The Special Forces raids conducted by the U.S. military over two weeks ago in Libya and Somalia have generated a lot of buzz about the implications they will have for the future of U.S. counter-terrorism strategy.
The two operations were conducted, nearly simultaneously, in the morning hours of October 5 by Army Delta Force and Navy SEAL teams seeking, respectively, an al-Qaeda operative reportedly tied to the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings in East Africa and a high-ranking commander from al-Shabaab, the group responsible for the recent Westgate Mall killings in Kenya.
While the Delta Forces team successfully apprehended the al-Qaeda operative, who is being interrogated on a U.S. Navy warship in the Mediterranean, the Somalia operation was aborted due to heavy firepower resistance.
Striking a clear departure from both the efforts undertaken in Afghanistan and Iraq and the deeply controversial aerial drone campaign conducted in places such as Pakistan and Yemen, the raids show much about America’s view about its place in the world, its global counterterrorism efforts and its relationship with regional allies.
The age of American nation-building à la Iraq and Afghanistan has come to an anti-climatic end. The United States has lost a great deal over the course of a decade only to see its efforts in the two countries run up against the forces of sectarianism, insurgency, corruption and popular resentment. This is in addition to the internal violence and insecurity experienced by the people of those countries every day. The raids executed in Somalia and Libya can be seen as a compromise for the United States as it seeks to balance its antiterrorism agenda with a newfound understanding of the limits (and costs) of large-scale military campaigns.
The aerial drone program initiated by the Bush administration and expanded under Obama has eliminated purported terrorist targets over 400 times since 2008. It, however, has also left in its wake a smoldering crater of lost intelligence and collateral damage in the form of innocent men, women and children. The Special Forces raids, a meticulous and human alternative, are arguably a course-correction that marries practical intelligence needs with better optics.
The raids also reinforce the message that the United States, guided by its long memory, will snuff out the enemy wherever he may hide, no matter how long it may take to do it. For a country increasingly entertaining an isolationist impulse, the psychological implications of this message should not be underestimated.
But a group of armed men stealthily plucking a man off the streets of Tripoli, even as it demonstrates American military prowess, reminds us of the gross shortcomings of U.S. foreign policy. It is, after all, on the lawless streets of Libya and Somalia — where the U.S. expended considerable effort to alter political realities — that those raids were carried out.
Last week news surfaced that a militia group briefly “arrested” Libyan Prime Minister Ali Zeidan as a retaliatory measure for what is widely seen as his complicity in the American raid. U.S. officials affirmed that the Zeidan government granted ‘tacit’ approval, but Zeidan denies any knowledge of the operation. With the Libyan political situation hanging in a precarious balance between powerful militia groups, the raid and the underlying assumption that Libya is a free-for-all may represent the last nail in the coffin of Zeidan’s post-revolution government.
While there are no easy answers to how the U.S. can reconcile its counterterrorism agenda with the need to respect the rule of law and the sovereignty of weak and failed states that give rise to terrorist threats, that does not preclude us from asking the questions. Does the U.S. have a coherent foreign policy and are aerial drones and Special Forces raids its natural outgrowths? More fundamentally, is the American leadership attuned to the third and fourth-order consequences of its actions and is it prepared to mitigate them?