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A Critique of the Obama Administration’s Approach to Counterterrorism, as Outlined in the 2015 National Security Strategy

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A Critique of the Obama Administration’s Approach to Counterterrorism, as Outlined in the 2015 National Security Strategy

Andrew Valella

The United States has been engaged in a self-declared War on Terror in the fifteen years since 9/11, and as such, it is clear that terrorism poses a clear challenge to our notion of National Security. Furthermore, it is increasingly evident with the rise of large movements like ISIS, that merely defeating individual terror groups such as Al Qaeda will not eliminate the threat posed by extreme political violence. New groups, with similar grievances and agendas, have been proven to spring up and continue the fight wherever the opportunity presents itself. New ways of thinking must guide an evolving counterterror policy, lest we find ourselves perpetually threatened by extremism. The Obama Administration’s 2015 National Security Strategy dedicates an entire chapter to the United States’ counterterrorism policy, in which it broadly highlights the shift away from costly, large-scale ground wars and occupations towards more targeted counterterrorism operations, and preventing the growth of violent extremism by supporting greater economic opportunities for “women and disaffected youth”[i].  These are certainly idealistic aims in theory. In practice, however, the effectiveness of such strategies has proven questionable at best.

The idea of promoting economic opportunity has long been touted in the popular narrative for deterring terrorism, and for good reason. The idea that terrorism is born out of economic desperation, propagated throughout the 2015 National Security Strategy, is not only a easy concept for the general public to grasp, but it also serves the United States’ neoliberal economic agenda for international growth.  There is very little evidence, however, that promoting economic opportunity in the traditional positive-sum growth model actually has any measurable impact on reducing terrorism. 

In a working paper titled Education, Poverty, Political Violence and Terrorism: Is There a Causal Connection? Princeton University experts with the National Bureau of Economic Research determined that there existed no real link between poverty and terrorism[ii]. In fact, this 2002 study, which has been reproduced numerous times with similar findings, actually purports that terrorists were more commonly associated with higher incomes and better educations. The National Security Strategy may find more success in countering terrorism by promoting a more equitable world economic system, however this policy would otherwise contradict longstanding US core trade principles.

The concept of women’s empowerment as a counterterror approach, as is presented in the National Security Strategy, is definitely more interesting from an academic perspective. In 2009, Major Leigh C. Matanov of the Air Command and Staff College published a report titled Combating Terrorism via the Womb: Empowering Iraqi Women which suggested that economically empowering Iraqi women could win their political support and result in their raising a generation of men less willing to conduct terrorism or participate in insurgency[iii]. A similar long-term sentiment is echoed in the US Army Counterinsurgency Field Manual FM 3-24, written by General David Patraeus, which states how “in traditional societies, women are hugely influential informing the social networks that insurgents use for support. When women support counterinsurgency efforts, families support counterinsurgency efforts. Getting the support of families is a big step toward mobilizing the local populace against the insurgency. Co-opting neutral or friendly women through targeted social and economic programs builds networks of enlightened self-interest that eventually undermine insurgents”[iv].

Unfortunately, there is inconclusive hard evidence as to the effectiveness of the gendered approach touted by the National Security Strategy. For example, one Georgetown University study conducted by Emily Becker, titled Women and Terrorism: How Does the Treatment of Women Affect Rates of Terrorism concluded that greater female empowerment, as measured by labor force participation and fertility rates in the areas studied, was actually correlated with increased instances of terrorist violence[v]. As promising as gender relations may seem to deciphering the mystery of terrorism, they hardly compare to the greater political ramifications of, say, ethno-national relations, which aren’t featured anywhere in the counterterrorism section of the National Security Strategy.

The Obama Administration’s strong and consistent rebuke of large-scale ground wars and military occupations offers a much more promising approach to dealing with terrorist threats. While the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, launched in the wake of 9/11, achieved a good deal of tactical success in eliminating senior Al Qaeda leadership, ultimately they may have fostered increased militant radicalization and resentment towards the United States throughout the Middle East and the Muslim world. This may have been Al Qaeda’s strategy from the onset. MIT researchers Andrew H. Kydd and Barbara F. Walter postulate in The Strategies of Terrorism that due to the generally poor rate of coercive success in the use of violent attacks on civilians, terrorists instead seek to provoke overwhelming military responses from their target states in order to radicalize moderates into their camp[vi]. Additionally, terrorism expert Robert Pape stressed in his article It’s the Occupation, Stupid that foreign military occupations, such as those imposed on Iraq and Afghanistan in the aftermath of 9/11, constitute a root cause for suicide terrorism[vii]. Louise Richardson echoes these claims his chapter What the Terrorists Want in our textbook.[viii] Taken together, these ideas can prove to be a useful lens in exploring the flawed logic of the War on Terror, and we should credit the Obama Administration for moving away from these tactics in their more recent National Security Strategy.

