Commentary Magazine


Posts For: October 6, 2013

The Temptation of Relying on Anti-Terror Raids

The paradox, and saving grace, of the Obama presidency is that while the president is indecisive about big things–the Afghan surge, intervention in Syria, entitlement reform, repealing the sequester, reopening the federal government, even the fast disappearing “Pacific pivot”–he is very decisive about ordering drone strikes and Special Operations Forces (SOF) raids on terrorist targets. Indeed, Obama may well be the most SOF-friendly president we have ever had.

This weekend, acting on the president’s orders, Special Operations teams came ashore in both Somalia and Libya. In the latter country, the operators captured Nazih Abdul-Hamed al-Ruqai, alias Abu Anas al-Liby, who is wanted for the bombing of two U.S. embassies in Africa in 1998. In the former country, SEALs targeted a senior leader of the Shabab, the Islamist terrorist group responsible for the massacre at the Westgate mall in Nairobi. It is unclear if they killed their target because the team had to withdraw under fire, but even if the Somalia raid was not entirely successful, it sent a welcome message to terrorist plotters that they cannot hide from the long arm of the U.S. Special Operations Command.

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The paradox, and saving grace, of the Obama presidency is that while the president is indecisive about big things–the Afghan surge, intervention in Syria, entitlement reform, repealing the sequester, reopening the federal government, even the fast disappearing “Pacific pivot”–he is very decisive about ordering drone strikes and Special Operations Forces (SOF) raids on terrorist targets. Indeed, Obama may well be the most SOF-friendly president we have ever had.

This weekend, acting on the president’s orders, Special Operations teams came ashore in both Somalia and Libya. In the latter country, the operators captured Nazih Abdul-Hamed al-Ruqai, alias Abu Anas al-Liby, who is wanted for the bombing of two U.S. embassies in Africa in 1998. In the former country, SEALs targeted a senior leader of the Shabab, the Islamist terrorist group responsible for the massacre at the Westgate mall in Nairobi. It is unclear if they killed their target because the team had to withdraw under fire, but even if the Somalia raid was not entirely successful, it sent a welcome message to terrorist plotters that they cannot hide from the long arm of the U.S. Special Operations Command.

That is a much-needed message to send, and it helps in a small way to begin undoing some of the damage from Obama’s vacillation over Syria, which signaled American confusion and retreat. But, while important and welcome, Special Operations raids and drone strikes will not by themselves win the war on terror. That is why, even as these surgical strikes have proliferated in recent years, al-Qaeda and its affiliates have spread their reach further than ever. To counter the spread of violent extremism requires not simply one-off missions designed to eliminate senior leaders; what is required is steady, long-term engagement to build up indigenous institutions capable of keeping order on their own.

The U.S. track record in this regard is mixed. Somalia, although still lawless, has been a success story of sorts because U.S.-backed African Union forces have bolstered the sway of the government in Mogadishu and pushed back the Shabab, leading the group to lash out in high-profile terrorist attacks outside the country, in Uganda and Kenya. Libya has not been nearly as successful, because the U.S. and its allies have not provided enough support to the pro-Western government in Tripoli to allow it to build up security forces capable of pushing back the militias that still rule the streets.  

The situation is even worse in Iraq, where al-Qaeda in Iraq has managed to revive itself after the withdrawal of all U.S. forces. Violence rates have soared back to 2008 levels, while al-Qaeda in Iraq has also exported its operations to neighboring Syria, where the U.S. seems to have no strategy for rolling back gains being made by both Shiite and Sunni extremists.

The picture in Afghanistan, meanwhile, is mixed: The U.S. has made a massive troop commitment to bolster the government in Kabul, but it is not clear if the U.S. will maintain any forces after 2014 to build on the gains that have been made. The latest news reports indicate that the White House is once again threatening to pull all U.S. troops if an impasse over the terms of their deployment is not resolved. If the “zero option” does come to pass, it risks undoing everything that U.S. troops have fought for.

So by all means send out the special operators to collar or kill the bad guys. That is risky but necessary. But also remember that this is only one “line of operation” in a larger strategy that we desperately need to counter the continuing growth of Islamist extremism.

