President Obama has cited the battle against al-Shabab militants in Somalia as a model of success for his relatively low-investment, light-footprint approach to counterterrorism.
By some measures, it has paid dividends. U.S. drones have killed several of the Islamist group’s leaders, including two top planners in just the past month, a senior administration official said Friday. African Union troops backed by the United States have forced al-Shabab fighters to flee huge swaths of territory.
But this week’s massacre of 148 people at Garissa University College, the deadliest terrorist attack on Kenyan soil in two decades, demonstrates the limits of the administration’s approach and the difficulty of producing lasting victories over resilient enemies.
Only last fall, Obama was touting his counterterrorism strategy in the region as one that “we have successfully pursued in Yemen and Somalia for years.”
The collapse of the American-backed government in Yemen forced the Pentagon last month to pull its Special Operations forces from the country. The chaos in Yemen and the absence of an effective partner has essentially halted U.S. counterterrorism operations against al-Qaeda’s affiliate there.
“But Pejman,” I hear you cry, “does this mean that any time we fight a terrorist group, we have to do it with boots on the ground?” Certainly not. At the same time, the light-footprint model has its limitations, and it is high time those limitations were acknowledged. Unfortunately, the Obama administration seems bound and determined to apply the same anti-terrorism template over and over (and over) again, and declare success . . . right before a cataclysmic event or series of events that lays bare the shortcomings of the administration’s approach.
And some people wonder why I think that this administration’s foreign and national security policy has gone off the rails.