. To relax the actual ROE at least would mean providing authority to use lethal force in a wider range of circumstances, and it’s not unreasonable to expect more civilian casualties to result. And of course it could be that a change to ROE (and associated policies on who can authorize which strikes in which circumstances) might actually refer specifically to changing current rules on acceptable collateral-damage estimate ratios. But it is important to note that the president’s statement might not actually refer to these things, and might instead have been a reference to the policy constraints on the types of mission for which air power may be authorized, the units of the Afghan military in which our advisors and ground controllers might embed, and so forth. As noted above, those rules were set at a very constraining level in 2014, were relaxed in 2016, and may have been relaxed again in late spring 2017. The President may have in mind to relax them further. Of course, he may also have in mind changes to ROE relating to collateral-damage risk tolerance. It’s too soon to say, though I agree with Micah that it is critical to keep an eye on this topic.
8. “Rather than committing to block the pathways by which individuals adopt jihadist ideologies and become attracted to terrorist groups, policy makers of both parties try the same military policies over and over.”
I think both the Bush and Obama administration cared a great deal about trying to find ways to prevent radicalization, and anyone actually knew how to “block the pathways” in a reliable and scalable way it would have been done long since. One might argue that reliance (or over-reliance) on military force tends to counteract such efforts to such a degree that they cannot succeed, and perhaps that is what Micah is getting at here. If so, then there is a fascinating discussion to be had regarding how to assess and balance two things that might or might not follow from a partial (or total?) reduction in military operations. Such a step might increase the risk of terrorists succeeding with attacks, but such a step also might tamp down factors that catalyze radicalization. No one can know for sure how likely either consequence would be, unfortunately.
Bottom line: As you can see, I found Micah’s op-ed quite thought provoking, even if unpersuasive in some particulars and—to me—in its overarching conclusion. Read the whole thing, and decide for yourself!