Moving away from counterproductive military interventions certainly sounds good on paper, however in practice, there is less of a consensus on how best to achieve strategic counterterror success without overwhelming force. The Obama Administration proposes “targeted counterterrorism operations” as a viable such alternative, but gives very little insight as to what this might mean. Taking a step back from the National Security Strategy and examining our counterterror efforts in the real world, we might notice a vastly increased use of drones, air strikes, and special operations forces. Initially, these may seem like much cheaper and favorable alternatives to costly invasions. The political costs of these endeavors may be a bit harder to quantify, however.

The Huffington Post reported in 2015 that “Nearly 90% of people killed in recent drone strikes were not the target”, which poses very grave concerns over the potential for collateral damage in these allegedly targeted, precise operations[ix]. Collateral damage at these rates can seriously undermine US counterterror efforts, as outlined by Princeton University experts Luke Condra and Jacob Shapiro in their 2012 article Who Takes the Blame? The Strategic Effects of Collateral Damage. The findings of this research conclude that high levels of collateral damage resulted in higher levels of terrorist violence in the areas studied[x]. Potentially contradicting this reasoning, however, is research published at Oxford University titled The Impact of US Drone Strike on Terrorism in Pakistan, which found that drone strikes were actually correlated with a decreased incidence of terrorist violence, although this study did not account for the impact of collateral damage, nor did it gauge fluctuations in terrorist recruitment for later attacks[xi]. Nonetheless, these findings do call into question the long-term effectiveness of the Obama Administration’s targeted approach to counterterrorism.

While the counterterror approach outlined in the 2015 National Security Strategy certainly marks a progressive shift in the right direction, away from the inherently counterproductive policies of the Bush Administration, it does leave many questions unanswered as to its real effectiveness. The push for global economic growth and women’s empowerment, for example, are certainly admirable liberal aims, yet they seem to lack any empirical relevance to counterterror policy. The Administration’s move away from large military interventions does show more promise for counterterror success, but only if other appropriate policy instruments are employed in their absence. The jury is still out on the use of drone strikes, however, and as such, the Administration ought to proceed with more caution with regard to their potential for collateral damage and civilian casualties. Terrorism will pose a threat to US National Security for years to come, and as an evolving and complex phenomenon, the government must constantly find ways to adapt and counter this threat. The policy outlined in the 2015 National Security Strategy is simply inadequate for dealing with it.

End Notes

[i] "2015 National Security Strategy." (n.d.): n. pag. The White House, Feb. 2015. Web.

[ii] Krueger, Alan B. and Jitka Maleckova. "Education, Poverty And Terrorism: Is There A Causal Connection?," Journal of Economic Perspectives, 2003, v17(4,Fall), 119-144.

[iii] Matanov, Leigh C., Maj. Combating Terrorism via the Womb: Empowering Iraqi Women. Air Commanyd and Staff College Air University, Apr. 2009. Web.

[iv] "Counterinsurgency FM 3-24." (n.d.): n. pag. Headquarters Department of the Army, Dec. 2006. Web.

[v] Becker, Emily. Women and Terrorism: How Does the Treatment of Women Affect Rates of Terrorism? Thesis. Georgetown University, 2010. N.p.: n.p., n.d. Print.

[vi] Kydd, Andrew H., and Barbara F. Walter. “The Strategies of Terrorism”. International Security 31.1 (2006): 49–80. Web.

[vii] Pape, Robert A. "It’s the Occupation, Stupid." N.p., 18 Oct. 2010. Web. 04 Mar. 2016.

[viii] Art, Robert J., and Kelly M. Greenhill, eds. The Use of Force: Military Power and International Politics. 8th ed. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2015. Print.

[ix] Fang, Marina. "Nearly 90 Percent Of People Killed In Recent Drone Strikes Were Not The Target." The Huffington Post, 15 Oct. 2015. Web. 4 Mar. 2016.

