To the shores of Tripoli?

Pentagon officials are proposing air strikes and the use of special operations forces in Libya to counter the growing threat from ISIS. This potentially dangerous escalation of U.S. military involvement in the Middle East is being decided without public debate or dialogue. Is it really a good idea to open a new front in the expanding war in the region?

U.S. military strikes have not brought stability and peace to Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, Somalia or Syria. Why do we think they will solve the problems now in Libya? Military strikes can destroy targets and kill fighters (along with civilians), but they cannot solve the underlying political problems and lack of accountable governance that are at the root of these conflicts.

The United States fought a major war in Iraq to suppress Al-Qaida, but that organization morphed into the even more dangerous menace of ISIS. We fired the Iraqi army and sent some of its senior officers to prison, where they became radicalized by jihadists. Today many of the military leaders of the so-called Islamic State are former commanders of the Iraqi army.

Military involvement in the Middle East is the problem not the solution. As we have seen in other countries, American military intervention creates a rejection response that drives many people into the arms of the extremist groups.

As Scott Atran recently observed, an extreme reaction from the United States and other Western countries is exactly what the strategists of Al-Qaida and ISIS want. The more we become bogged down in the region, the happier they are. They want to cause chaos and ‘vexation’, forcing the West to become directly involved militarily.

External military intervention reinforces the false narrative of the extremists that the West is waging war on Islam. Bombs falling on another Arab country will be a bonanza for ISIS recruiters.

The U.S. has conducted 10,000 military strikes against extremist targets in Syria and Iraq over the past 18 months, but the threat from ISIS in the region remains formidable and is now spreading to Libya.

Micah Zenko of the Council on Foreign Relations confirmed in a recent analysis that American bombing in Iraq and Syria has not achieved its strategic objectives. Pentagon officials claim that U.S. strikes killed 25,000 ISIS fighters last year. Yet military officials also acknowledge that the number of estimated ISIS fighters in the region today remains about the same as before. Bombing alone cannot stem the flow of extremist fighters.

Keep in mind that U.S. bombing strikes in 2011 created the chaos in Libya in the first place, causing the overthrow of the Gaddafi regime and the collapse of the Libyan state, spreading lawlessness and armed conflict across the Sahel.

Yes, we need to do more to stop the spread of ISIS, but U.S. bombing will create a backlash that could worsen the extremist threat. We need to act, but we also need to heed the warning: do no harm.

Rather than further stoking the flames of chaos, let’s focus instead on encouraging negotiations among Libya’s competing political factions. The only hope for a resolution to the crisis in Libya is political agreement among the local parties. U.S. intervention could shatter the thin hopes of forging a viable coalition government.

Now is an especially bad time for external military intervention as the Libyan factions have been engaged in internal political discussions and are taking tentative steps toward forming a unity government. Encouraging and supporting that political process should be our top priority.

A stable government in Libya would be more than capable of containing the threat from ISIS and could contribute to greater security in the region. Let’s focus on that task rather than the risky business of widening the war in the Middle East.

Democracy in Decline

Democracy and civil liberties have been diminishing all over the world in the past decade. This alarming trend has been thoroughly documented in recent years by the nongovernmental group Freedom House, and yet no one seems to be paying attention.

The most recent annual survey by Freedom House confirms the problem. “For the ninth consecutive year the condition of global political rights and civil liberties showed an overall decline,” the report states. Developments in 2014 were “exceptionally grim,” with nearly twice as many countries showing declines in political freedom compared to those experiencing gains. The last nine years have witnessed the longest continuous period of decline for freedom in the organization’s nearly 50-year history of publishing annual ratings.

What’s behind this worrisome trend? Freedom House does not attribute the decline in freedom directly to any single factor, but it emphasizes the harmful impact of repressive measures that have been imposed in many countries.  Civil and human rights are eroding “due to state surveillance, restrictions on internet communications, and curbs on personal autonomy.” The worst reversals were in the areas of “freedom of expression, civil society, and the rule of law,” the report concludes.

