Obama redefines war on terror

The president focuses on Al Qaeda and on repairing America’s image in the Muslim world.

Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP
Change of command: President Obama met members of the US Armed Forces on a visit to the Pentagon Wednesday. Obama is shifting the focus of the war on terror to Afghanistan.

President Obama’s executive orders closing the Guantánamo detention facility and outlawing torture were interpreted in some circles as closing the door on the Bush administration’s global war on terror.

But Mr. Obama – who used the word “war” in his inaugural address to describe the fight with Islamic extremists who would do America harm – is not so much ending the war on terror as he is redefining it and narrowing its focus.

The president is signaling a desire to home in on the Al Qaeda organization and its leadership, as well as on those Taliban leaders who have created a haven in Afghanistan and Pakistan from which to plot against US interests, say counterterrorism experts.

At the same time, Obama aims to cleave Muslim populations from extremist forces by emphasizing his and America’s common interests with the Muslim people, and by acting fast on issues that matter to them.

Within his first week in office, Obama named a special envoy on Israeli-Palestinian peace, spoke passionately about the suffering of civilians in Gaza, and gave his first television interview as president to the Al-Arabiya satellite network – pointing out that he, too, has Muslims in his family.

But just a day after Obama also named a special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan Jan 22, the US launched two missile attacks from CIA-operated unmanned drone aircraft at targets in Pakistan’s tribal areas where Al Qaeda’s top leaders are thought to enjoy refuge.

The strikes reportedly killed at least 20 people, including foreign fighters and a high-level militant.

Obama “is already making it clear he is focusing on a war on Al Qaeda instead of a broad war on terrorism,” says Bruce Riedel, a senior fellow in terrorism and South Asia studies at the Brookings Institution in Washington and a former CIA analyst and adviser to three US administrations.

“He’s going after the organization that attacked the US on 9/11, and before and since, rather than pursuing a vague and murky war on terrorism everywhere.”

As part of that narrowing of focus, Obama is signaling that the strategy for Afghanistan – which he considers the “central front” in the war on terror – will be scaled back from the Bush administration’s aim of building a democracy to a more realistic goal of denying sanctuary to Al Qaeda and the Taliban.

“If we set ourselves the objective of creating some sort of Central Asian Valhalla over there, we will lose,” Defense Secretary Robert Gates said in congressional testimony this week.

A significant semantic shift

As Obama adjusts the battle with Islamic extremists to his vision, expect to see two other modifications from the Bush approach, counterterrorism experts say. One will be a conscious semantic shift to deny Al Qaeda and other groups fodder to paint America as waging war on Islam. The second change will be a dethroning of military power as the preeminent response to terrorism, in favor of employing the full panoply of tools from law enforcement and the justice system to international intelligence networks and diplomacy.

“The term ‘global war on terror’ came to represent an overambitious enterprise encompassing too many objectives, and it ended up sounding hubristic and defining the US for some foreign audiences in a way that did not advance our purposes,” says Brian Michael Jenkins, a counterterrorism expert at the RAND Corp. in Arlington, Va. “The term GWOT will be hard to kill, but there’s a reason we haven’t heard President Obama or anyone else in the new administration use it.”
As one retired senior military officer says, the term “war on terror” “connotes ‘old think’ and one of the most powerful messages that the new president can send is that we are approaching international issues with a fresh approach and a new level of sophistication.”

Now, Mr. Jenkins says, we are more likely to hear references to “battling” or “combating” terrorism – words that take the ideological edge out of the fight, putting it more on par with combating crime.

In his first visit to the Pentagon Wednesday, Obama and the Joint Chiefs of Staff talked broadly about Iraq and Afghanistan but also about a global strategy for combating extremist ideology, says a senior defense official.

After the meeting, Obama told reporters of his message to the Joint Chiefs that he intends to spread the burden of securing US interests to other agencies.

“We have for a long time put enormous pressure on our military to carry out a whole set of missions, sometimes not with the sort of strategic support and the use of all aspects of American power,” Obama said.

Looking beyond the military

A common thread of Obama’s actions so far is “a shift away from terms and tools that are overly militaristic,” says Matthew Levitt, director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy’s director of counterterrorism and intelligence studies. The trend now, says the former FBI analyst, will be toward an “all-elements-of-national-power approach to combating terrorism” including law enforcement, intelligence, financial tools, and diplomacy.

Underscoring the growing role that illicit drugs are playing in financing terrorist groups like Al Qaeda, Mr. Levitt says agencies such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Drug Enforcement Administration will play a larger role in the new counterterrorist strategy.

But, he adds, that does not mean the new administration will be “soft” on terrorism. The military will be used when appropriate, he says, citing Obama’s call for more troops in Afghanistan and last week’s missile strikes in Pakistan.

Still, Obama is also signaling that he expects an America that lives by and promotes its values to be its own best ally in fighting extremism. Al Qaeda’s top leadership already seems rattled by a popular new American president whose middle name is “Hussein,” counterterrorism experts say. And by going on an Arab network and addressing the Muslim world in his inaugural address, Obama has shown he understands the importance of the president’s role.

Al Qaeda leaders such as Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri were comfortable with the Bush administration’s more confrontational rhetoric, says RAND’s Jenkins. Resisting that language, he says, may be one of the best ways over the long run of defeating them.

“Bin Laden and Al-Zawahiri are desperate to engage Obama in their narrative,” Jenkins says, “and so far he’s showing us he’s not going to do that.”

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