[x] Shapiro, Jacob N., and Luke Condra. Who Takes the Blame? The Strategic Effects of Collateral Damage. American Journal of Political Science 56(1), 167-187, 2012. Web.

[xi] Johnston, Patrick B., and Anoop K. Sarbahi. "The Impact of US Drone Strikes on Terrorism in Pakistan." International Studies Quarterly (2016): n. pag. Web.


About the Author(s)

Andrew Valella is a student pursuing a joint BS-MS Political Science degree at Northeastern University in Boston with a focus on Security & Resilience Studies and Terrorism/Counterterrorism Policy.


Bill C.

Wed, 04/27/2016 - 11:46am

In reply to by Bill M.

Bill M:

Agree with your thought above, which informs us that terrorism and sponsoring insurgencies, since at least the end of WWII, also became a tool of the great nations, the great powers, the "strong."

But should we associate this practice (of great nations, etc., also using terrorism and sponsoring insurgencies) as something that is brought about by the problem of nuclear weapons? Herein, suggesting that, in the nuclear age, ways and means other than "hot" wars were/are needed to achieve one's political objectives?

Or should we, instead (and keeping with your Cold War and beyond focus here) suggest that the use of terrorism and insurgencies -- by the great nations/the great powers post-WWII -- this becomes manifest more because of the basic underlying character of our post-WWII conflicts; this being -- in the Old Cold War of yesterday and also as per the New/Reverse Cold War of today --

a. One set of great nations (the Soviets/the communists back then; the U.S./the West today) seeking expansion, of their unique way of life, their unique way of governance, etc., throughout the world? And --

b. Another set of great nations (the U.S./the West back then; Russia, China and Iran today) seeking to prevent, contain, obstruct, undermine, and/or roll back these such expansionist attempts by their great nation rivals?

Herein to ask whether, even minus the availability of nuclear weapons, this such use of terrorism and insurgencies by "the strong" -- specifically to achieve one's expansionist and/or containment, etc., political objectives in other states and societies -- whether this would have become manifest, post-WWII and indeed post-the Old Cold War, anyway?

This because, with or without nuclear weapons, the basic underlying nature of these conflicts (expansionist nations versus containment/etc., nations) would still have been the same?

Bill M.

Wed, 04/27/2016 - 3:36am

In reply to by Bill C.

Bill C.

This quote I agree with, "As "a heritage of extended empire, a certain epilogue to encroachments by a great nation into lands beyond the confines of existing civilization ...""

However, I don't believe terrorism and insurgency are simply the tools of the weak, at least not in the modern age. Actually sponsoring terrorism and insurgency is a way for great powers to achieve war like aims well short of engaging in an expensive and disastrous traditional war. Ever since the advent of nuclear weapons, terrorism and sponsoring insurgencies has also become a tool of the strong.

Unfortunately this rings true, "Terrorism? Much like small wars, and as per C.E. Callwell above, accepted as just one of the costs of doing this important business/of accomplishing this critical mission."

First, let's look at "terrorism" in much the same ways that C.E. Callwell looked at the causes of "small wars," to wit:

a. As "a heritage of extended empire, a certain epilogue to encroachments by a great nation into lands beyond the confines of existing civilization ..."

b. As a "consequence" that "a great nation, seeking expansion in remote quarters of the globe, must accept," and

c. As something that will "dog the footsteps," "of the pioneers of civilization," operating "in regions afar off." (Use the "Look Inside" option and go the chapter on causes of small wars.)

(In support of this approach -- to wit: of equating and/or associating terrorism with small wars -- consider the following from Dr. Jeffery Record:

"Terrorism, like guerrilla warfare, is a form of irregular warfare, or 'small war' so defined by C. E. Callwell in his classic 1896 work, Small Wars, Their Principles and Practice, as 'all campaigns other than those where both sides consist of regular troops.' As such, terrorism, like guerrilla warfare, is a weapon of the weak against a 'regular' (i.e., conventional) enemy that cannot be defeated on his own terms or quickly." ... ) (Go to Page 8.)