The measures responsible for this decline in freedom are often adopted in the name of countering terrorism. In response to terrorist threats the United States and other countries have imposed measures that increase the power of police and state security agencies, reduce judicial protections and due process rights, expand government control over information, and limit personal freedoms. What used to be known as the ‘free world’ has become decidedly less free in the process.

As I point out in a recent article published in Global Observatory, many of the measures adopted in the name of fighting terrorism are of uncertain effectiveness. In some cases they are counterproductive and may intensify the feelings of marginalization and repression that feed extremism.

Protections against terrorist attack are necessary, but we will not overcome violent extremism by eroding the conditions of democracy and human rights that are necessary foundations of peace.

The folly of bombing

If bombing were an effective way of ending terrorism and violent extremism, Afghanistan and Iraq now would be oases of tranquility. Pakistan would be a peaceful paradise. Israel would be safe and free from the fear of terrorist attack.

Despite more than a decade of U.S. bombing and large scale military intervention, the Taliban controls large swaths of territory in Afghanistan, and ethnic militias and violent extremist groups dominate Iraq. Hundreds of U.S. drone strikes and bombardments by the Pakistani army have not pacified Waziristan. Thousands of Israeli strikes have not diminished Hamas’ grip on Gaza. Air strikes and military interventions in these cases have hardened local resistance and increased the flow of militant recruits.

In his September 10 address, President Obama compared his new policy of military involvement in Iraq and Syria to ongoing U.S. efforts in Yemen and Somalia. The President said that U.S. air strikes and the arming of local allies in these countries have been “successfully pursued.” But Somalia remains unstable and violent and without a central government. Yemen is torn by multiple insurgencies and in recent days has been experiencing armed rebellion in the capital. If this is success, why bother?

Einstein once said that insanity is the act of doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

Obama’s foreign policy ‘stuff’

The President’s West Point address on national security last week brought mostly skeptical responses. Typical was the New York Times comment that “after five and a half years and dozens of speeches … the trail of Mr. Obama’s pronouncements has grown muddier.”

The President’s decisions may have been inconsistent at times—surging troops in Afghanistan one year only to remove them a couple years later, preparing to bomb Syria one day and negotiating with the regime the next—but through the twists and turns a number of valuable principles have emerged.

Most important is the President’s opposition to major wars of intervention. He won election in 2008 on a vow to remove U.S. troops from Iraq and fulfilled that pledge in 2011. He has now committed to withdrawing the last U.S. troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2016. Ending these wars is a major historic achievement. It’s also a policy widely supported by the American people. Opinion surveys show broad bipartisan support for staying out foreign conflicts.

Some analysts criticize this “minimalist foreign policy.”  The President has indeed been cautious about involvement in Syria and other crises. He recognizes, rightly I believe, that military intervention can backfire and have unintended consequences. Unlike some of his critics, he understands the limitations of American power and is more willing to work with allies.

White House aides have distilled the President’s foreign policy to the phrase “don’t do stupid stuff.” It’s not exactly an elegant expression, but it well describes what has been a major challenge of Obama’s presidency: trying to undo the major foreign policy blunders of the Bush administration.

Obama’s theme is similar to the “do no harm” principle that many in the development assistance community have adopted, based on the classic work of Mary Anderson. It’s a wise philosophy, whether applied to development assistance or military intervention. Avoid making matters worse. International assistance too often benefits corrupt elites rather than people in need. Military intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan produced more insurgency and terrorism, not less.

The President has made progress in ending major wars, but he still believes military force is a viable means of countering terrorism. He has fewer boots on the ground but has increased the number of drone strikes, Special Forces raids, CIA operations, and attacks by U.S.-trained local troops. The policy is ‘minimalist’ in the number of U.S. casualties and the scale of force per episode, but the resort to military means is more frequent.

The limited use of force is no more effective against terrorism than large-scale invasions. The military’s own counter-insurgency manual and the statements of top military commanders acknowledge that military means alone are not sufficient to defeat terrorism.

Finding effective solutions to the continuing threat of violent extremism will require a redirection of American foreign policy far more substantial than what Obama has attempted, a process that will take many years. In the meantime, an approach of avoiding ‘stupid stuff’ may be the best we can hope for, and could provide time for building the public understanding and support necessary for a more substantial turn toward peace.

