Scoring Obama’s counter-terrorism legacy

When outgoing US President Barack Obama came into office, many believed he would turn the page on the "war on terror." Yet the reality has been different. We score him on how effective his approach to counter-terrorism has been.

Photo by: AP
Photo by: AP

Obama will become the first president in US history to serve two full terms in a time of war [AP].

Updated Dec 26, 2016

Guantanamo Bay

The executive order to close Guantanamo was issued on January 22, 2009, only two days after President Barack Obama’s inauguration. He aimed to close the facility by 2010.

Political opposition from a Republican-controlled Congress and a string of high-profile attacks have kept Obama from delivering on his campaign promise.

Obama continues to insist that the prison’s existence damages not only Washington’s standing in the world but also security:

Guantanamo harms our partnerships with allies in other countries whose co-operation we need to fight terrorism. When I talk to other world leaders, they bring up the fact that Guantanamo is not resolved … 15 years after the worst terrorist attack in American history, we’re still having to defend the existence of a facility and a process where not a single verdict has been reached in those attacks.  

- Barack Obama, February, 2016

The armed groups Washington intends to dismantle have used Guantanamo as an example of US hypocrisy and as a means to mobilise their own forces. When the video of the execution of James Foley, a freelance US journalist, was released by Daesh in 2014, he was donning an orange jumpsuit similar to those worn by Guantanamo detainees.

The armed group's message was clear. As described by The Washington Post, the use of orange jumpsuits is an embodiment of the “anger at the United States [for] continuing to hold detainees without a trial” as part of the so-called war on terror.

Though the Obama administration was able to greatly reduce the number of prisoners in the centre — only 59 prisoners remain in the facility, down from 780 at its height — he will leave office with the prison still open.  


Obama originally wanted Guantanamo to be closed by 2010. (TRT World)

Drone war

The first drone strike of the Obama administration came on the same day as the president’s formal pledge to close the Guantanamo Bay detention centre.

The strike, in Pakistan’s Waziristan region, was credited with the death of a Saudi national who had helped to orchestrate the 7/7 bombings in London which killed 52 people in 2005. It was also one of the few US drone strikes to be supported by a foreign government, in this case Pakistan.

Subsequent strikes in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and Libya, however, have been shrouded in secrecy and face repeated claims of killing civilians.

In June, after years of pressure from rights organisations and activists, the White House released a report on the number of civilians killed in unmanned aerial strikes.

According to that report, between 64 and 116 civilians were killed in the period from January 20, 2009 to December 31, 2015. Independent groups estimate, meanwhile, that the actual civilian death toll from the drone war is anywhere from 207 to 966.

According to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, there were at least 1,670 reported cases of drone strikes in Afghanistan alone between 2001 and 2013, making it the “most drone bombed country in the world.”

In 2015, a group of former US Air Force service members sent a letter to Obama saying the civilian death toll in the drone war is being used by groups like Daesh as “a fundamental recruitment tool similar to Guantanamo Bay.”


The White House says at most just over 100 civilians were killed in the drone war, but rights organisations say that number could be as high as 966. (TRT World)

Eliminating the Taliban in Afghanistan

Throughout his first presidential campaign, Obama referred to Afghanistan as the “good” war that he would see through to completion.

On December 1, 2009, he announced a US troop surge in Afghanistan. That influx of 33,000 soldiers would bring the number of US boots on the ground to more than 100,000. By 2012, all 33,000 surge troops were withdrawn, but the Taliban were far from defeated. The war in Afghanistan continues to this day.

Despite repeated promises to end the US combat mission by 2014, more than 9,800 US troops are still in Afghanistan, where they often have to step in to help fight a resurgent Taliban. The Taliban now controls more land than at any time since the 2001 US-led invasion. The group has also managed to take control of the northern city of Kunduz for 15 days in 2015 (and nearly did it again this year). The last several years have also seen continuously unprecedented civilian casualties.

Additionally, groups claiming loyalty to the Iraq and Syria-based militant group Daesh, began to stage deadly attacks in the country in 2015.

Now, seven years since the surge, Obama’s optimism about Afghanistan has clearly dissipated.  

“The United States cannot eliminate the Taliban or end violence in that country,“ he said on December 06, 2016.


Obama hoped to end the US mission in Afghanistan before the end of his presidency. (TRT World)

NATO intervention in Libya

The US was among a coalition of nations that committed to a no-fly zone and military intervention in Libya in response to what was fast becoming a civil war. Washington had been a long-time critic of Muammar Gaddafi – who had ruled Libya for more than four decades – but it was his violent response to a series of protests that began in February 2011 (as part of the what was once widely called the “Arab Spring”) that ultimately led to direct US intervention in the country under the umbrella of NATO.

The call for the overthrow of President Muammar Gaddafi initially began as a protest movement similar to those sweeping several other Arab nations at the time. Gaddafi, however, responded with direct violence.

By March 2011, a month after protests began, the country was facing civil war. As the fighting became more violent, Western and Arab nations began to call for military intervention. Some provided direct support for the newly emerged rebel groups.

