A new brief piece for the Telegraph looking at the new President’s options for countering terrorism.
- RAFFAELLO PANTUCCI DIRECTOR OF INTERNATIONAL SECURITY STUDIES, RUSI
Almost exactly eight years ago, the newly minted President Barack Obama took office in Washington and signed three executive orders. First, closing the detention centre in Guantanamo Bay; second, banning torture; and third, the establishment of an interagency task force to review detainee cases. On January 16, 2017, the United States sent ten detainees to Oman, leaving just over 40 at the American base in Cuba.
The failure to close Guantanamo provides a useful proxy to show how difficult it is to conclude the war on terrorism, a challenge that President Trump has stated he is going to confront and defeat as one of his many ambitious goals in office. The reality is that much has already been tried. It has failed to deliver conclusively, and a gradual war of attrition drags on with new battlefields and groups evolving and melting into each other.
Unlike some other pronouncements, President Trump has provided an outline of his strategy to defeat . On August 15, 2016 he gave a speech in Ohio in which he laid out a series of ideas for what he intended to do to counter terrorism. Amidst a litany of accusation against President Obama and candidate Clinton, President Trump declared he would stop undertaking nation building, establish an international conference and Commission at home to counter “the spread of Radical Islam.”
At a more micro-level, he stated he would establish new sanctions against al Qaeda, Hamas and Hezbollah, develop a new more stringent approach to screen immigrants including temporarily suspending “immigration from some of the most dangerous and volatile regions of the world.” Finally, he would extend Guantanamo Bay’s life and continue to use drones and other targeted military means to extend the reach of America’s justice.
Within this confrontational approach there is unfortunately little evidence of a conclusive answer to the problem at hand. Repeated conferences, reports, commissions and more around the world have sought to define and defeat terrorism and extremism. Their proscriptions tend to vary depending on the origin of the coordinators. Yet, they have failed to deal with the problem of al Qaeda, Isil or other forms of terrorism. Sanctions are a tried and tested policy that the United States has never shied away from using. Immigration to the US is already challenging, something that is ironically dissonant for a country that prides itself on its immigrant heritage. Under President Obama, the US has increased its use of drone strikes and special forces operations to target individual terrorists. “No drama Obama” sought to avoid the nation building experimentation of the Bush years and presided over a draw down in both Iraq and Afghanistan, while in the newer conflicts chose a paradoxical policy of “leading from behind.”
In sum: much of what President Trump is proposing has been tried already in one form or another. He will inevitably change the rhetorical manner in which it is being delivered and likely make far more aggressive and confrontational statements about radical Islam than his predecessor, but the substance is unlikely to change markedly. He will also likely enhance existing approaches and the idea of cooperating with Russia is one that has clearly been impossible under the current administration. But when looking at Syria and Isil it is not clear that Russia has any more answers. The current solution deployed by Moscow in Syria is heavy bombing, but even this has failed to eradicate those fighting against the Assad regime or Isil.
The reality is that terrorism is a difficult concept to counter and even harder to eradicate. To focus solely on Isil, for example, you are dealing with a group that has been around in one form or another since the late 1990s. It has waxed and waned over time, but not gone away notwithstanding a number of efforts. Like al Qaeda it has continued to survive, feeding parasitically off local conflicts to give its global brand relevance. The reality is that this is a group which is going to take years to reduce and ultimately eradicate. And if the history of terrorism is anything to go by, then it is likely to simply be eclipsed by a new brand of violent anti-establishmentarianism.
This is not intended to simply be a counsel of despair. Terrorist groups can be degraded and in some cases destroyed. It takes time, engagement (both military and non), and a willingness to try to address some of the thorniest questions on the planet. Some of which have no clear answers. And in many cases, have already been tried and failed. President Trump undoubtedly means to tackle these difficult questions, but the reality is that these are not issues that can simply be negotiated in deals, or completely eradicated through military force. Rather they can be managed, using the tools that the current President has already demonstrated a willingness to continue to use. New ones may also emerge.
The new President may plan on eradicating Isil, but it is likely that like President Obama’s effort to close Guantanamo, it will be a problem that he will manage during his term rather than eradicate. In four or eight years’ time, we will still be facing a threat from terrorism in some way, shape or form.
Raffaello Pantucci is Director of International Security Studies at the Royal United Services Institute