Falling Short: Obama’s Speech on Drones

President Obama’s address last week was a response to mounting public criticisms of U.S. counterterrorism and drone warfare policies and an indication of the importance of public engagement on these issues. The New York Times described the speech as “momentous turning point” toward ending the perpetual war of the past 12 years. Let’s hope that’s true, but there is still a very long way to go. Some of the steps outlined by the President and his advisers represent modest steps in the right direction, but other aspects of White House policy remain deeply troubling and suggest a possible expansion of the scope of drone warfare.

The President’s speech was accompanied by briefings from senior officials and a White House factsheet. The briefings confirmed what private researchers have reported, that the number of drone strikes has been declining recently. The White House provided no numbers, but figures from the Bureau of Investigative Journalism show the number of strikes in Pakistan declining from 128 in 2010 to 48 in 2012. In Yemen the number of estimated strikes rose from 13 in 2011 to 26 in 2012. In both countries the number of strikes so far in 2013 is lower than in past years.

The White House did not explain the reasons for the downward trend, but the President claims that the criteria for targeting are now “heavily constrained.” He issued a Presidential Policy Guidance last week to codify strict guidelines of oversight and accountability for future drone strikes, but he provided no details. The administration continues to refuse demands from Amnesty International and other human rights groups for public disclosure of these criteria.

It was encouraging to hear Obama declare his intention to end the Authorization to Use Military Force (AUMF), the legislation adopted by Congress immediately after 9/11 that permits the use of “all necessary military means” without temporal or geographic limits. This was the first time a President stated unequivocally, as the New York Times noted, that “the state of perpetual warfare that began nearly 12 years ago is unsustainable for a democracy and must come to an end in the not-too-distant future.” Obama declared,

I look forward to engaging Congress and the American people in efforts to refine, and ultimately repeal, the AUMF’s mandate. And I will not sign laws designed to expand this mandate further. Our systematic effort to dismantle terrorist organizations must continue. But this war, like all wars, must end.

Also important were Obama’s renewed call for closing Guantanamo, his decision to lift the moratorium on transferring Yemeni detainees, and his intention to try remaining suspects in civilian or military courts. As columnist Joe Nocera notes, however, Obama could have done much more over the past four years to close the facility and end the continuing abuses there.

Very worrisome was the administration’s expansive redefinition of who could be targeted by drone strikes. Obama made no reference to his previous claim to strike only “senior operational leaders.” He probably knows better than to repeat that claim, following recent disclosures from journalists Peter Bergen and Jonathan Landay that less than two per cent of those killed by drone strikes in Pakistan actually fit that description. The President spoke instead of attacking “those who want to kill us.” The White House factsheet said that lethal force could be used against “a target that poses a continuing, imminent threat to U.S. persons.” These are extremely broad criteria that must be challenged.

The President’s speech and the limited disclosures of last week fall far short of what is needed. More public engagement on these issues will be needed. We should support the President’s declared intention to end to the war on terror, but we should also press for greater transparency and demand an end to illegal targeted killing.

‘Carte Blanche’ for Unlimited War?

At an extraordinary hearing on Capitol Hill last week, the Senate Armed Services Committee debated whether the policy of open-ended U.S. military operations around the world known popularly as the ‘war on terror’ should come to an end, or should continue indefinitely.

The focus of the hearing was the innocuously named Authorization to Use Military Force (AUMF). The AUMF was the Congressional resolution adopted immediately after 9/11 authorizing “all necessary military means” against those who planned or aided the terror attacks, later amended to allow strikes against Al Qaeda and “associated forces.” The AUMF language is used by the Obama administration to justify its policy of drone warfare, which has killed more than 3,000 people in Pakistan and Yemen in recent years. It is also the basis for a major expansion of U.S. covert military operations over the past 12 years.

