If all goes according to President Barack Obama’s plan, the United States will soon be making a major new investment of $5 billion so that other countries can help in the fight against extremists. Regardless of how sensible such a proposal might sound, many things can go wrong, and the new program already seems too heavily dependent on military responses.
Obama introduced the initiative at his West Point commencement speech last month, saying he would establish a network of partnerships with countries from South Asia to Africa. The goal is to train and equip foreign security forces, so they can conduct counterterrorism operations with little American involvement. The past 13 years have proved that it would be impossible, as well as unwise and unnecessary, for the United States to assume responsibility for every terrorist threat.
Terrorist threats are unquestionably out there. Despite the administration’s success at reducing the core al-Qaida group behind the 9/11 attacks, Obama acknowledged that “for the foreseeable future, the most direct threat to America at home and abroad remains terrorism.” The threat has become more diffuse, involving extremists in Syria, Nigeria, Somalia, Yemen, Mali and elsewhere. The result is that while there is less likelihood of a 9/11-style attack on the United States, there is a greater danger of attacks on Americans overseas, as in Benghazi or the shopping mall in Nairobi, Obama said.
Obama said his Counterterrorism Partnerships Fund would offer expanded help to vulnerable countries, including Iraq, Lebanon and Turkey. The idea isn’t new, although Obama would greatly increase the funding beyond the millions of dollars already being spent annually. In recent years, the United States has increasingly relied on partner countries to help in the fight against extremists. The Pentagon is providing intelligence and logistics assistance to other groups, like African troops and French commandos fighting militants in Somalia and Mali. And it is also training foreign troops in countries like Niger, Yemen and Afghanistan to confront insurgents on their own territory, so American armies won’t have to.
Obama has revealed few details of his program, which must be approved by Congress and reportedly is still in the planning phase. But there are serious questions about the effectiveness of past counterterrorism efforts, and experts say the government has never systematically evaluated what works and what does not. Iraq is one cautionary example of how much can go wrong. Even though the United States spent years and $25 billion to build up the Iraqi Army so it could defend the country, entire units disintegrated recently in the face of assaults by Islamist insurgents, and untold amounts of valuable weapons fell into enemy hands. In another case, soldiers in Mali overthrew the government in March 2012, even though U.S. special forces had trained Malian forces.
As described by Obama, it appears that the new program is intended to be run out of the Pentagon. That would be a mistake. To be effective, the program must also address the social and political drivers of instability and involve civilians as well as military officials. For instance, training must involve not just soldiers but police officers, judges and prosecutors, with a strong emphasis on the rule of law and human rights, so cracking down on extremists does not end up radicalizing more people or empowering authoritarian leaders.
An emphasis has to be placed on good governance. There also needs to be investment in community projects, education and moderate groups that build civil society and discourage extremism. As Iraq demonstrates, just training troops to shoot and providing generals with expensive weapons will not address the threat.
— The New York Times
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