Countering Violent Extremism in the Global War on Terror

Despite being re-christened as ‘countering violent extremism’ by the Obama Administration, the Bush Administration’s Global War on Terror (GWOT) is nearing its twenty-year mark. While the GWOT has undergone several rebrands, it’s overarching goal to defend the homeland has endured. However, what these deliberate attempts at rebranding do illustrate are variances in the approaches of different presidential administrations. This article will analyze how public opinion, personal schemas, and bureaucratic politics shaped the Bush and Obama Administrations’ efforts to combat terrorist insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan. I argue that the dysfunctional Bush Administration, haunted by previous foreign entanglements, embarked on a sweeping, yet externally focused, enemy-centric counterinsurgency (COIN) campaign that neglected target-state domestic considerations. Subsequently, while the Obama Administration attempted to remediate with a more restrained, internally focused surge of population-centric COIN, constraints imposed by a war-weary public suffocated meaningful progress.

Within US military doctrine, there are two main paradigms of COIN: enemy-centric, and population-centric. The latter views the population of a target state as “the sea in which insurgents swim,” and reasons that if the target state’s civilian population and its surrounding environment can be controlled, pacified and stabilized, insurgents will be deprived of their support networks and subsequently will either be exposed or neutralized. Essentially, it is victory by winning the hearts and minds of civilians through nation-building. On the other hand, the former views insurgencies as unitary actors, and counterinsurgency as “more akin to conventional warfare [that] focuses on the defeat of the enemy as the counterinsurgent’s primary task.”

Post-9/11, despite the imminent threat of another attack, the Bush Administration would find it challenging to reconcile retribution with the ever-present ‘Vietnam Syndrome’ plaguing the nation. Georgetown Professor Elizabeth Saunders classifies leaders as either internally or externally focused. She asserts that internally focused leaders are interested in a target state’s domestic considerations and are resultantly more inclined to undertake nation building operations. Conversely, externally focused leaders are more likely to pursue strategies that aim to resolve a conflict with minimal involvement in a target nation’s domestic affairs. While Bush is frequently associated with unilateral interventionism, it is critical to recognize that he was externally focused. Accordingly, he held a personal aversion towards protracted involvement, and an aversion towards using conventional forces to engage in population-based COIN, because he believed that such an approach involved risky nation-building that would tie “up US troops indefinitely,” and stir up anti-American sentiments.

As a result, while it was evident that the public would support a use of force decision, the question at hand was: What form would a retaliatory use of force take? According to a public opinion poll, 17 percent of Americans would have opposed the use of force by conventional US ground troops. Representing Americans still afflicted with Vietnam Syndrome, the presence of this population reinforced President Bush’s schemas on risk aversion. Therefore, anticipating public opinion, President Bush decided on what he thought to be a militarily successful policy to end the war quickly and limit US involvement. The plan would be to take an externally focused, enemy-centric COIN approach, where small teams of special operations forces (SOF), supplemented by local Northern Alliance fighters, would hunt al Qaeda and the Taliban without engaging in nation-building to maintain a light footprint. After eliminating the Taliban and al Qaeda, the US would exit Afghanistan and hand over full authority to Northern Alliance warlords to form a new US friendly Afghan Government (GIRoA).

While this approach looked good on paper, enemy-centric COIN did not consider target state domestic considerations and contributed to the formation of a destabilizing insurgency. Unbeknownst to the Bush Administration, which was “woefully deficient in human intelligence” as per its external focus, the Taliban regime had actually been a source of regional stability, and Afghan civilians had been thrilled with Taliban rule, because it had ended the “corrupt and predatory behavior of warlord” society. In fact, pre-invasion, the Taliban did not want to fight the US and had even offered to extradite Usama Bin Laden (UBL), to a neutral third party. However, because the Bush Administration did not understand Afghan domestic politics, it viewed the Taliban and al Qaeda as a monolithic bloc, resulting in a missed opportunity for cooperation. Furthermore, while instant gratification was achieved by harnessing Northern Alliance manpower, the destabilizing effects of legitimizing warlords as authority figures became evident when the Northern Alliance allowed the escape of UBL at Tora Bora, and after it was discovered that the majority of the newly formed Afghan Government had ties to the criminal underworld.

