The War on Terrorism as Imperial Policing


Editor’s Note: This is the fourth installment of “The Brush Pass,” a new column by Joshua Rovner (@joshrovner1) on intelligence, strategy, and statecraft.

On Oct. 4, a special operations task force was on patrol in western Niger when it was ambushed by what U.S. officials describe as an Islamic State-affiliated group. Four Americans and five Nigerien soldiers were killed. The attack led to questions about their mission’s tactics as well as accusations that an intelligence failure may have put the patrol at risk.

The bigger question is why those troops were in the African interior in the first place. Their presence, which is just one example of the geographic expansion of U.S. operations, suggests the U.S. war on terrorism isn’t a war as traditionally understood. Rather than using military violence to defeat an enemy and produce a durable peace, it is using military forces to suppress violence and maintain a modicum of political stability in conflict zones. War usually presumes that combatants will cease fighting when they settle the political issue at stake. What we see in Niger and many other hotspots around the world is more like police work, which assumes that crime is an enduring problem to be managed.

In some ways, the Trump administration’s approach to counter-terrorism resembles that of its predecessors. After 9/11, President George W. Bush went on the offensive against terrorists and their state sponsors, while simultaneously waging a war of ideas against violent extremists in order to shrink their recruiting pool. President Barack Obama expanded the campaign against terrorist networks, including increased drone strikes and financial efforts to squeeze their funding, but he also tried to improve America’s image abroad by portraying his policies as restrained and respectful. Both sought expanded relations with local military forces and intelligence services.

President Donald Trump is staying on the military offensive. His style of counter-terrorism relies on persistent surveillance and extensive drone strikes. He also seeks to unleash the CIA, giving it much greater flexibility and encouraging greater aggressiveness. (CIA Director Mike Pompeo is outspoken about the agency’s need to be “aggressive, vicious, unforgiving, relentless.”) Finally, the administration is continuing to support partnerships with local forces, including those targeted in Niger.

What makes Trump different is his casual disregard for international opinion about U.S. counter-terrorism operations. The Bush and Obama administrations aggressively pursued terrorists, but they stressed the professionalism of military and intelligence personnel, while promoting local empowerment as the best long-term response to violent extremism. They also expressed concern for human rights in areas beset by violence and subject to U.S. operations.

Trump’s rhetoric suggests a different view of the problem. For this president, terrorists are religious fanatics beyond reason. Trump believes the threat is enduring because the source is “radical Islam,” rather than some manageable political or economic grievance. When terrorists pop up, and some always will, the United States should attack them with great energy. Thus the counter-terrorism mission is an open-ended campaign to locate and kill terrorists, cooperating with local governments when interests align, and ignoring them when interests diverge.

This vision does not imagine an end state, just as there is no moment in which police can declare victory over crime. It is a perpetual fight, and the Trump administration may believe it is affordable. The approach relies not on large expeditionary forces, but on clandestine operators from Joint Special Operations Command and CIA’s Special Activities Division, along with low-cost instruments like drones.

While there is no perfect model for the ongoing counter-terrorism campaign, the closest analogy may be British “air policing” in the interwar era. In the aftermath of World War I, the cash-strapped British Empire was desperate to hold on to its far-flung territories without having to commit large land forces abroad, and without sacrificing its ability to defend the home islands. It assumed local uprisings were a fact of life for an imperial power and not a reason for London to give up its global holdings. Enter airpower.

Instead of garrisoning large forces in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia, enthusiastic airmen convinced the government that ongoing bombing campaigns could quell rebellions and maintain British control. Strategic bombing would have three effects. First, it would kill or maim key rebel leaders. Second, it would force rebel groups to disperse and hide, rendering them ineffective. Third, and most controversially, it would inspire fear among civilians, who would think twice about supporting any upstart insurgents.

