Wednesday, the White House has unveiled a new counterterrorism strategy that would focus more on drone strikes and special operations and less on large-scale ground conflicts. NPR spoke with two experts in national security — Sean Burke, a vice president and senior fellow for the Center for National Policy and Ken Gude, managing director of the National Security and International Policy Program of the Center for American Progress — to get their thoughts on the strategy.
Q: To what degree, if any, is this change in strategy related to taking Osama bin Laden out of the equation and the lessons learned from the operation against him?
Gude: I think this change in strategy from the Obama administration has been in the works from the very beginning — lessening the emphasis on the use of ground forces and more effort on the discrete kinds of counterterrorism operations that we've been seeing. So, I don't think it was as a result of the bin Laden operation. I think, in fact, the bin Laden operation is a result of this kind of shift in strategy.
Burke: The killing of bin Laden sort of prompts the necessity of putting something like this out. That said, it's still focused on capturing and killing al-Qaida leaders. The new strategy still puts al-Qaida and its affiliates at the center as the primary threat.
Q: Doesn't the move toward more "surgical" strikes over "boots on the ground" seem like a throwback to the strategy employed before Sept. 11, 2001 in which al-Qaida was targeted with cruise missile strikes?
Burke: I agree, it feels like that. I think the White House would argue that, 'Well, we're in a different era now, we've learned a lot more, we have more sophisticated technology'. But, what does it say about all we've heard over the past several years about how bad our human intelligence is? The upside is that we can use drones for both espionage and target strikes in areas where it's not feasible to put in troops. But it raises a lot of question about not only how effective that is, but how we keep that from getting complicated with our allies.
Gude: I think this signals the end of counterinsurgency as a counterterrorism strategy. I think that's a very wise move just looking back at the past 10 years of these large-scale ground invasions and occupations. It has been incredibly resource intensive, not only just in the incredible loss of life and casualties that Americans have experienced, but in the costs of such operations, with the direct costs now topping $1 trillion and the indirect costs estimated to be more than $2 trillion dollars over the next two years.
Q: Won't such a strategy require more cooperation with intelligence agencies in other countries, such as Pakistan, where such dealings have been shaky at best?
Burke: Absolutely. If we're going to base our drone strikes in those types of operations on that type of intelligence without figuring out a better way, then what's the use? It's kind of like an empty approach.
Gude: We need to continue to push the Pakistanis to continue what has been a two- or three- or four-year process of recognizing that extremist elements within Pakistan are a threat to the Pakistani government and stop hedging their bets by supporting some of these extremist elements within their borders.
Q: As part of the counter-insurgency strategy in Iraq and Afghanistan, we've heard a lot about the need to win hearts and minds, but isn't sending in unmanned drones – with the incumbent risk of hitting civilians — is just the opposite of that approach? Does it risk further antagonizing anti-American sentiment?
Gude: Certainly in the border areas of Pakistan, the drone campaign has been particularly effective at putting extremist groups under a significant amount of stress. That has gained the United States a tactically advantage in those areas. What is equally true is that the drones bring some strategic costs. We should not forget that Faisal Shahzad was apparently motivated by those drone strikes to try to detonate a bomb in Times Square in May 2010.
I am concerned that we seem to be relying too heavily on drones as an instrument of U.S. counterterrorism strategy. I think discretely, drones can be effective, but we cannot rely exclusively on a policy that seems to many in affected communities is seen as something akin to 'death from above' and have that be the only U.S. footprint in a particular area.
Burke: Yes, but it's a political calculation. Of course, it's way more palatable on the home front than dropping in a platoon of Special Forces and seeing casualties on the news.
Q: Al-Qaida has a history of being pretty adaptable to U.S. counterterrorism strategies. What's to stop it from shifting tactics again?
Burke: Not much. This threat is evolving. Less sophisticated attacks are a heck of a lot easier to finance and pull off. Al-Qaida can plan and carry out those kinds of attacks below the radar.
This new strategy gives a nod to the idea of national resilience, but gives it short shrift. There is both growing evidence and lots of smart folks in the community saying that resilience – defined as having the ability to withstand, recover from and adapt to a terrorist attack — should be a primary focus here. It's not. It's mentioned in a sort of tertiary paragraph in the middle of the paper.
Gude: Al-Qaida has proven to be very adaptable, but the threat we pose now is significantly different than what we faced before 2001. But I think it's also important to recognize that al-Qaida is now probably at its weakest point since Sept. 11, 2001. Not just because of the death of Osama bin Laden, but also because of the tactical successes of the drone campaign and the fact that the Arab Spring has called into question al-Qaida's message that it is the only pathway to achieve the kinds of political change that the people in the Middle East have wanted.