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Striking a Balance on Counterterrorism Policies

Interviewee: Steven Simon, Adjunct Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor, CFR.org
August 10, 2009

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CFR expert Steven Simon says President Obama's counterterrorism policy has blended some tough Bush administration tactics while asserting a more holistic approach to undermining terrorism tendencies. Simon says the August 6 policy speech†by Obama's chief counterterrorism†adviser John O. Brennan aimed to make it known that Obama is "his own man" on the subject. Simon says that to allay concerns of the political right, Brennan appeared to be confirming that the policy of targeted killings in Pakistan and Afghanistan would continue and "be more aggressive." Simon says that to appeal to the left, Brennan sought to be reassuring about ending torture and such practices as water-boarding.

John†Brennan, who is President Obama's senior White House adviser for counterterrorism, gave a speech to the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington in which he explained and defended the Obama administration's approach to the sometimes controversial issues involved. What was the main thrust?

The main thrust of it seemed to be that President Obama is his own man; that Obama has a distinctive approach to tackling terrorism that differed from the previous administration's and that the Obama approach is holistic and takes more seriously the underlying grievances that cause angry people to be violent. At the same time he reassured those on the political right that Obama not only signed up to what the intelligence mandarins proposed as a program for combating terrorism but actually told them to go farther and be more aggressive.

You're referring particularly to what he said about Afghanistan?

I took it to be particularly in Afghanistan because certainly at the beginning of this administration the White House had a choice between embracing the program of targeted killings in Afghanistan and in the border areas of Pakistan that had been initiated by the Bush administration in the last part of the second term, or saying "well, maybe we want to go a different route." The Obama team certainly chose not only to continue what the Bush administration had started but to step up the program.

You're referring to so-called "drones" in particular?

Yes, the Reaper in particular. These guys got a handle on the intelligence, not perfectly, but not bad either, and they're running with the ball. In that respect one can really say that Brennan was not speaking with a forked tongue--he got encouragement from the president to move forward with this and they have done so.

He said specifically that it was wrong to talk about† "a war on terror," right, only a "war on al-Qaeda"?

First he was reassuring on the issue of torture, which he had to be because there was some discontent on the left with the decision not to disclose pictures, for example, of what had been going on in some of these detention facilities, and there had been serious White House opposition to the truth and reconciliation notion that had been advanced by some on the left. So he had to reassure them that the administration still had its eye on the ball, and that Obama was actually different from Bush. This is a point that can be made convincingly and Brennan took a shot at it. He also said that this is not a war against Muslims, which is a kind of signature Obama theme--not that Bush never said that--but Obama brings a bit more credibility to that theme. He said that poverty eradication and democratization, for example, would be pursued not just as counterterrorism but because they bring prosperity generally and not just to countries that are wracked by terrorism.

He made one other important point in the context of the ongoing debate in which the speech took place and that was that you couldn't have an "either or" approach to counterterrorism. He says counterterrorism was a combination of law enforcement and national security--programs, policies, and so forth. The whole notion that using law enforcement tools meant treating terrorists as criminals, trivializing what they were doing; in general mollycoddling these guys, was untenable to those on the right. But at the same time it wasn't purely a law enforcement issue because sometimes you had to use military force even though Brennan made a point that Bush had overmilitarized the overall counterterrorism effort. So he was making an argument that you have to use a little bit of law enforcement when that's appropriate and certainly in the capitals of Western Europe what could be more appropriate? You're not going to use hellfire air-to-ground missiles on cells hiding out in Hamburg. But by the same token there were times when military force was going to be essential as Obama and Brennan believe it is right now in Afghanistan.

He also said the administration was opposed to declaring war on jihadists.

This is interesting because it conforms to the long tradition of branding your political enemies as criminals, to deglamourize them, to discredit them, and trivialize them. The Romans called the Jewish insurrectionists in Palestine bandits. The Czarists called the Russian revolutionaries bandits and criminals. And we did the same thing with jihadists.

He said we killed a lot of the leadership of al-Qaeda, that they're really suffering. He said the al-Qaeda affiliates are under tremendous pressure, even though they're still tough to deal with.

The code words are "adaptable" and "resilient." We are too. But al-Qaeda is, despite the fact that we have taken a seriously big chunk out of their leadership in Afghanistan and Waziristan [in Pakistan]. The notion is that they can still reconstitute. They can still get people moving up the chain of command to take the place of those who are killed and that they reconstruct networks that were disrupted because key people in those networks have been killed.

He also talked about other places like in Somalia where al-Qaeda is operating now. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met with the president of Somalia in Kenya today. Should we worry about Somalia?

The main reason to be concerned about Somalia is that at this point it's dragging Americans in. And I don't mean American soldiers, I mean Somali Americans as combatants on the jihadist side.

That's an issue. You don't want to see young Americans embracing causes like that, especially when they run counter to U.S. policy and interests, because that just sets up a collision course.

When the president made his declaration a few months ago about our policy in Afghanistan, there was a lot of talk about increasing civilian participation in villages, and in education, more aid programs, more State Department people taking part. What's your sense? Is this moving along or dragging?

At the moment it's dragging but one can't expect rapid movement because the people just aren't there to do it, number one. Number two, we've been ramping up on the civilian side in Iraq for five years. So you've got two commitments that are vying for a limited pool of personnel and this has been the case from the very outset, really from the time even before we invaded Iraq but were preparing to do so. We may be a big country but the kinds of skills that we're talking about are not well developed here. Nothing to be ashamed of but that's just how it is. So this is going to be slow and right now we haven't even got a director of USAID [United States Agency for International Development].

You did a piece in Foreign Affairs headlined 'Can the Right War Be Won?'--meaning Afghanistan. Is that war going to drag on to the point that the opposition to it may be as severe as it was to the Iraq war?

As far as dragging on, the U.S. officials involved talk about Afghanistan in terms of a very long-term effort and an arduous one that would last for perhaps many years. So there seems to be a broader expectation within the administration that this is not something that's going to be won very quickly and that's going to take a pretty serious effort over a long period of time until the light is visible at the end of the tunnel.

I think the view is still out there that you can make a deal with the Taliban to help end the fighting. Is that really possible?

It remains to be seen. Political and social organization in Afghanistan differs substantially from political and social lineups in Iraq. The tribal system works differently; there's the whole warlord system that operates both concurrently and in a kind of complicated mesh with the tribal system. How that is going to be manipulated is hard to say. That's going to be a challenge, and unlike Iraq you don't have a situation where the foreign dominated al-Qaeda overreaches and alienates the people--triggering the kind of backlash that ultimately decimated al-Qaeda in Iraq. That's just not happening in Afghanistan so it's hard to see how you could exploit tensions such as they are between al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Pakistan, or "good Taliban and bad Taliban" in Afghanistan. It's going to mean rewarding some Taliban and punishing others and hoping that you get it right. There's not a very good alternative in Afghanistan.

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