“We have to develop a strategy that matches this diffuse threat -
one that expands our reach without sending forces that stretch our
military too thin, or stir up local resentments,” Obama said. “We
need partners to fight terrorists alongside us.”
But critics say America's past efforts to train local security
forces have had mixed results. Washington has a poor track record of
applying the long-term resources, funding and attention needed to
carry out such efforts successfully.
In Libya, training by U.S. Special Forces soldiers was suspended
after a local militia stole a cache of American-provided weapons. In
Mali, American-trained military officers carried out a coup. And in
Afghanistan, the United States failed to mount a major training
effort until nine years after the fall of the Taliban.
Finding the effective partners Obama described has proven
challenging as well. For years, the United States has struggled to
get Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey to coordinate their support to
Syria’s panoply of rebel factions. And the kidnapping of 200
Nigerian school girls in April exposed the inability of American
officials to get the Nigerian government to address the endemic
corruption that helps fuel the al Qaeda splinter group Boko Haram.
Bruce Hoffman, an expert on terrorism and Georgetown University
professor, said a cardinal failing of the American counterterrorism
effort since 2001 has been its haphazard nature. Hoffman said the
United States focused its effort on Afghanistan in 2001, shifted to
Iraq in 2003, returned to Afghanistan in 2009. Now, Obama announced
a shift from Afghanistan to Syria.
“It continues our pathology,” Hoffman said. “Our attention has
shifted from one trouble spot to another with disastrous results.”
In his address on Wednesday, Obama unveiled a $5 billion
“Counterterrorism Partnerships Fund” to train local forces in the
Middle East and Africa and voiced support for increasing American
training and assistance to “moderate” Syrian rebels. "A strategy
that involves invading every country that harbors terrorist networks
is naïve and unsustainable," he said.
Obama said the new fund would allow the United States to expand
training of security forces in Yemen fighting al Qaeda, support a
multinational force trying to stabilize Somalia, and work with
European allies training local forces in Libya and Mali. Citing the
2012 attack on the American consulate in Benghazi and last
September's attack on a shopping mall in Nairobi, he said the United
States faced a different type of threat.
“Today’s principal threat no longer comes from a centralized al
Qaeda leadership,” he said. “Instead, it comes from decentralized al
Qaeda affiliates and extremists, many with agendas focused in the
countries where they operate.”
Peter Bergen, a terrorism expert at the New America Foundation think
tank, praised Obama’s address and approach. In the Philippines, he
said, local commandos trained by American forces had severely
weakened the Abu Sayyaf militant movement. Over the long term,
training locals was far cheaper and more politically sustainable
than deploying large numbers of American troops, he argued.
"It’s pennies on the dollar,” he said. “It’s less than one percent
of the defense budget.”
[to top of second column]
AFGHANISTAN AS AN EXAMPLE
In his speech, Obama cited the training of “hundreds of thousands”
of Afghan soldiers and police officers as a success. Afghan forces
secured the country’s recent presidential election, he said, and set
the stage for the first peaceful transfer of power in the country’s
history later this year.
But Graeme Smith, an Afghanistan-based analyst for the International
Crisis Group, said Obama’s pullout would destabilize the country. He
said a planned cut in American and foreign military aid will result
in a rapid reduction in the size of the Afghan security forces.
“If they quickly implement the plan to reduce Afghan security forces
from roughly 370,000 to 228,000, we will have a serious problem in
this country,” Smith said in an email. “You can't axe the personnel
roster that dramatically without destabilizing many districts.”
At the same time, according to Smith, Taliban attacks are rising and
the broad direction of the conflict is escalation.
Obama said a critical focus of the new training effort would be
moderate rebel groups in Syria. Reversing his past opposition to
large-scale American arming and training of Syrian rebels, Obama
said that strengthened moderate rebel groups could serve as a
counterweight to radical Islamist groups.
Analysts say the proposed effort is too small to have any serious
impact. Noah Bonsey, the Syria analyst for the International Crisis
Group, said that moderates – groups he defined as “largely
non-ideological or mildly Islamist” – have gained strength recently
but overall remain military weak.
“We have seen in the last few months that increases in funding,
weapons and training to certain non-ideological rebel groups have
strengthened their relative power within the rebel spectrum,” Bonsey
said in an email from Turkey. “Thus far however, the levels of
support provided - and apparently under consideration within the US
administration - are not sufficient to meaningfully shift the
balance of power between the opposition and the regime.”
Bergen was more optimistic about Obama’s approach. He said future
presidents could increase American force levels in Afghanistan, if
needed, and aiding Syria’s rebels was a step forward. He argued that
training local forces was the only approach that was politically
acceptable to Americans and foreigners alike.
“You buy yourself influence without a large footprint,” Bergen said.
“It’s the only sensible model on all sorts of levels.”
Hoffman agreed that ground invasions were a mistake, but he said the
American counterterrorism effort must be more consistent. Otherwise,
Washington appears to be a fickle ally to those it is asking to
fight al Qaeda splinter groups.
(Editing by David Storey and Frances Kerry)
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