Dispatches from the Potomac#01 | The End of the War on Terror and the Unending Battle Against Terrorist Organizations

On May 23, President Obama announced a comprehensive counterterrorism strategy for the second term of his administration. He expressed his intention to end the war on terror that began immediately in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks, and his intention to shift the focus to drone strikes against terrorists. So here I would like to think about the war on terror.

This article was originally written in June for publication in the July 2013 edition of the Marubeni Group Magazine, M-SPIRIT.

Washington D.C. Office General Manager, Marubeni America Corporation    Takashi Imamura

Al-Qaeda weakened by CIA drone strikes

The Obama administration's war on terror has achieved certain outcomes such as the killing of the suspect Osama bin Laden—the leader of the international terrorist organization al-Qaeda—and withdrawal from one of the main battlegrounds of Iraq. In spite of their actual achievements, however, public opinion of the counterterrorism strategy of the Obama administration is low. Conservatives criticize the administration for being too passive with regard to the war on terror, raising points including the spread of organizations associated with al-Qaeda into areas such as Yemen and Somalia, and the terrorist attack on the US Embassy in Benghazi, Libya last September, in which four people including the US Ambassador were killed. Liberals, on the other hand, criticize the administration for being too active in the war on terror. The main subjects of this criticism are the failure to keep its pledge to close the detention facilities for terrorist suspects on the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base in Cuba, and the increase of CIA drone strikes to a higher level than the previous Bush administration, which resulted in a great many civilian casualties.

The very fact that both liberals and conservatives condemn the one policy of the Obama administration casts doubt on the validity of the sides doing the criticizing. In his speech on May 23, President Obama went on the offensive to refute this criticism. He pointed out two aspects in an analysis of the present state in terms of the threat of terrorism facing the United States and blasted those who were criticizing for their lack of understanding on these points. One of these points was the contention that al-Qaeda has been weakened. Associated organizations spread, but their power is limited, and the core organizations' ability to strike at the United States has declined significantly. This decline resulted from the killing of a great many senior al-Qaeda leaders through intensified CIA drone attacks, and as they were preoccupied with the escape of their leaders, they were unable to prepare large-scale terrorist attacks, such as simultaneous attacks. In fact, there has not been a large-scale attack from overseas in the United States since the terrorist attacks on September 11. The other point is the new terrorist threat of US homegrown, so-called “domestic terrorists.” The suspects in the Boston bombing in April of this year as well as in the shooting rampages that have occurred frequently in recent years were all young men raised in the United States and inspired by radical beliefs.

President Obama also pointed out that the large-scale terrorist attacks in the United States did not begin with the attacks on September 11, but rather with the crimes of domestic extremists—the bombings at the World Trade Center in New York, in 1993, and at the Federal Building in Oklahoma City, in 1995. President Obama explained that countermeasures are needed because the threat of domestic terrorism has returned.

The United States at the crossroads that is the end of the war on terror

President Obama's speech then shifted to the crux of the argument for reviewing counterterrorism strategy based on these two points of awareness of the current situation. Recognizing the threat of terrorism in the wake of the Benghazi and Boston bombings, there is a need to continue with the systematic effort toward vigilance and dismantling terrorism. With the handing over of the authority to maintain security to the Afghan government at the end of 2014, however, the war on terror loses its significance as an effective means of crushing the core organizations of al-Qaeda.

There is a need to end the war on terror and shift the attack to the destruction of specific extremist networks. The United States stands at a crossroads. President Obama stressed this point, and explained that with the end of the war on terror comes the need to end the wartime regime, such as closing the detention facilities for terrorism suspects at Guantanamo, and preparations to do so are underway.

President Obama then argued that the best way to dismantle the new forms of terrorism is the use of drone strikes. The remaining terrorists are hiding in places such as mountainous regions that are beyond the control of foreign governments. In order to root them out, giving top priority to minimizing damage to the general public and to the US forces, there is no alternative but to use drone strikes. Further, President Obama addressed the strong opposition to the United States in Pakistan and the problem of a great many civilian casualties, proposing stricter standards for drone attacks. The President even launched into some specific proposals for reform, including limiting the use of drone strikes to targets that pose an imminent threat, ensuring that there will be no civilian casualties where there are no other means of restraint, and considering enhanced supervision of operations. There was little criticism that struck at the heart of this comprehensive counterterrorism policy. There is criticism from the Republican Party that the administration underestimates the threat of terrorism, but with the lack of the recognition that there will be no meaning in continuing the war after the authority to maintain security is handed over to the Afghan government, there is no sense of caution against new threats occurring. There is a great deal of criticism regarding drone strikes. I am also uneasy about Obama claiming the legitimacy of a policy predicated on casualties occurring among civilians in foreign countries, even though these are supposed to be kept to a minimum. Drone strikes are effective in tracking down terrorist organizations, however, and—with the current situation of lacking an alternate plan to further reduce civilian casualties—denial of drone strikes would amount to giving up on dismantling terrorist organizations, a stance that is utterly unconvincing. There is also criticism regarding the lack of specific plans in President Obama's proposal, such as a clear timeline for the closure of the detention facilities at Guantanamo, and the like. This is true, but as President Obama's strategy is targeting a transition period from the current war on terror to a system of normal law enforcement after the end of the war going forward, setting a clear timeline that has high probability is itself very difficult.

In his speech this time, President Obama said that we must make decisions based not on the fear of terrorism, but rather based on wisdom, and that begins by understanding the threats that the United States currently faces. The new counterterrorism strategy that the President discussed is based on a shift of focus in targeting vigilance from the core organizations of al-Qaeda to associated organizations and domestic extremists, with the closing of the war on terror and the destruction of extremist networks advancing through some other means as the core decision. On the occasion of the Obama administration going forward steadily implementing this counterterrorism strategy, the President's speech this time—spanning nearly an hour—will surely be regarded as a historic one which discussed the most important antiterrorism policy since the terrorist attacks on September 11.