January 4, 2018

TSC IntelBrief: Endless Wars on Terror

Since 2001, the U.S. and its partners have begun each year touting the counterterrorism advances achieved in the previous twelve months, while stressing that more work needs to be done.

•The Pentagon is preparing to boost U.S. troop strength in Afghanistan, insisting—as it has before—that 2018 will be the pivotal year in the conflict.

•Dramatic increases in U.S. drone and air strikes have failed to reduce the terrorist threat from al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Yemen.

•In every war zone and counterterrorism conflict where they are engaged, the U.S. and its partners are finding the challenges greater than they can manage with prevailing strategies and tactics.

•Without a new approach to combating terrorist groups, the U.S. and allies risk remaining mired in endless states of emergency.


Since 2001, the U.S. and its partners have begun each year touting the counterterrorism advances achieved in the previous twelve months, while stressing that more work needs to be done.  2018 has begun in familiar fashion, with Washington and other foes of the so-called Islamic State rightfully celebrating the terrorist group’s ongoing military defeat in Iraq and Syria, while warning that victory may be short-lived.

Ten days after the 9/11 attacks, President George W. Bush told a joint session of Congress that the U.S. was in a ‘war on terror’ with al-Qaeda—a war that ‘will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped and defeated.’  The concern is that the ‘war on terror’ has always been fought as if it were a containable, short-lived conflict: a temporary war, rather than an armed struggle now approaching its second decade. This mindset has seen enormous resources expended without achieving the desired goals.  That includes wasting the most valuable resource available to fight these conflicts—military personnel who conduct counterterrorism missions in what are essentially unacknowledged war zones. The operational tempo for these elite counterterrorism units is unsustainable. On January 2, the U.S announced the first combat loss of 2018; Green Beret Sgt. First Class Mihail Golin, killed on January 1, in eastern Afghanistan, fighting a newly entrenched Islamic State.

The U.S. and its allies have been forced to struggle with the reality that measures that range from drone strikes to massive troop deployments have failed to destroy some of the most lethal terrorist groups. In a December 30 interview in the New York Times, Nicholas Rasmussen, outgoing head of the U.S National Counterterrorism Center, stated that the Pentagon had tripled its airstrikes against al Qaeda’s affiliate in Yemen in 2017, but had made no progress in destroying its capabilities.  It may seem remarkable that despite this pounding, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, as the affiliate is known, is not just surviving, but thriving.  However, the limits of fighting secretive terror groups from the air have now become as obvious as those of fighting them as if they were foreign armies—though the costs are easier to hide.

The same issues are present in Afghanistan, where the Pentagon is raising troop levels once again. Since the start of the U.S. intervention in October 2001, every year has seen U.S. officials declare a turning point in the war, coupled with the promise that more troops would provide lasting success.  Those failures have been noted by military planners.  The obvious inability of civil and social reforms to ensure lasting progress against the Taliban is now listed as a secondary factor in NATO and U.S. presentations about the war instead of the primary reason.

Both Yemen and Afghanistan have seen the U.S. attempt to douse wildfires of deep systemic lawlessness and terror, in effect, with a fire extinguisher. In Yemen, the U.S. counterterrorism effort is also being negated by the humanitarian crisis  resulting from the disastrous Saudi Arabian-led military campaign. Yemen is a painful reminder of how complicated counterterrorism efforts are in practice. Terrorist groups are small by nature; recent history has shown how they can defy the powerful military forces thrown against them.  In this regard, 2018 has begun very much like every year since 2001 ended. 


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