Whatever the tactical gains from its recent commando raids on terrorist targets in Libya and Somalia, the United States needs to reflect on the strategic costs that such ‘surgical strikes’ impose on the target countries, the wider region and, ultimately, on itself. That such strikes are sometimes successful — as with the capture of Nazih Abdul-Hamed al Ruqai in Libya — should not lure the U.S. or the international community into believing the war on terror can be won from the skies. Governments in Yemen, Somalia and Libya have been struggling to combat al-Qaeda and its affiliates because they lack the requisite capabilities on the ground — to secure their borders and police their territories. Drone attacks or covert raids by the U.S. that take out a terrorist or two will not stem extremist violence in these countries or make them any less attractive for terrorist groups. On the contrary, they will foment further instability — and if civilian casualties are involved, resentment against the regime — resulting in safe havens for organisations like al-Qaeda. What’s more, such strikes leave local and regional governments to fend against potential retaliation for themselves. U.S. efforts, then, should not be aimed at bypassing these states but at bolstering their counter-terrorism skills.
It is not a coincidence that the U.S. also finds itself on a slippery slope, using methods unconstrained by national law and disrespectful of international law to pursue national security objectives. During his term, President Barack Obama has deployed covert military force with alacrity, whether through drone strikes, cyber-attacks or Navy SEAL raids. For someone whose first campaign promised greater probity in executive action, Mr. Obama has been content to let the end justify his means. No matter the intelligence behind the strikes in Libya, the U.S. ought to have realised the political cost of staging an attack without the consent of its internationally recognised government. Tripoli’s strong protest against the action of American military forces underlines a troubling question. If regime change, Libyan style, has not created a situation in which the U.S. can operate in tandem with the government for a goal that surely both officially subscribe to, surely there is something seriously wrong with the wider American approach to the region. Regardless of his faults, and there were many, the former Libyan leader Muammar Qadhafi was at least the master of his territory. By overthrowing him and destroying all institutions of national authority, the U.S. and its allies did al-Qaeda a huge favour. The same mistake is in danger of being repeated in Syria too.