By October 2011, Gaddafi was brutally killed by the foreign-backed armed rebel groups.

Those who supported the toppling of Gaddafi had hoped for a new, more fair and free Libya to rise from the ashes of his decades-long rule. Yet many Libyan activists and civil society actors quickly became disenchanted in the months and years that followed, taking the view that the international coalition had either abandoned them or was actively supporting the chaos fuelled by the militias.

With little foreign oversight and a power vacuum in Tripoli, the weapons provided to the anti-Gaddafi rebels eventually found themselves in the hands of armed groups in other African countries, including Mali.

On September 11, 2012, some members of Ansar al-Sharia, a hardline militia that had emerged in the aftermath of the Libyan civil war, coordinated an attack on the US diplomatic compound in Benghazi, the strategically important second-largest city in Libya. Later reports would confirm that Washington failed to provide extra security to the consulate. Hillary Clinton’s role as US secretary of state during this period led to a congressional investigation and became a constant point of criticism from her political opponents throughout the 2016 presidential elections.

In an April 2016 interview, Obama himself referred to his failure to plan for a post-Gaddafi Libya as the worst mistake of his career. Speaking to The Atlantic, Obama said the NATO intervention had many successes: averting civil war, preventing “large-scale civilian casualties” and a one billion dollar price tag, which he said was “very cheap” compared to other foreign military incursions. However, Libya, Obama acknowledged, “is a mess” today.


Washington had been a long-time critic of Muammar Gaddafi, who ruled Libya for more than four decades. (TRT World)

Death of Osama bin Laden

On the evening of May 2, 2011, nearly 10 years after the 9/11 attacks, Barack Obama announced the death of Osama bin Laden, then the world’s most-wanted terrorist.

The announcement was a boon to Obama, who was able to do what his predecessor, George W Bush, couldn’t. The raid on Bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, where he had been living for several years, was supported by 90 percent of the US public.

It was also gave bragging rights to then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who referred to it throughout this year’s presidential election.

However, the fact that Bin Laden was targeted in Pakistan without the Pakistani government’s involvement became a sticking point for Islamabad, who claimed their sovereignty had been violated.

Further, beyond the symbolic value, the death of Bin Laden had little effect on global “terrorism” as Al Qaeda, the group he had co-founded in 1988, was largely irrelevant at that point.


Throughout the 2016 presidential election, Hillary Clinton, former Secretary of State, cited the death of Osama bin Laden as a major achievement. (TRT World)

Abu Bakr al Baghdadi declares himself caliph of Daesh

Obama may have claimed to kill the co-founder and leader of Al Qaeda, but within four years, a newer, more dangerous threat would emerge to take its place: Daesh.

Baghdadi’s declaration of a so-called caliphate in Iraq and Syria came after his group, an Al Qaeda breakaway, had already staged a series of deadly high-profile attacks in Iraq.

Though the self-declared caliph remains at large two years later — he has reportedly been forced to leave Mosul and there are conflicting and unconfirmed reports of his death — Obama has taken pride in the fact that he has been able to fight Daesh without the use of boots on the ground.

With US, Russian, Iraqi, and Turkish forces (along with Hezbollah fighters and Iranian-backed militias) currently working to wrest Daesh from Mosul  their last remaining safe haven in Iraq  and the group’s control over their self-declared capital in the Syrian city of Raqqa also ceding, Obama says Daesh’s hold in the Middle East is on the decline. They have also been forced out of their main Libyan stronghold of Sirte, with US and Italian support.

The bottom line is we are breaking the back of [Daesh].  We’re taking away its safe havens …  We’ve accomplished all this at a cost of $10 billion over two years, which is the same amount that we used to spend in one month at the height of the Iraq War.

- Barack Obama, December 6, 2016.

However, attacks in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Tunisia, Turkey, and several Western countries staged by forces claiming loyalty to Daesh have been a cause for concern. Despite arming opposition groups in Syria and Iraq, Obama has so far been unable to bring down Daesh or its elusive leader.


Obama managed to kill Osama Bin Laden, but failed to contain the rise of Abu Bakr al Baghdadi and Daesh [TRT World].

Michelle Obama says: #BringBackOurGirls

On May 8, 2014, the First Lady of the United States joined a long list of celebrities and activists who used the hashtag to call for the return of 276 Nigerian schoolgirls who were kidnapped by Boko Haram on April 14, 2014.

The movement, including Michelle Obama’s tweet, was seen as a collective response to the violence of Boko Haram, a group that was just beginning to gain international attention for its armed insurgency.

Some lauded Michelle Obama for taking a stand on an issue that had led to an international outcry.

Others, however, noted the irony of the woman married to the man responsible for the expansion of the US drone war – which had seen reports of children being killed in strikes meant to target “terrorists” – talking about unjust violence against children.

In the two years since, it seems the First Lady’s social media stunt has made little, if any impact.

In October, at least 21 of the girls were released after a series of negotiations between Abuja and Boko Haram fighters. About 100 other girls joined Boko Haram either as part of an ultimatum given to them by the fighters or out of their own will.

More than 900 days later, at least 80 girls are still captive.