Air policing began in earnest in 1919, when British forces bombed targets in Afghanistan, including a famous raid over Kabul. Although the raid probably did little damage, colonial officials and the Air Ministry believed it had significant coercive effects. The British took this concept to Africa in January 1920, when five aircraft targeted Mohammed bin Abdullah Hassan in British Somaliland. The so-called “Mad Mullah” had organized a mass movement against British rule, pledging to drive out the infidels and install a harsh and austere brand of Islamic rule. The British army had previously launched four ground offensives against his organization, with little effect. But the air raid on his compound left the Mullah badly wounded, and killed several of his compatriots. He fled soon afterwards, and died about a month later.

The British soon expanded the program of air policing to Iraq and other imperial holdings, confident that it was a cheap and easy alternative to ground power. The Air Staff argued that bombing subdued uprisings at a fraction of the cost, an argument that proved persuasive in Parliament given the background of tight budgets and the recent memory of grinding land warfare in World War I. Early successes bolstered their arguments, though the efficacy of airpower decreased after the terrifying novelty wore off.

Notably, air policing was not quite the same as war. The British government was under no illusion that occasional raids would lead to a durable political settlement with rebels, or that bombing would permanently end the problem of rebellion. Instead, bombing was a low-cost tactic for maintaining control, while enabling local allies who provided boots on the ground.

The U.S. approach to modern terrorism is similar. Just like Great Britain in the interwar period, the United States is wary of leaving large military footprints in conflict zones, especially given its concerns about national security threats. The use of airpower greatly reduces the need for ground troops who might be needed elsewhere. Precision bombing holds out the promise of eliminating terrorist leaders, disrupting their networks, and making it difficult for them to gather and organize attacks. Drones are particularly useful because they are comparatively inexpensive, and because they can loiter over targets for much longer than manned aircraft.

In addition, the U.S. campaign does not seek to end terrorism any more than the British believed they could eliminate rebellion. Counter-terrorist operations, no matter how effective, cannot prevent individuals from joining non-state armed groups or participating in violence. At best they can manage the problem by degrading terrorist groups and by deterring some individuals from joining those groups in the first place.

The air policing analogy is far from perfect. Great Britain was pursuing an imperial grand strategy, supported by an imperial service. The United States does not have imperial aims or an imperial constabulary. Instead, its grand strategy is meant to sustain a liberal international order backed by a conventional military capable of rapid power projection. Washington seeks to solidify its power position by spreading American values, especially free trade and democracy, while ensuring that it can respond quickly in the event of regional instability.

British air policing relied heavily on the idea that bombs would terrorize civilians to dissuade them from providing supplies and refuge for insurgents. The United States, by contrast, has worked hard to reduce the threat to civilians, though critics argue it hasn’t done enough. The Obama administration developed an elaborate targeting and authorization process to avoid killing noncombatants, in part because of the fear that collateral damage can inspire militancy. The Trump administration has loosened rules of engagement so that enemy fighters need not be in direct contact with U.S. or allied personnel. Critics may fear this will lead to more collateral damage, but the White House may subscribe to the belief that this requirement actually increased the risk to civilians by allowing militants to operate with impunity if they were outside the range of ground forces. As Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis put it, coalition forces would continue to do everything “humanly possible” to prevent civilian casualties. The point is to kill terrorists, not inadvertently create them.

The air policing analogy is flawed for all these reasons. Still, it may be the best comparison available. Like the current effort, air policing was an inexpensive approach to managing violence on the periphery by relying on novel weapons. It depended on local intelligence about insurgent groups and their leaders, and gaining that knowledge created new risks. Rebels targeted colonial officers and their local partners, just as militants attacked American and Nigerien soldiers last month.

Great Britain’s imperial grand strategy ended when it could no longer afford an empire. Two world wars and a series of postwar economic disasters forced it to retrench. The United States is much wealthier than pre-war Britain, and its relative advantages are enduring, even after the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. Moreover, there is little sustained domestic opposition to a strategy focused mainly on intelligence, special operations, and drone strikes. As long as there are no serious economic or political pressures to exercise restraint, we can expect more of the same: an imperial-style counterterrorism campaign waged by a country without imperial aspirations.


Joshua Rovner is Associate Professor in the School of International Service at American University. He is the author of Fixing the Facts: National Security and the Politics of Intelligence (Cornell, 2011), and writes widely about intelligence and strategy.  

Image: U.S. Army/Ashlee Lolkus