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We Can’t Just Play Whack-a-Mole in the War on Terror



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Anwar al-Awlaki’s death by a joint CIA-U.S. military air strike marks an important victory in the Global War on Terror. As head of external operations for al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), Awlaki not only helped to recruit militants for the group, but also inspired or operationally facilitated plots by extremists in the United States and allied countries — including the July 2005 transit bombings in London, the lethal November 2009 shootings at Fort Hood in Texas, and the May 2010 stabbing of a member of the British Parliament, as well as attempted bombings of New York City’s Times Square and several U.S.-bound planes. Further underscoring the great risks posed by Awlaki, a senior U.S. official today stated that he sought to carry out WMD attacks against Westerners.

Awlaki’s killing by an unmanned U.S. aerial drone coincides with recent reports that the Obama administration is establishing a constellation of drone bases for counterterrorism operations against both AQAP and Somalia’s al-Qaeda linked group, al-Shabaab. Such efforts are praiseworthy, but in the end they will not be enough to successfully prosecute the Global War on Terror.

In the wake of Awlaki’s and Osama bin Laden’s deaths, many policymakers may be tempted to believe that the War on Terror has already been won — or can be won by video-game-like drone strikes or counterterrorism raids that require minimal manpower. In reality, the only lasting solution to situations like the one we face in Yemen is eventually ensuring that the host country can prevent its territory from becoming a safe haven for these terrorist organizations.

Here, the experience of Iraq and Afghanistan is instructive. From 2003 to 2006 in Iraq, and from 2001 to 2009 in Afghanistan, the United States pursued a counterterrorism strategy using a light footprint to deal with the insurgencies in those countries. While the U.S. military killed or captured thousands of enemy combatants during that time, insurgents in those countries operated with impunity among local populations and grew in strength and lethality, until a manpower-intensive counterinsurgency strategy was adopted to secure the population against attack. Now, al-Qaeda in Iraq is strategically defeated, with attacks down by 90 percent from their pre-surge zenith. Similar success has been shown in the Taliban’s heartland in southern Afghanistan, leading retired General Jack Keane, a former Army vice chief of staff, to testify that “the Taliban have suffered a stunning defeat … in Kandahar and Helmand province. So much, so, that it is not reversible unless we drawdown ISAF [NATO’s International Security Assistance Force] troops in those provinces, prematurely.”

Yemen is a fracturing state suffering from secessionist movements, a weakened central government, and a protest movement in the capital. In this vacuum, AQAP has increased its territorial control, and directed several attacks against the United States. While it is not yet necessary to conduct another manpower-intensive mission there, our strategy must adopt practices that meet the needs and aspirations of the Yemeni people. If the United States fails to do so, it faces the prospect of renewed terrorist attacks worldwide, and a costly intervention to forcibly roll-back another al-Qaeda stronghold.

Democracy promotion and counterterrorism are inextricably linked. Our strategy in Yemen must incorporate this truth and not rely on only one side of the equation.

— Jamie Fly is the executive director of and Evan Moore is a policy analyst for the Foreign Policy Initiative.



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