With the demise of Al-Baghdadi and ISIS virtually defeated on the battlefield, it is worth having a look at President Obama’s counterterrorism policy, which has often been misinterpreted, while remaining subject to criticism.
Change was coming
In 2008, Barack Obama proclaimed change. Change after eight years under Republican leadership. Change to re-establish faith in US foreign policy. Two wars, torture and Abu Ghraib had forced the newly elected Commander in Chief to readjust the agenda. Appreciation for this paradigm shift had been shown almost immediately. Without having even celebrated his first anniversary at Pennsylvania Avenue, Obama received a certain annual Scandinavian recognition. ‘For extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples’ so the reasoning for awarding him a Nobel Peace Prize. In retrospective, a recognition for wishful thinking, it would appear.
Obama’s tenure started with three executive orders to underline the change in approach the US would take under his leadership on the world stage. Those included the ban of torture, a review of detention policy and the end of Guantanamo Bay – one of his signature ideas and security-wise not without severe implications.
When Obama had moved into the Oval Office, 242 people had still been incarcerated in Guantanamo. Moreover, while he was not able to shut down the facility entirely, only 41 detainees had been left when President Trump succeeded him.
Former Director of National Intelligence General James R. Clapper in one of his last reports, concerning reengagement of former detainees in terrorism through July 15th, 2016 points out that 693 detainees had been released since 2002. Of those detainees, 17.6% have been confirmed to re-engage in terrorist activities, and 12.4% are suspected of having re-engaged in terrorist activities.
In summary, 30%, or 208 of those 693 that have been released, are subject to terrorism – to the date of the report. Furthermore, there have been at least twelve former detainees, who have been implicated in attacks on Americans. A suboptimal situation, not merely security-wise but furthermore for future operation.
It raised the following questions for Obama. First, should the United States continue to capture suspects – though at a different, probably less grey-area facility than Guantanamo? Second, will suspects go through a process of due diligence? Third, how would a relocation be facilitated after having released a perpetrator guilty of an act of terrorism?
To avoid all of these issues, Obama changed the modus operandi from boots to the ground to drone strikes and therefore almost solely put killing and not detention on the agenda. The idea had not been new. Obama inherited the program from his predecessor, George W. Bush, but by extending it exponentially, it became a whole different dynamic.
The ‘do not capture but kill doctrine’ led to 51 reported drone strikes within his first year of the presidency – more than during the eight years under President Bush combined. In 2010, this number more than doubled to 118.
Under Obama’s presidency, 473 drone strikes were conducted and eliminated between 2,372-2,581 terrorists, who were either members or affiliated with a terrorist organisation such as Al Qaeda and the Taliban and had been deemed to the national security of the United States.
Besides the drone strikes, Obama also increased the use of special forces. In terms of the success of these operations, the killing of Osama bin Laden was the critical event and displayed how the US would and could strike without deploying significant contingents of troops in foreign countries. A craft, that was once again put on display when al-Baghdadi was eliminated two weeks ago.
Obama’s role in the rise of ISIS
While the drone policy was undoubtedly a success, despite criticism regarding collateral damages and alleged violations of international law, Obama’s track record of showing leadership in the Middle East is the opposite.
In August 2010 Obama announced the end of the combat mission in Iraq and it would be fair to argue Obama never had an interest in Iraq in the first place. His actions during his tenure as well as his views while being a senator in 2006, illustrate this perfectly. He had labelled the invasion in Iraq ‘a botched ill-advised US military incursion into Muslim country’ and argued that the US’ response to 9/11 was ‘playing to the script’ of the terrorists, who would now win ‘this global battle of ideas’.
The latter is a rather interesting choice of words, but most importantly, testimony to the Commander in Chief Obama was. The war in Iraq had been won when Obama came into office. In 2010 US commanders advised Obama to maintain 20.000 troops in Iraq. He chose only to deploy 3000-5000 instead. Obama considered Iraq to be a useless occupation, that would not contribute in the fight against terror, and so all remaining troops had left on December 12th, 2011. While to this day the question of whether or not Obama is responsible for the rise of ‘ISIS’, it is arguably fair to say that the withdrawal of troops did not add to the stability of the country. The power vacuum was subsequently filed by ISIS, which then spread its territory exponentially over the next years. Subsequently, the withdrawal of troops and the rise of ISIS throughout the Middle East forced Obama to redeploy 5,000 troops into the region. A costly flip flop that made the world less safe, one could argue.
The latter can be verified when looking at the figures. Within a year, attacks committed by ISIS in Iraq increased from 400 in 2013 to more than 950 in 2014 and the State Department also accounted for an increase in world-wide terrorism of 35% during the same period. A figure only superseded by the staggering increase of more than 80% of people who died due to terrorism in the same period.
Logical steps could have included boots on the ground and going after ISIS’ sanctuaries, after their money and make it as unattractive to fight against the United States as possible. Instead, however, Obama’s inactiveness helped terrorism to spread all over the Middle East, regardless of his drone program and is arguably more dangerous than ever.
No, Obama’s tenure has not been successful in terms of fighting terrorism, and the lack of a realist approach is the primary failure of Obama’s eight years in office: If not apologising, he confessed the United States’ sins to the world, instead of showing strength and determination against terrorism.
The real change was brought in by President Trump, who, while still being a candidate, made fighting ISIS one of his priorities. Once in office, he ordered the Pentagon to outline within 30 days for him how to defeat the terrorists.
As a result, Trump, unlike Obama, delegated authority to his generals, leaving them with the means of aggressively targeting ISIS without the centralised process and with fewer layers of sign-offs by the Commander in Chief.
Furthermore, while Trump’s statement of having defeated ISIS may or may not be inaccurate, he certainly took the right steps to annihilate the terrorists and showed much more determination and coherence in his approach. Obama’s drone policy was insufficient in the big picture and arguably did not achieve in eight years, what President Trump’s strategy has delivered in three.