Conflict & Justice

Obama's counterterrorism strategy: New York Times buries the lead


A Pakistani protester holds a burning US flag as they shout slogans during a protest in Multan on February 9, 2012 against the US drone attacks in the Pakistani tribal region.



The New York Times published an exhaustive analysis of US President Barack Obama’s counterterrorism strategy today.

But it buried the lead.

The lengthy piece is focused on Obama’s use of drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen that target suspected terrorist leaders, and the spinning moral compass he uses to make those decisions. (It doesn’t mention Somalia, where strikes are also happening.)

In total, it paints a picture of a president who is strong, decisive, always weighing the rights and wrongs of his strategy, and taking personal responsibility for those decisions.

It isn’t until the very end that the story tackles the other, perhaps more important side, of any counterterrorism strategy — one of diplomacy and de-radicalization, an effort to create a world where Al Qaeda has no credible agenda on which to recruit and carry out attacks.

Here is the article's mention of Obama’s peaceful strategy, in its entirety:

“But in the months that followed, some officials felt the urgency of counterterrorism strikes was crowding out consideration of a broader strategy against radicalization. Though Mrs. Clinton strongly supported the strikes, she complained to colleagues about the drones-only approach at Situation Room meetings, in which discussion would focus exclusively on the pros, cons and timing of particular strikes.

At their weekly lunch, Mrs. Clinton told the president she thought there should be more attention paid to the root causes of radicalization, and Mr. Obama agreed. But it was September 2011 before he issued an executive order setting up a sophisticated, interagency war room at the State Department to counter the jihadi narrative on an hour-by-hour basis, posting messages and video online and providing talking points to embassies.

Mr. Obama was heartened, aides say, by a letter discovered in the raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan. It complained that the American president had undermined Al Qaeda’s support by repeatedly declaring that the United States was at war not with Islam, but with the terrorist network. “We must be doing a good job,” Mr. Obama told his secretary of state.

Indeed, Obama has been primarily concerned with “kill lists” and debating among his security team who is next. While he has had success taking out Al Qaeda leaders around the world, he has also killed civilians (the number of which is impossible to know). And with each Al Qaeda death, someone new is inevitably added to the list.

In the article, Obama’s former chief of staff, William M. Daley, asks how much killing will be enough.

“One guy gets knocked off, and the guy’s driver, who’s No. 21, becomes 20?” Mr. Daley said, describing the internal discussion. “At what point are you just filling the bucket with numbers?”

Obama's continued use of a military strategy seems to conflict with statements made by CIA Director Leon Panetta last year, when he said the defeat of Al Qaeda was within reach. At the time, he said the United States needed kill only 10 or 20 more Al Qaeda leaders before we could all move on with our lives.

Unfortunately, Al Qaeda has a way of replenishing its ranks with disturbing efficiency, which is why a counterterrorism strategy that includes diplomacy and deradicalization is so important.

GlobalPost’s own reporting in the tribal areas of Pakistan and Yemen, regions rarely visited by journalists — or any outsiders for that matter — has found that average people living in these parts have grown angry with the United States in reaction to the persistent drones strikes. They said they were finding themselves increasingly sympathetic with the militant groups they once detested.

Residents in these lawless parts said they worried that their kids — who are often unable to go to school because of the danger, or because the schools have been destroyed in drones strikes — are increasingly susceptible to Al Qaeda’s rhetoric.

Yemen might be the best example of how desperately a counterterrorism strategy beyond military strikes is needed to defeat Al Qaeda.

As the Arab Spring began sweeping the Middle East last year, Yemenis were some of the first to begin protesting. They wanted their longtime, and famously corrupt, leader, Ali Abdullah Saleh, removed from office. But Saleh was an important ally for the United States in the war on terror, allowing the US military to freely conduct strikes in the country’s south, where Al Qaeda is active.

Instead of supporting the removal of Saleh, as it did the removal of Mubarak or Gaddafi, the United States balked. In the end, an internationally-brokered deal for Saleh’s removal, which had little popular support domestically, was made and his deputy took power. In the intervening months, Al Qaeda seized multiple cities in Yemen’s south and is now perhaps stronger than ever in Yemen — all of this despite an increase in joint US-Yemeni air strikes.

Today, the Defense Department can target suspects in Yemen whose names they do not know. Officials say the criteria are tighter than those for signature strikes, requiring evidence of a threat to the United States, and they have even given them a new name — TADS, for Terrorist Attack Disruption Strikes. But the details are a closely guarded secret — part of a pattern for a president who came into office promising transparency.

Here might be the most important graph in the story, one that could have served as the lead:

His focus on strikes has made it impossible to forge, for now, the new relationship with the Muslim world that he had envisioned. Both Pakistan and Yemen are arguably less stable and more hostile to the United States than when Mr. Obama became president.