After a decade of trying, the United States appears to have worked out a viable counterterrorism strategy. Using a combination of on-the-ground intelligence from friendly sources, remote sensing and armed Predator drones, the U.S. was able to locate, track and take out Anwar al-Awlaki and Al Qaeda magazine editor Samir Khan. Coming on top of last May’s operation that killed Osama bin Laden and against the backdrop of the hundreds of successful drone strikes against both Al Qaeda and Taliban targets, the al-Awlaki operation suggests that the United States has found a successful way of taking out critical terrorist targets.
The successes of the past five months raise an interesting question: in an era of fiscal austerity, how much should the Pentagon be spending on counterterrorism and what fraction of a shrinking military should it devote to this threat? Since 2001, this country has spent hundreds of billions of dollars pursuing Al Qaeda, its affiliates and its friends not only in Afghanistan but around the world. It has spent an even greater amount in the campaign against insurgents/terrorists in Iraq. We have acquired a vast array of military equipment from armored trucks and drones of all sizes to IED jammers, tactical robots and specialized communications gear. Some equipment and gear such as the Scan Eagle drone, the fire resistant clothing sets and the XM-25 grenade launcher will have uses far beyond the current fights. A lot of other equipment will only find utility in conflicts just like the ones we have already fought. In addition, much of the rest of the military’s roster of equipment including tactical fighters, long-range bombers, space systems, tanks, attack submarines, strategic nuclear forces and missile destroyers require upgrades or replacement. There will not be enough money to cover the entire spectrum of conflict equally.
The Obama Administration needs to “dial it down” with respect to counterterrorism and even counterinsurgency. As demonstrated by the operations against bin Laden and al-Awlaki, it doesn’t take a lot of boots on the ground to run a successful counterterrorism campaign. In fact, the boots on the ground should be largely limited to assisting partner countries to develop their own capabilities. Instead of military personnel, we need to deploy more police, FBI, ATF and DEA agents to at-risk countries. The military should be used primarily in support of the CIA to go after high-value targets that are inaccessible to local security forces.
Regarding the future of counterinsurgency, perhaps it is time to accept the fact that the United States is not good at this type of warfare. Our successes have been the exception, not the rule. As Afghanistan demonstrates, even with ten years of practice we lack the organizational, capacity and shear military power to win the conflict. So let’s keep the new Army counterinsurgency manual that General Petraeus wrote — just in case — but let’s not maintain forces and equipment for a type of conflict that we should avoid if at all possible.
The truth is that we have reached a point of diminishing returns when it comes to the application of military forces to address non-traditional threats. As recent events demonstrate, we can do pretty well against overseas terrorists. By the same token, we do not do well against insurgencies. By de-emphasizing both the counterterrorism and counterinsurgency missions, the U.S. military will be better able to prepare for the threats we are likely to face and that will need to be deterred. These are from nation states or state-like entities that control territory and possess or are acquiring advanced military capabilities.
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