Targeting al Qaeda and its Taliban hosts was part of the Bush Doctrine, a major innovation to existing US foreign policy. The Bush Doctrine emphasized that “any nation that continue[d] to harbor or support terrorism … [would be considered] a hostile regime,” and that preemptive strikes would be pursued unilaterally if multinational support could not be garnered. As a result, even though the Taliban had not been directly involved with 9/11, harboring UBL had elevated them to an enemy on par with al Qaeda. However, the Bush Doctrine presented a major contradiction to the President’s schemas on risk aversion. This was because its mastermind was not Bush, but Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld’s deputy, Paul Wolfowitz. According to Pentagon insiders, Wolfowitz was more avant-garde on matters of foreign policy, while Bush was inexperienced. This enabled him to take control of policy and “push the whole Bush team to the right,” while Rumsfeld was left free to pursue bureaucratic interests. Wolfowitz, who was a firm believer in the ‘Munich Script,’ believed that dictator of Iraq, Saddam Hussein could not be pacified. Therefore, to garner support for regime change, he portrayed him as a dangerous state sponsor of terrorism. Accordingly, the US would expand the GWOT into Iraq, despite being warned that doing so “would undercut the [actual] US counteroffensive against terrorism” in Afghanistan.

Despite its ineffectiveness, the Bush Administration would remain externally focused and would retain enemy-centric COIN due to selfish bureaucratic politics. Even though Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz had witnessed firsthand the failures of minimalist operations in Afghanistan, because they had developed personal ownership for the light footprint approach, admitting the need for a more intensive, internally focused approach would have been “an admission of personal fail[ure].” Subsequently, when confronted by dissenters who were subject matter experts, Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz were disingenuous and dismissive, labeling them as ill-informed. Therefore, to protect their own credibility and prestige, they refused to challenge pre-Afghanistan assumptions and update their externally focused approach to an internal one. Consequently, during the Iraq War, lacking an understanding of Iraqi domestic conditions, the Bush Administration practiced de-Ba’athification and disbanded the Iraqi Army, despite being advised that Iraqi government institutions should be kept intact, “because [they] could serve as a unifying force in a … highly diverse and fragmented society.” As a result, a vast pool of unemployed, humiliated and antagonized men would join insurgencies.

By adhering to the Bush Doctrine but remaining externally focused, the Bush Administration proclaimed an ambitious endstate but displayed an unwillingness to commit, creating a disconnect between discourse and reality. The origins of this discrepancy are most prominently illustrated by the Bush Doctrine’s legislative vehicle: The 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF). The AUMF granted the President the authority to use force against those who “planned, authorized, committed, or aided” the terrorist attacks on 9/11. As opposed to a Congressionally ratified, traditional declaration of war, the ambiguous wording of the AUMF indicated that the Bush Administration was about to embark on a crusade against not just al Qaeda, but an entire belief system. Therefore, the GWOT would “not end with a signing ceremony on the [USS] Missouri,” but with the utter destruction of extremist ideologies. Accordingly, while the AUMF was designed to provide hardline retaliation towards terrorists, its ambitious, carte blanche nature clashed with the Bush Administration’s aversion towards protracted involvement, resulting in policy mismatch.

In sum, the Bush Administration’s approach to the GWOT was contradictory and shortsighted. It attempted to juggle an aversion to protracted involvement, with an ambitious goal that would require a lasting commitment. What resulted was an enemy-centric approach that neglected domestic considerations and fueled destabilization. Foreign Area Officer, Gregory Roberts, maintains that “an open-ended goal necessitates an open-ended commitment.” Simply put, having proclaimed an ambitious goal, leaders must work towards that goal without limitation. Conversely, if there are second thoughts, a definitive policy update must be issued, lest ambiguity be generated. If a policy update is not disseminated, bureaucrats cannot form a unified strategy and may pursue organizational and personal interests instead. The Bush Administration never released a strategic update, and as a result, mixed messages prevented progress because “everyone was just thinking in terms of what [they] could do in the short term” to better organizational and personal standing.

By 2008, the American public, which was war-weary but reluctant to admit defeat in the GWOT, led the Obama Administration to combine a hard deadline for withdrawal, with an internally focused surge in US efforts. Upon entering office, President Obama inherited a renewed insurgency in Afghanistan that was exacting increasing tolls on public opinion, as well as a conflict in Iraq, where plans were already underway for a hasty withdrawal. As a result, he took the drawdown in Iraq as a blessing, and was determined to refute the Bush Doctrine and refocus onto Afghanistan, a conflict he deemed “a war of necessity” that was true to the original mission of the GWOT. In a speech at West Point, President Obama remarked that under the Bush Administration, “commanders in Afghanistan [had] repeatedly asked for support … but these reinforcements” never arrived thanks to the amorphous nature of  Bush foreign policy. However, because Obama was determined to counter the atrophy of reconstruction efforts; under his watch, the requested troop increase would be fulfilled, to support a new internally focused, population-centric COIN strategy of clear-hold-build and transfer. 