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Annals of the Most Transparent Administration Ever

At Friday’s State Department press conference, deputy spokesperson Marie Harf noted President Obama cancelled his trip to Indonesia and Brunei because of the government shutdown, and she asserted that, while Secretary of State Kerry “will ably represent the United States” on the trip instead, “this completely avoidable shutdown is setting back our ability to … advance U.S. leadership and interests in the largest emerging region in the world.”

Harf then reiterated “what I said yesterday, that for a Congress that talks a lot about American exceptionalism, they’re sending the exact opposite message all around the world right now”–which caused reporters to respond by reiterating a question of their own, asking again how many people in the State Department have been furloughed because of the shutdown. That produced this colloquy:

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At Friday’s State Department press conference, deputy spokesperson Marie Harf noted President Obama cancelled his trip to Indonesia and Brunei because of the government shutdown, and she asserted that, while Secretary of State Kerry “will ably represent the United States” on the trip instead, “this completely avoidable shutdown is setting back our ability to … advance U.S. leadership and interests in the largest emerging region in the world.”

Harf then reiterated “what I said yesterday, that for a Congress that talks a lot about American exceptionalism, they’re sending the exact opposite message all around the world right now”–which caused reporters to respond by reiterating a question of their own, asking again how many people in the State Department have been furloughed because of the shutdown. That produced this colloquy:

MS. HARF: No new updates. Like I said, every day we’re continuing to look at the numbers. We haven’t had to undertake massive furloughs like we’ve seen, unfortunately, elsewhere. But no new updates on our posture today.

QUESTION: And we don’t have any numbers yet on furloughs?

MS. HARF: No numbers.

QUESTION: Why don’t we have any numbers on furloughs?

MS. HARF: We just don’t have any to provide at this point. We’ve said it’s a very small number in these offices. If we have numbers to share, we will.

QUESTION: Well, it’s small, like what – like under 10 or 50 or –

MS. HARF: I know you ask the same question every day, and we just don’t have numbers for you at this point.

QUESTION: Why not?

QUESTION: My question is: Why.

QUESTION: Yeah.

MS. HARF: Why?

QUESTION: Why are you unwilling to provide the numbers?

MS. HARF: Right. Well, we – I just don’t have those numbers in front of me. I know our folks are looking at them now.

QUESTION: How long does it take? It’s been going on for days.

QUESTION: But I didn’t ask you whether you had them in front of you. I asked why, and Deb asked why.

MS. HARF: Well, I said that’s why I can’t provide them, because they’re not in front of me.

QUESTION: Why? No, but that’s – look, tautologies like this don’t help anybody. There’s got to be a reason why you’re unwilling to provide the numbers. What is it?

MS. HARF: The answer – I’ve said it’s a very small number. I can endeavor to get a specific number for you on it.

QUESTION: But – yeah. We’ve been asking now for days. So when –

MS. HARF: Okay. I will keep endeavoring to get you one.

QUESTION: Well, what do you think the problem is?

MS. HARF: I don’t know that there’s a problem. I just don’t have the number in front of me, and I will see if we can get one.

QUESTION: Would you say that the numbers are increasing with every passing day, from Tuesday until today?

MS. HARF: The numbers of what?

QUESTION: The numbers of people –

MS. HARF: Of furloughs?

QUESTION: — being furloughed. Yes.

MS. HARF: No. So –

QUESTION: So the number is static. Whatever was furloughed –

MS. HARF: Correct.

QUESTION: — were furloughed on Tuesday –

MS. HARF: That small number – yes. That’s correct. 

For some reason, the State Department doesn’t want to admit that the only person who has been furloughed so far is apparently the copy machine guy.

Then there was this response to a reporter asking if the State Department has issued a standard statement to foreign governments explaining the shutdown:

MS. HARF: I don’t know if we’ve issued a standard statement. Of course our ambassadors and our diplomats on the ground are having tough conversations with our partners around the world. If there are things we’ve committed to do that we then can no longer do – conferences we’re supposed to participate in, multilateral engagements we’re supposed to participate in – clearly, those are tough conversations. And our folks around the world are having those with partner governments right now.

The “tough conversations” are undoubtedly rendered more difficult by the restrictive vocabulary the Obama administration has imposed on the State Department since 2009. Imagine the puzzlement of partner governments at the administration’s explanation that the shutdown results from congressional devotees of man-caused disasterism who are engaged in a deep inner spiritual struggle about ObamaCare. 

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