As for Boko Haram itself, the group may be slowly losing ground to the Nigerian Army, but they are still trying to cling to relevancy. In 2015, the leadership pledged allegiance to Daesh. They had previously sworn allegiance to Al Qaeda.

Boko Haram has been accused of staging a series of bombings in the country over the last few months, including several carried out by female suicide bombers.


276 Nigerian schoolgirls who were kidnapped by Boko Haram on April 14, 2014. (TRT World)

The war in Syria

On November 19, 2015, Obama once again reiterated that President Bashar al Assad of Syria must go.

“I do not foresee a situation in which we can end the civil war in Syria while Assad remains in power,“ he said.

It’s a statement he’s made repeatedly since 2011, but failed to deliver on.

Obama’s failure to drive Assad from power, while arming various rebel groups, is blamed for the expansion of Daesh and Hezbollah as well as the establishment of additional Sunni and Shia armed groups.

Assad himself has capitalised on this belief by repeatedly referring to armed opposition groups, and even aid workers, as “terrorists.”

This combination has led to unprecedented carnage as Assad’s government, backed by Russia and Iran, has been accused of using chemical weapons and barrel bombs, and ordering air raids on the Syrian people. The opposition forces – aided by the US, Qatar, the UAE, and Turkey – have also been accused of conducting operations that lead to more than 1,000 civilian deaths.

In December 2016, shortly after Obama’s speech on his counter-terrorism efforts, Assad forces launched an offensive on Aleppo, the last major city in Syria still under rebel control. United Nations reports say that during that offensive, pro-Assad forces were directly responsible for the deaths of at least 82 civilians in a 24-hour period.

Despite Obama’s repeated assurances that Assad must go, the regime leader remains in Syria, where his forces have repeatedly been accused of targeting local populations in brutal operations.


On December 16, 2016, Obama said the blood of civilians in Aleppo was on the 'hands' of Bashar al-Assad and his supporters in Moscow and Tehran [TRT World].

Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour killed

Like Bin Laden, Mansour was in Pakistan at the time of his death on May 21, 2016.

Obama saw Mansour’s death as a positive development for the thousands of US troops in Afghanistan and the Afghan people themselves:

“We have removed the leader of an organisation that has continued to plot against and unleash attacks on American and coalition forces, to wage war against the Afghan people, and align itself with extremist groups like Al Qaeda.”

Once again, Islamabad accused Washington of violating Pakistan’s sovereignty by conducting a drone strike on Pakistani soil without prior approval.

Still, the killing of Mansour   who had succeeded Taliban leader and founder Mullah Mohammad Omar a year earlier  was seen as a positive example of Obama’s highly controversial drone war.

Though welcomed by Afghan officials, Mansour’s killing would have little effect on the Taliban itself, who quickly elected a new leader and now holds more ground than at any point since 2001.


Mullah Akhtar Mansour was quickly replaced as the leader of the Taliban by Mawlawi Hibatullah Akhundzada. (TRT World)

The war in Yemen

Saudi Arabia began its US-backed military intervention in Yemen in March 2015.

As with Libya, the basis for the intervention in Yemen dates back to the “Arab Spring” of 2011. Unlike with Gaddafi, however, the US did little to aid the uprisings against then-president Ali Abdullah Saleh, whom the US saw as a much-needed ally in the fight against Al Qaeda. Most importantly, Saleh allowed Washington to use his country’s territory as a base for its drone operations in the region, including Yemen itself.

With the US and Saudi refusing to allow Saleh to be driven from power, the protests in Yemen quickly escalated into a violent conflict that led to the advancement of yet more armed groups. When Saleh eventually handed over power to his deputy in 2012, the country was on the brink of civil war.

More damning are United Nations reports claiming that in 2011, Saleh purposely allowed Al Qaeda to take over the province of Abyan in a last-ditch attempt to show the West that without him, Yemen would become a bastion for armed groups.

The transfer of power to Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi did not go well. The armed opposition to his rule continued, and the country was left subject to a series of ongoing attacks by armed groups before Saudi launched its brutal bombing campaigns that have killed more than 10,000 people.

Riyadh’s intervention, which has included the bombing of funeral processions, wedding parties and hospitals, has also led to the resurgence of Al Qaeda, years after the US drone war and the emergence of Daesh rendered the group almost irrelevant.

The civil war in the country, which was seen as the basis for Saudi’s US-backed intervention, has meant Yemeni government forces have withdrawn from key areas in the south. This has in turn allowed Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula to regroup and claim the port city of Mukalla in southeast Yemen. Control of the city also gave them access to an oil terminal and a weapons depot. And it allowed them to free hundreds of prisoners.

The group has become a deadly force in the country. Between May 2012 and December 2013 they claimed three major suicide bombings that left more than 240 people dead.

AQAP  which the US declared a terrorist group in 2009 – now controls more territory in Yemen than it did in 2011, when they were at their peak.


Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula now controls more land in Yemen than it did at its height in 2011 [TRT World].

Final assessment: Try harder.

 

Author: Ali M Latifi

Source: 
TRTWorld and agencies