U.S. Military Strategy Shifts Focus
The final withdrawal of American troops from Iraq marks the end of a year that has seen a remarkable shift in U.S. military strategy abroad. From the war in Libya and the raid that killed Osama bin Laden to the end of the war in Iraq and the beginning of a military transition in Afghanistan, the era of large-footprint counterinsurgency and nation-building operations is coming to a close. In its place, the Obama administration is instituting an approach focused on using targeted operations conducted by airpower, special operations forces, and the intelligence community, alongside cooperation with partners to achieve its objectives.
This past year marked the beginning of this alternative military and diplomatic strategy departure from the boots-on-the-ground-heavy track taken by the Bush administration in Iraq and initially by the Obama administration in Afghanistan. In retrospect, the war in Libya offered the first indication of a new approach to using American power. With its unique military capabilities, the United States played a leading role in destroying the Qaddafi regime’s air defenses. But the mission soon transferred to a NATO lead, with the United States playing a supporting role. With NATO support overhead, Libyan opposition fighters were eventually able to take down the Qaddafi regime.
The overthrow of Qaddafi only cost the United States $1.1 billion, with no American or NATO lives lost over the course of seven-and-a-half months. This compares with $1.38 trillion spent and 7,632 coalition lives lost in multiyear counterinsurgency operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Another indicator appeared in the May 1 raid to kill Osama bin Laden. Relying on painstaking intelligence work, U.S. Navy SEALs under CIA command assaulted bin Laden’s Pakistan compound and killed the Al Qaeda leader. The raid spotlighted the lethal and selective tool created by the fusion of military special operations forces and the CIA over the past decade. But it also showed how the United States can effectively target and eliminate threats without resorting to lengthy and expensive nation-building campaigns requiring large numbers of American boots on the ground.
While the bin Laden raid is the most dramatic example, the U.S. intelligence-special operations complex-including armed drones like the Predator-has been actively targeting Al Qaeda and Al Qaeda-linked or affiliated movements in Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen over the past few years. Though these strikes are extremely controversial, they are an effective alternative to large-scale military operations as a way of fighting terrorist groups.