June 7, 2010

High Price of Obama’s Cheap Counterinsurgency

He spoke with such conviction. They all do. Summing up President Obama’s National Security Strategy, White House counter-terrorism director John O. Brennan vowed that America will, “take the fight to al-Qaeda and its extremist affiliates whether they plot and train in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and beyond."

Days later a poorly coordinated US missile slammed into an al-Qaeda agent - and Sheikh Jabir bin al-Shabwani, secretary-general of the Marib council in Yemen. Initially reported dead, the al-Qaeda ultimately escaped with injuries. al-Shabwani’s murder would spark protests, unrest, and drive one more wedge between the Yemen government and its people.

This truly sums up Obama’s National Security Strategy.

The world got its first taste of General David Petraeus’s Special Forces directive, the NSS’ central pillar, when another hail of missiles struck al-Ma’jalah village in Abyan province in December 2009. News on Yemen skyrocketed as if the state had materialized out of the air. US officials moved quick to doublespeak, commending Yemen’s government and offering support while refusing to comment on direct participation.

It didn’t require much thinking that America launched the missiles, either by drone, warship, or submarine. The Pentagon was itching to enter Yemen after the Fort Hood shooting connected to cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, while US intelligence had picked up the scent of a plot that would become Farouk Abdulmutallab.

The event unfolded in a predictable pattern. At first over 30 al-Qaeda fighters were killed, including al-Awlaki. President Ali Abdullah Saleh praised the military while America praised Saleh, who Obama phoned soon after the strike to “offer congratulations.” They must have been celebrating the death of 14 al-Qaeda agents, not the 40 or so civilians caught in the blast zone.

Only one al-Qaeda fighter was verified. al-Awlaki was never at the village.

It gets worse. After denouncing the operation, state media accused the Southern Movement, a secessionist movement, of supporting al-Qaeda. Abbass al Asal, a leading politician in the Southern Movement, responded, “We in the Southern Movement condemn al Qa’eda and its activities.”

“This is genocide, targeting the people of the south,” he said. “We have called on all the people of the south to denounce this attack in massive protests on Monday. We urge the international community to investigate this massacre.”

Sorry Abbass.

“We’ve actually done quite a bit there, I think we’re on a pretty good track,” Joint Chief of Staff Michael Mullen told reporters two days after the raid. “I really do applaud what they did, who they went after and specifically going after the Al Qaeda cell which has grown significantly over the last couple of years there.”

These statements aren’t as surprising as they are dismaying; denying civilian casualties is one of many duties of a US commander. What reason is there to be surprised when US missiles end up killing more civilians than al-Qaeda, when the opposite is first reported, that the truth is later ignored?

But we didn’t know for sure why so many civilians had died until now. Obama and Mullen had congratulated themselves on an unsuccessful deployment of cluster bombs, fired by presidential order.

According to Amnesty International, the missile type used on al-Ma’jalah was an BGM-109D Tomahawk land-attack cruise missile. This particular variant carries 166 cluster BLU 97 A/B submunition, with each “bomblet” exploding into 200 steel fragments over a 150m radius. Just in case, an incendiary material inside the bomblet spreads fragments of burning zirconium to set fire to nearby objects.

A Yemeni parliamentary committee described al-Ma’jalah upon arrival: “all the homes and their contents were burnt and all that was left were traces of furniture.” The committee, “found traces of blood of the victims and a number of holes in the ground left by the bombing… as well as a number of unexploded bombs.” One survivor, whose family was killed, said everyone was sleeping when the missiles struck.

That is what Obama celebrated with Saleh, what Mullen applauded, what they seem to believe qualifies as National Security Strategy.

In a related incident, around the same time as the Amnesty report broke Yemen Foreign Minister Abu Bakr al-Qirbi told reporters, and not for the first time, “The pursuit of Anwar al-Awlaki is the responsibility of our security forces alone.” Nothing good can come of this time bomb either.

We’re increasingly and repeatedly being told of the means America has in Yemen: unilateral strikes, training local counter-terrorism forces and joint operations with them. But the end result is a flaming wreck from which the grand theme can be extrapolated. This is all America has in Yemen: bombs.

And what Obama in store for the other 75 countries being infiltrated by US Special Forces: counter-terrorism masquerading as counterinsurgency.

The Independent reports, “While running for the White House, Barack Obama deplored the excesses of George W Bush's ‘war on terror’ and he and his administration have even stopped using that term since coming into office. However, the secret war being waged by the US against insurgents has actually vastly increased in both scope and in size under the new President, with special operations forces now operating in more than 75 countries around the world from Colombia to the Philippines.”

4,000 SOF operate in countries outside Iraq and Afghanistan. As for Yemen and Somalia, “"In both those places there are ongoing unilateral actions," according to a Special-Ops source.

Washington is showing no indication of learning, adapting, regretting, or even acknowledging errors like al-Ma’jalah. The script answer - “we will go wherever al-Qaeda goes” - repeats no matter what happens on the ground. We must assume US officials keep hyping fear to drown out the lack of strategy.

One recently warned, "It's safe to say that Abdulmutallab is not the only bullet in the chamber for Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.” Of course not - America is making them faster than it can destroy them.

The essence of America’s fatal contradiction is found throughout the NSS.

In the words of the Los Angeles Times, “The short version — to save you from reading 52 pages of numbing generalities — is this: We still want to do a little bit of everything, but after almost a decade of war, we're overstretched and need to concentrate first on fixing the domestic economy. When it comes to problems overseas, we'll do what we can as long as it doesn't cost too much.”

Translated again, Obama’s NSS is substituting costly counterinsurgency for glamorous, cheaper counter-terrorism. The White House is, "asking for ideas and plans... calling us in and saying, 'Tell me what you can do. Tell me how you do these things.” It’s asking for quick fixes - for steroids and a credit card.

The hideous aftereffects lie in al-Ma’jalah and Marib.

CBS News further explains, “One advantage of using ‘secret’ forces for such missions is that they rarely discuss their operations in public. For a Democratic president such as Obama, who is criticized from either side of the political spectrum for too much or too little aggression, the unacknowledged CIA drone attacks in Pakistan, along with unilateral U.S. raids in Somalia and joint operations in Yemen, provide politically useful tools.”

Of course Obama has unnerved most of his base with an expanded, quieter drone campaign.

Moreover, these “tools” are purely a military solution to the insurgencies confronting America. They have no political use except to entice foreign governments into escalating military action. With each major strike leading to civilian casualties and political unrest, there’s no basis for confidence as America expands its military operations in the country (or any other for that matter).

Counterinsurgency already passing thought, US officials triumphantly believe they’re employing full-spectrum counter-terrorism. Yet not even this notion is true given the number of unsuccessful air-strikes. Also left out is the critical factor of local intelligence to guide military operations, which America currently lacks. The White House is absolutely right, it is taking the fight to the terrorist.

Not a good fight though - not COIN to an insurgency.

Since this strategy is likely to inflame burgeoning insurgencies and fail to quell existing ones, Obama’s “sustainability” cloak reveals itself as a perilous illusion. As shown in Yemen and Somalia, the end result will fail to stabilize these failed states or prevent terrorist attacks, instead contributing to more of both. Further US action will be required that it can’t afford, the cycle will become progressively viscous, and hence more costly.

By not paying now, Obama is ensuring America pays even more later. Though not as much as those sleeping beneath his bombs.


  1. Brennan's first quote "and beyond"
    This is very telling, and what I have been screaming about all along.
    Endless wars without borders.
    Case closed, end of story.

  2. We'll stop when the NYT starts talking about foreign policy.