Unlike its predecessor, the Obama Administration encouraged and did not discount input from subject matter experts before deciding on a new strategy. During the Bush Administration, concerns “bubbled under the surface … but never went public, or into a formal dissent.” However, under the Obama Administration, for the first time, a US commander in Afghanistan felt comfortable to publicly describe the situation as deteriorating, and to recommend a complete strategic overhaul. This commander: GEN Stanley McChrystal, asserted that the principal problem facing Afghanistan consisted of two threats, the first being a resurgent insurgency, while the second was the weakness of GIRoA institutions. He argued that such conditions would “generate recruits for the insurgent groups.” Therefore, he recommended the revision of internally focused, enemy-centric COIN, into a “comprehensive and fully resourced mission focused on protecting the population.” According to McChrystal, population-centric COIN would involve clearing contested areas, securing them to create opportunities for local-based governance, and then developing the area economically to achieve lasting stability after a proper transfer of authority.

Furthermore, President Obama’s approach to conflict decision-making was substantially more analytical than that of his predecessor. While the Bush Administration was marred with contradiction, discounted expert opinions in favor of personal schemas, and was steered by bureaucratic infighters such as Paul Wolfowitz; the Obama Administration’s decision to turn to an internally focused population-centric approach was characterized by centralized control and careful deliberation. While former Bush Vice President Dick Cheney accused him of ‘dithering,’ Obama instructed his vice president, Joe Biden, to play devil’s advocate and “ask the toughest questions [he could] think of” to challenge any pre-existing assumptions. Nor would Obama allow others in his Administration to dictate policy as Wolfowitz had under the laissez-faire Bush management system. For example, when McChrystal attempted to ‘goldilocks’ him into approving an unrealistic troop increase, Obama called him out. The surge strategy that was produced collegially, would feature a troop increase and population-centric COIN to rectify the Bush Administration’s blunders, but Obama’s deadline.

While internally focused, population-centric COIN was intended to be the be-all-end-all strategy for ‘countering violent extremism,’ by instituting a hard deadline for reconstruction in Afghanistan; the breeding ground for al Qaeda and the Taliban, the Obama Administration demonstrated a lack of commitment to what should have been treated as an open-ended goal. Overwhelming Afghanistan with a tsunami of US aid to meet the deadline, the surge fueled destabilization by incentivizing GIRoA corruption. For example, as part of the build phase, Quick Impact Projects (QIPs) to develop infrastructure, were intended to increase Afghan confidence in the GIRoA. However, because the surge’s prevailing strategy was that “money expended equals success,” corrupt GIRoA contractors exploited the system because they knew the money would keep flowing. Subsequently, Afghan civilians ranked corruption as one of the top three reasons why they continued to support the Taliban.

Despite its shortcomings, the Obama Administration would retain the surge strategy until the end of its second term. However, this time, retention of an ineffective strategy would not be because of senior policymakers’ fears of losing prestige, but would be because of prestige-hungry junior players, anxious to demonstrate rapid progress towards the 2014 deadline. To do so, impartial third party evaluations of missions were substituted with self-assessment, thereby making “everyone involved look good” and to make it look like the surge was having its intended effects. Furthermore, because progress was only measured quantitatively, in terms of patrols conducted, villages cleared and dollars spent; junior bureaucrats were enabled to paint misleading pictures of personal and organizational success. Just as the ‘body count’ metric had misled President Johnson decades prior, the surge’s shortcomings were obfuscated from Obama. As a result, despite the Obama Administration’s efforts to legitimize the GIRoA and build Afghan infrastructure, insurgencies returned to Afghanistan in the summer of 2015, forcing US troops to once again engage in offensive rather than reconstruction missions.

After continuing to receive positive reports, but seeing little progress, President Obama would have experienced cognitive dissonance and subsequently updated his internally focused beliefs regarding population-centric COIN. As a result, with the 2014 rapid expansion of Daesh in Iraq and Syria, the Obama Administration returned to a more enemy-centric COIN strategy of targeted drone strikes against insurgents. Drone strikes did not differentiate between friend or foe, and exacerbated civilian casualties, thereby eroding what little trust remained between target state civilians, their governments and the US. With the end of the Obama Administration, COIN and the GWOT had been brought full circle, with little to show for it.

In conclusion, despite its attempt to shoot a trajectory completely opposite the Bush Administration to combat terrorist insurgencies, the Obama Administration still fell victim to the same pitfalls of bureaucratic politics and public opinion that had been the impetus for such problems under the previous administration. While the Bush Administration’s external focus and dysfunctional laissez-faire management system led to the pursuance of destabilizing enemy-centric COIN, the Obama Administration’s internally focused and collegially brainstormed population centric COIN, could not eliminate violent extremism either. However, what is clear, is that no matter the difference in strategy, leaders must treat the fight against terrorism as an open-ended goal and require from themselves, an open-ended commitment. As both the Bush and Obama Administrations have demonstrated, if constraints are placed on COIN to reconcile public opinion, target-state destabilization will follow.

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