America’s Failing Counterterrorism Policy

The United States (US) and its coalition allies have conducted more than 6,000 airstrikes against ISIS targets in just over a year. President Barack Obama is now serving his last year in office and will soon hand power over to a new administration, bequeathing it and millions of Americans with a war devoid of any end in sight and a current bill of some $3.7 billion USD.

The Obama administration has been accused of misplacing foreign policy and emboldening America’s enemies. In early 2015, Jennifer Rubin wrote that, “President Obama remains impervious to world events that do not comport with his singular goal — a deal with Iran, which by virtue of his desperation will bear little resemblance to the ‘good deal’ he promised was possible. In three instances last week, we got a peek into his motives and thinking. It was disturbing, to say the least.” Obama has repeatedly treated terrorists and insurgents as a homogenous group, responding to the threat of international terrorism from the understanding that given enough military pressure, a terrorist movement is bound to collapse. The Obama administration’s counterterrorism efforts operating based on the logic that the end of a terrorist organization or movement means the end of that group’s violent ideology.

Not all terrorist groups are the same. Some adopt the extremist ideologies of others. The extremist quality of one group can easily grow into a more extreme version in another. Acting on its own ideology, the US along with its foremost allies’ approach to counterterrorism by regime-toppling, has aided in the development of more groups. As Natan Sharansky and Ron Dermer explain in their book, The Case for Democracy: The Power of Freedom to Overcome Tyranny and Terror that, “the free world, led by the United States, can use its power to target the terrorist organizations, dry up their financing, and punish their leaders, without having to topple regimes.”

When regime toppling takes place, we run the risk of creating the ideal environment for the emergence of a terrorist group or organization. Muhammad Salah wrote, in Al Hayat, “All previous experiences with the activities of the underground organization is that they proved that they flourish in countries with a chaotic security situation, unchecked borders and lack of a central government – Iraq is all that … It is the perfect environment for the fundamentalist groups to operate and grow.” Such conditions, such environments form the extremist cradle and the basis of ideological growth feeding terrorist organizations and networks.

the Bush and Obama administrations’ intensive drone campaigns in Pakistan have been repeatedly cited as one of the main drivers of militant radicalization, breeding new generations of terrorists, displacing terrorists who might seek refuge in other conflict regions (different conflict zones allow them a cover of safety while still taking part in their ongoing battles with the West), and push terrorists to participate in other forms of organized crime. Effects such as these are not confined to Pakistan.

The past 15 years of US foreign policy, particularly as it relates to terrorism and religious extremism, is an intricate component of the war cycle – it builds a feeding process in which other states have acquiesced. Terrorists have overarching objectives but they are also improvisers. What the US and other states have to contemplate now is the possibility of another, more violent and more extreme, version of ISIS resulting from the destruction of the first group.

Many constructive counterterrorism approaches that were ignored prior to 2014 are still being ignored today, despite the bourgeoning international alliance that now includes some 40 countries confronting groups like ISIS. The Paris attacks that took place during the latter half of 2015 led to what ISIS undoubtedly hoped for: renewed and even more fervent airstrikes in Syria and Iraq.

Practical lessons can be drawn from the multifaceted war with ISIS. Relying almost exclusively on airpower is one of them. Repeated failure to build a legitimate and acceptable central government in Iraq is another. Even though US fighter jets were successful in limiting the movement of ISIS off in parts of Syria and Iraq, and preventing the organization and its fighters from achieving further objectives, the Obama administration’s misreading of the political, social, and historical context of Iraq and the region has bred deeper challenges still.

So far, the US and its partners in the war against ISIS rely principally on air power. Air campaigns are not a counterterrorism strategy and they led only to partial success when used extensively against Nazi Germany and Japan. The only instance in which aerial bombing would be effective is if ISIS relied considerably on heavy industry or a complex infrastructure and transportation network – none apply to ISIS. Although intensive aerial bombing during the latter half of the Second World War in Europe disrupted Germany military production considerably, the bombing campaign also succeeded in driving industrial activities underground, leading to a massive reorganization of the German war effort and resulting in greater efficiency and in some cases, increased output.

The US needs to reconsider its sledgehammer approach to state-building, the toppling “evil” regimes with the aim of bringing peace and stability to a particular region. ISIS, though abhorred by many in Iraq, was still preferable to a new government that had a history stained with repeated cases of Sunni repression and camaraderie with Iran. There ought to be an acceptance that democratization and state-building will always be crucial components of an effective counterterrorism strategy, but cannot take place amid the backdrop of a singular worldview.

About the Author
Dr. Scott N. Romaniuk completed his PhD at the School of International Studies, University of Trento. He holds an MRes in Political Research, an MA in Terrorism, Crime and Global Security, and an MA in Military Studies (Joint Warfare). His teaching and research specializations include International Relations, Military and Strategic Studies, Security Studies, Terrorism and Political Violence, and Research Methods. He is a Senior Research Affiliate with the Canadian Network for Research on Terrorism, Security and Society (TSAS) and a member of the Conflict, Terrorism and Development (CTD) Collaboratory at Michigan State University.
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