Keep terrorism in perspective

By Daniel DePetris

As a presidential candidate, Trump devoted most of his national security platform to defeating international terrorism as we know it. The Islamic State, a short year ago perhaps the richest terrorist group in the world, were casted as a sorry bunch of 21st-century barbarians-- the kind of religiously indoctrinated and ideology brainwashed lunatics who couldn't be negotiated with, but only killed and kept under relentless pressure. The U.S. military campaign against ISIS, Trump declared, was wholly insufficient to the task; far from taking the fight to the enemy, the conventional wisdom circulating at the time (and continuing to the present day) was that the U.S. military was kept on a short leash by the Obama administration and micromanaged to such an extent that operations were being delayed and ISIS was given more time to prepare.  

The first five weeks of new administration's tenure is a clear illustration of what President Trump believes: that ISIS, Al-Qaeda, and any terrorist organization seeking to kill Americans at home or overseas can be defeated if U.S. military and intelligence professionals are provided with a little more room to do their work.  Indeed, Trump's presidency has seen an acceleration of drone strikes against terrorist targets in multiple countries and serious discussion among the National Security Council about deploying more special operations forces in the Middle East and East Africa to snuff out and eliminate their leaders, financiers, bomb-makers, and foot-soldiers.

For the Trump administration, military power is the key to destroying America's terrorist adversaries, a reason why the Defense Department needs an increase of $54 billion in FY2018 and a supplemental cash infusion this year.  When the Pentagon simultaneously launches over 30 airstrikes on Al-Qaeda targets in Yemen over a 48-hour period talks about expanding the rules of engagement for U.S. counterterrorism forces in Somalia, and has forwarded recommendations to the NSC that would deploy more U.S. troops, artillery systems, and apaches in northern Syria, one would be forgiven for thinking that the White House assumes that terrorism can in fact be extinguished from the earth if just enough bombs are dropped or if just enough senior to mid-ranking terrorists are killed. Shooting a hellfire missile into a crowded terrorist training camp in Pakistan's tribal areas or launching a covert raid into Libya to pick up an internationally-wanted terrorist operative are traditionally been used as a way to measure success in this war. The Trump administration appears to set to continue that definition of success.

And yet, by concentrating so much on the tactical components of this fight - how many special operators to deploy and where, how many aircraft should be assigned to which combatant commander, how much authority should be delegated to commanders in the field - U.S. policymakers often lose sight of the overarching, strategic questions that have been avoided much too often over the last sixteen years: what does "winning" the war on terrorism look like?  And is "winning" in the conventional, World War II-interpretation of the word an attainable objective?  

Despite combatting Al-Qaeda and its affiliates in multiple countries over a decade and a half, at a cost of so much money that it's impossible to track, the United States still doesn't have a good construct for how a war on terrorism ends.  In fact, because U.S. officials have repeatedly set the bar for victory so high - not only the destruction groups that use terrorism, but the destruction of terrorism itself - the U.S. has created a situation that guarantees that the war will continue and tens of billions of additional dollars will be spent far into the future to continue it. One terrorist attack on one target by any group is branded a catastrophic and systemic failure or lapse in judgment by the entire U.S. counterterrorism and intelligence apparatus.

What is so distressing about this situation is that the U.S. should know better by now. Sixteen years of conflict against terrorist organizations in seven countries, including two full-blown invasions, should have taught national security policymakers in Washington that defeating terrorism is about as likely as defeating all variants of cancer, interdicting every illegal drug before it crosses our southern border, or eliminating poverty across our society for all time. Our politicians should understand by now that America can send 170,000 of its soldiers into Iraq to perform a counterinsurgency mission and decrease sectarian violence, but that terrorist groups will continue to thrive, prosper, or morph into new outfits if regional governments aren't capable of carrying on with the job or able to introduce even the smallest amount of reconciliation into their politics. And from on all of the wisdom they proclaim, the foreign policy establishment should have long recognized that disrupting every single terrorist plot and eliminating every single safe-haven is a recipe for ceaseless disappointment - not because the U.S. and its allies don't have the ambition, but because the goal itself is an impossible one to meet.

As the Trump administration continues to deliberate about what its counterterrorism policy will be, they must never lose sight of the big picture: terrorism, however disgusting it is, is an unavoidable fact of life - like bad neighbors or embarrassing relatives. The best the U.S. can do is keep the problem in perspective, defend the homeland and the American people the best it can, accept that the U.S. cannot kill its way to a solution, and most importantly understand that overreacting or acting too quickly can be just as damaging as being indecisive and not acting at all.

Daniel DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities.

This piece was originally published by The Huffington Post on March 10, 2017. Read more HERE.