During last week’s hearing Michael Sheehan, the U.S. assistant secretary of defense for special operations, said that military operations against alleged terrorists would likely continue for “at least 10 to 20 years.” Robert Taylor, the acting general counsel of the Pentagon, said the AUMF allows military action against any group seeking to harm the U.S. or its coalition partners. When asked if this would allow “boots on the ground” in places like Yemen or the Congo, Taylor said yes. Does this mean the battlefield is everywhere, Senators asked? “Yes sir,” said Sheridan, “from Boston to FATA [Pakistan’s federally administered tribal areas].”

Even hawkish Senators seemed nonplussed at these extraordinary claims. “The authority … has grown out of proportion and is no longer applicable to the conditions that prevailed” after 9/11, said John McCain. He found it “disturbing” that the Pentagon wants to continue this authority but said he understands “because basically you have carte blanche” to do anything around the world.

Newly elected Senators seemed genuinely shocked. Angus King of Maine said that the administration’s theory has “essentially rewritten the Constitution here today.” The Pentagon’s interpretation makes the war power of Congress “a nullity.” This gives “unbelievable powers to the president” making it “a very dangerous thing,” said King.

Senator Joe Donnelly of Indiana asked if the AUMF allowed intervention in Syria. He pointed out that Al Nusra, one of the rebel groups, is affiliated with Al Qaeda. Could the executive branch use lethal force against the Front, he asked. Sheridan dodged the question. Senator Tim Kaine found the suggestion that the AUMF could justify action in Syria especially disturbing and said he did not want anyone to get the idea that this would be acceptable to Congress.

It was an extraordinary show of Pentagon arrogance, combined with a refreshing expression of Senatorial skepticism.

Game Changers and Red Lines in Syria

I appreciate the good comments readers have made on my thoughts about the Syrian crisis. Here are further reflections on the latest developments:

If the disclosure on Sunday by Carla Del Ponte of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria is confirmed that Syrian rebels have used chemical weapons, this is a real game changer. It blows a big hole in the Obama administration’s story about the Assad regime crossing the President’s faux red line. It shows how little the government really knows about what’s going on in this complex and bloody civil war. It should make us extremely cautious about becoming involved militarily and reluctant about providing military support for the Syrian rebels.

Speaking of red lines, what about the apparent Israeli air strike against Syrian military facilities early Sunday morning? Several powerful explosions destroyed critical military installations near the presidential palace in Damascus, killing a number of elite Syrian troops. Israel has not confirmed the strikes, but the scale and precision of the attacks were unmistakably of Israeli origin. Sunday’s attack followed another apparent Israeli strike on Friday near the Damascus airport. U.S. officials say that Israel is acting to prevent the transfer of missiles from Syria to Hezbollah in Lebanon.

The Israeli attacks against Syria are a blatant violation of international law. They increase the risk of the conflict spreading further in the region and should make us even more hesitant about becoming involved militarily. As the New York Times reports today, however, they seem to be stoking debate in Washington about ratcheting up military pressure on the Assad regime. Republican Senator John McCain has reiterated his call for a no-fly zone in Syria. Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy said over the weekend that the United States will probably soon begin providing arms for the rebels.

Arming the Syrian rebels would increase the intensity of a war that has already taken more than 70,000 lives. Providing weapons to the rebels means giving military support to insurgent forces that include substantial Al Qaida-related factions. If the jihadist groups in Syria are indeed the toughest fighters, as reports suggest, they are likely to gain control of any weapons we send. The U.S. would end up arming Al Qaida.

Inside Attacks in Afghanistan

The insanity and horror of the war in Afghanistan are worsening. According to ABC News twenty U.S. soldiers have been killed there in the past two weeks. Ten of the soldiers were shot in cold blood by Afghan soldiers or policemen. Another American soldier was killed by an Afghan police recruit yesterday. General Martin Dempsey, Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is in Kabul today discussing the problem with U.S. and Afghan officials.

The number of such attacks has increased dramatically, 30 so far this year, compared to 11 in all of 2011.

The military refers to these shootings as ‘insider attacks.’ Previously they were labeled ‘green on blue.’ Whatever we call them, they are a terrifying manifestation of the impossible predicament our troops are facing.

