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.