Next, to suggest that what causes the terrorist to fight is his disagreement with the often foreign, radical and profane (think, for example, "secular,") political, economic and social changes that the "great nation," "seeking expansion in remote corners of the globe," hopes to bring about in the land of the terrorist and/or his ancestors:

"The locals ultimately own the country being fought over. If they do not want the 'reforms' you desire, they will resist you as we have been resisted in Iraq and Afghanistan. ... The sad truth is that most people do not want to be deprived of their ancestral ways and will fight to protect them. "Hearts and Minds" is an empty propagandist's phrase."… (Go to the "Conclusion.")

Finally, with this foundation before us, to consider the Obama Administration's approach to counter-terrorism, as outlined in the 2015 National Security Strategy. (To wit: more of the very same radical, foreign, alien and profane political, economic and social changes/"reforms" that got us into this trouble in the first place???)

Bottom Line:

Transformation, of outlying states and societies more along modern western political, economic and social lines? (The bringing of our civilization to these natives?) This is considered most important and will, accordingly, continue to move forward.

Terrorism? Much like small wars, and as per C.E. Callwell above, accepted as just one of the costs of doing this important business/of accomplishing this critical mission.

Bill M.

Sun, 04/24/2016 - 11:22pm

I enjoyed your paper Andrew, and I hope more people in the military and those producing strategy are inspired by it to at least challenge their underlying assumptions about countering terrorism and insurgency. We continue to confuse ideology with facts, which is why we tend to believe that if we create more jobs, end poverty, and bring women into the mainstream in societies where they're not, and other such ideological beliefs we will have addressed the underlying conditions driving the conflict. While these goals are noble in their own right, they normally have little to do with the real underlying issues driving the conflict.

We need to stop throwing good money after bad by blindly embracing ideology, instead of what works. Sadly we (DoD/USG) have become a non-learning organization. Oddly enough, this was the criticism that John Nagel directed towards the U.S. military in Vietnam in his book "Eating Soup with a Knife." Yet now it is John and his merry team of like minded COINdistas that largely are part of the reason we have failed to learn and adapt in our current conflicts. I suspect historians looking back without emotion will have a very different view of the COINdistas than the one many have share now.


Sat, 04/23/2016 - 10:31am

Doesn't calling attention to the importance women play explain in the harsh treatment and abuse of women by organisations like the Islamic State. Gang rape, marriage by rape, the Hijab, restrictions to prevent women to aspire to being worth more than a goat, suggest the terrorists are already sensitive to potential exploitation of themes that liberate women for more than religious or pseudo religious reasons?
President Obama's wife exclaimed in the aftermath of the school girl abductions and marriages by rape of these children to members of Boko Haram, they would, "get the girls back". To date only one girl returned, and she was a suicide bomber.
The Nazis, Soviet Communists and others and Islamists inspired by totalitarian tyranny, (The Muslim Brotherhood can be directly tied to the Nazis), realize brutality, even genocide is effective when no world governing body and its leaders, men like President Obama, are unwilling to do much more than wage diplomacy.
Poverty as a cause of war? I did not know that people still took the connection seriously.
Americans really have not been exposed to the sort of poverty that causes mass starvation as may take place in Southern India this year where analysts are already warning an early drought will affect the survival of over 300 million nationals.
The better question would be if such dire circumstances in which death becomes a constant is a factor that is existential but has direct consequences. Ones annual earnings are not likely to be as important an effect as witnessing first hand mass deaths caused by starvation, or being exposed to the Marxist socialist literature that exploits even natural disasters like droughts on capitalism ad western decadence, and may explain the growth of terrorist cadres in Africa, and the Middle East severely affected by population explosions and diminishing access to basic survival needs, water sources and food. It is that existential "knowledge" that makes explicable how productive citizens of countries in the west join Marxist / Socialist / Islamists. Or become anti-American activists who ideologically align themselves with terrorists while denouncing their most extreme actions, which they may find explicable. With such Islamist socialist ideological spread in the west it is no wonder the Islamic State acquires so many volunteers from Europe and Americas.
As "Mother Courage" exclaims, "Truth is the enemy of facts." it is the grist of Islamic and other "revolutionaries".
Such ideological influences have been successful in maligning American military culture and power or simply dismissing it as a game changer that has no practicable value and is merely about exploitation of the poor.
I dare say we had less problems enjoining Iraqis from seeing the benefits of American participation when FM 3-24 was implemented by General Petreaus and the success of the Sruge, than we have convincing the American liberal mind set that it worked.