It’s bad enough that U.S. forces are under constant attack by Taliban insurgents. Now our troops are increasingly threatened by our supposed allies in the Afghan army and police, troops we are training and whose salaries we are paying (to the tune of $43 billion since 2002.)

A NATO study claims that the insider attacks are not caused by Taliban infiltration but are the result of personal disputes or outrage. If true this is hardly reassuring. It suggests an extraordinary degree of hatred and mistrust between many Afghan recruits and U.S. troops.

These insider attacks are a dagger in the heart of the U.S. mission. They strike at the core strategy of training Afghan forces to replace our troops. If we cannot trust the troops we are recruiting, how can the mission succeed? How can our soldiers do their job if they have to constantly look over their shoulders?

Why are we continuing to sacrifice U.S. soldiers to this mission impossible? It is time to bring the war to an end, as quickly as possible. The U.S. should immediately declare a ceasefire and begin direct negotiations with the insurgents to reach a political solution.

A Somber Milestone in Afghanistan

This week the death toll of U.S. service members killed in Afghanistan passed 2,000. As we mourn the loss of so many Americans, it is also important to remember the hundreds of service members from other countries and tens of thousands of Afghans who have lost their lives in a war that has continued now for more than 10 years. For what?

Many consider the war a response to 9/11, but none of the terrorists who attacked the United States on that day were from Afghanistan or Pakistan.  There has been no recorded incident of a Taliban terrorist attack outside the war zone. Al Qaeda has been weakened over the past decade, not from our pursuit of a futile counterinsurgency war, but largely because they have alienated many potential supporters through their indiscriminate attacks against fellow Muslims.

The Taliban regime was driven from power in November 2001, but it has been replaced by a corrupt, feckless regime unworthy of the sacrifice of our troops. The Taliban has revived and is leading what General Petraeus calls an ‘industrial strength’ insurgency, which has regained control over much of the country and has spread to dominate substantial parts of northern Pakistan.

Some Americans believe this war has made our country safer, but our military presence in Afghanistan motivates many to fight us and has strengthened the very extremist groups we seek to suppress. The war has drained hundreds of billions of dollars from our depleted treasury and undermined our credibility and political standing in many parts of the world.

The human and financial costs of the war will continue for many decades here at home, borne by the tens of thousands of troops who sustained serious injuries and the hundreds of thousands who are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

The one positive note in an otherwise bleak picture is the success of international aid efforts in supporting small but significant improvements in the lives of ordinary Afghans.  If there is anything to be salvaged from more than 10 years of engagement in Afghanistan, it is the message that Afghanistan needs investment in peace and development, not war.

War is not the way to end terrorism. It is long past time to bring the troops home and support an international mission to negotiate a peace settlement in the region.

The U.S. Afghan (In)Security Pact

The security agreement signed in Kabul this week is being touted as a step toward stability and peace but it will likely bring neither. By allowing the U.S. to maintain military bases and forces in Afghanistan beyond 2014 it will prolong the war.

Under current U.S. military strategy, which will be ratified at the forthcoming NATO summit in Chicago, most NATO forces will disengage by 2014, but thousands of U.S. troops will remain at military bases in Afghanistan. This will be ‘counterinsurgency light,’ essentially the same policy as before but with fewer troops: military operations to kill and arrest insurgents, and support for the armed forces of the corrupt Kabul regime. This formula has not worked over the past decade and has little chance of succeeding in the next.

The U.S. strategy has no effective plan for ending what General Petraeus has called an ‘industrial strength insurgency.’  If U.S./NATO forces could not subdue the Taliban with 140,000 troops, how will they succeed with far fewer soldiers? When I was in Kabul last October security specialists said the insurgency is stronger than ever (with an estimated 20,000 armed fighters) and that the Taliban control vast swaths of the country.

U.S. officials have described the security pact as a sign of the American commitment to support the Afghan people. We certainly should not abandon the Afghan people, but keeping thousands of troops there is not the way to help. We can demonstrate our solidarity with Afghanistan through other, more effective ways: pursuing a comprehensive peace negotiation process in the country and the region, continuing to fund successful social development programs, and supporting the rights of women and other under-represented populations.