Don’t ‘Sustain' the Endless Counterterrorism War in Yemen. End It.
The Biden administration needs to be clearer about its strategy for countering terror groups.
The United States has waged war on al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula for more than a decade. As I argue in a recent report for New America, the war has taken on an endless character, in which the United States pursues objectives it cannot achieve but is not at risk of being defeated or denied access to the battlefield. The Biden administration’s seeming adoption of a sustainable counterterrorism framework risks institutionalizing the war’s endlessness. Rather than seeking to make the war sustainable, the United States should be looking to end it.
The war in Yemen reflects a broader dynamic in America’s counterterrorism wars recognized even by those who would continue them. While the United States paused its strikes in Yemen last year, it has neither abandoned its objective nor declared them completed. The war’s pauses echo those of the U.S. air war in Somalia, where the new Biden administration seemingly ordered a six-month pause. Strikes were restarted last summer, then paused after the disastrous August strike in Kabul, Afghanistan, then restarted in February. Meanwhile, the underlying authorization for these wars remains in force.
In the wake of the withdrawal from Afghanistan and amid a review of U.S. counterterrorism operations, the Biden administration appears to have adopted a strategy of “sustainable counterterrorism,” which would presumably guide such operations in Yemen and elsewhere. This position was put forward in a September speech by Liz Sherwood-Randall, assistant to the president for homeland security. It appears to build on what the Washington Institute’s Matthew Levitt has described as a recognition that “Counterterrorism efforts should not be viewed in terms of victory or defeat, but rather as an ongoing effort—short of both war and peace.”
Indeed, the Biden administration has largely eschewed the language of defeating al Qaeda as an objective, both in Sherwood-Randall’s speech and in the administration’s Interim National Security Strategic Guidance. Yet it has not abandoned the fight. As Sherwood-Randall put it, “We will maintain the fight against terrorism in Afghanistan from over the horizon – just as we will do in other countries across the world – working with partners, with tools that are commensurate with the threat, and without an American military presence on the ground.”
The Biden administration’s vision of “sustainable counterterrorism” could be a first step towards ending endless war—but it could also be yet another step towards institutionalizing endlessness. One warning sign is that sustainable counterterrorism is not a new idea. As Levitt noted, the broad outlines of the idea stretch back at least to the Obama administration. “A sustainable counterterrorism strategy depends on keeping the threat in perspective,” President Obama said in December 2016. The next month, he would turn over an escalating counterterrorism war in Yemen to the Trump administration, which would conduct an unprecedented 131 strikes there in 2017.
“Sustainable counterterrorism” fails to resolve the hole in American strategic theory when it comes to ends other than the decisive defeat of the United States’ enemies. Christopher Kolenda describes this hole in his book Zero-Sum Victory, writing that the Defense Department “has no definition or doctrine for this seemingly critical aspect of war. Options other than decisive victory do not exist in the national security lexicon.”
Rather than naming and clarifying specific objectives that once achieved would mean an end to the war, sustainable counterterrorism chooses to ignore the hole, accepting an ongoing twilight state of war and lack of decision. Notably, Sherwood-Randall’s speech does not use the words Yemen or Somalia.
By not laying out a specific strategy to achieve named objectives, sustainable counterterrorism resembles the euphemistically named strategic theory of mowing the grass, popular in Israel, which is mired in its own endless war with Hamas and other Palestinian factions.
Such a stance is not necessarily irrational, particularly if one thinks unexpected events will eventually rebound in one’s favor. Yet it is easy to forget that unanticipated events can also weaken one’s strategic position, particularly amid technological forces that are likely to benefit insurgents. The collapse of the Obama administration’s initial plan to limit drone strikes to imminent threats amid the setbacks of 2013 and 2014, should be caution enough regarding a strategy that assumes unanticipated changes in the Middle East will benefit the U.S. rather than jihadists.
A second problem is that sustainable counterterrorism amplifies the role of preventive war logic in American strategy. The framework focuses less on existing threats than on monitoring and preventing the rise of potential, future threats. But because preventive war is generally considered a form of aggression, this approach risks destabilizing the larger political environment, missing the forest for the trees. This is what West Point professor and former New America fellow Scott Silverstone terms a “preventive war paradox.”
There was a reasonable case for U.S. military action against AQAP in 2009 when the group almost brought down an airliner, nearly killing hundreds of people, an attack followed by two further plots against U.S. aviation directed out of Yemen.
Yet today, the threat to the United States homeland from Yemen appears to have substantially declined. Key AQAP operatives have been killed, the tenor of U.S. threat assessments has moved from descriptions of credible and specific threats to more generalized warnings of potential threats, and the civil war in Yemen has collapsed the ease of travel to and from Yemen that helped AQAP mount attacks in the West.
Fully assessing the threat AQAP poses to the United States requires more information than is publicly available. The U.S. should increase transparency regarding how it assesses the threat from AQAP. However, sustainable counterterrorism avoids the analysis of those specifics by maintaining a state of twilight war—even amid pauses in strikes—in order to maintain the ability to rapidly respond to future threats without going through the process of authorizing a new war and assessing its specific objectives.
Some argue that the United States is stuck in endless war precisely because it has failed to truly seek decisive victory. Yet there is reason to doubt that the decisive defeat of AQAP is an achievable objective. AQAP has a long history, and has resurged from apparent defeats in the past. Yemen’s internationalized civil war also limits the United States’ ability to pursue transformative or unlimited objectives, particularly if those aims would necessitate rapid centralization of power.
Moreover, as Sarah Phillips argues, visions of decisive victory struggle with the decentralized character of al-Qaeda and Yemenis’ fluid understandings of what it means. As Phillips puts it, U.S. strategy tends to truncate the meaning of al Qaeda to make it legible and targetable, yet, “destroying one of its coexisting meanings will not defeat the group because other opaque relationships inevitably survive it.” AQAP’s propaganda has steered into this frame.
Truncating some of the potential meanings of AQAP may be a desirable and potentially achievable objective. But to make such a judgment requires acknowledging its limited character necessitating the U.S. be willing to accept circumstances short of AQAP’s destruction. Maintaining the language of defeat conceals key questions about the sustainability and tradeoffs of pursuing limited objectives.
Rather than pursuing the mirage of a decisive defeat of AQAP or making the war sustainable, the United States should seek to end its state of war. This approach will require reforms or even the repeal of the 2001 AUMF. The strategy should be announced by a presidential speech that addresses the history of American objectives and actions in Yemen and elsewhere and that clearly defines any remaining objectives to be pursued via war, taking pains to explain why they are achievable. The speech should be accompanied by a thorough, public review of U.S. strikes and ground operations in Yemen over the full course of the war.
There may be future occasions when the American people decide that terrorist threats from Yemen require military response. However, those decisions should be made with an eye to how such wars will end. Sustainable counterterrorism—insofar as it retains an open-ended state of war—prevents the strategic thinking that the project requires.
David Sterman is a Senior Policy Analyst with New America’s International Security program.
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