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New Counterterrorism Plan Too Narrow, Some Analysts Say

Soldier on patrol in Paktika province, Afghanistan. Photo courtesy of Defense Department

One day after the White House released its counterterrorism strategy to conquer al-Qaida and its partners, the Defense Department announced the death of a leader of the Haqqani terrorist network.

Defense officials linked the insurgent leader, Ismail Jan, who was killed in an airstrike in Afghanistan, to Tuesday’s siege of the Inter-Continental Hotel in the country’s capital Kabul.

The White House’s newly released counterterrorism strategy acknowledged the threats posed by Iran, Syria, Hezbollah and Hamas, but said it focused on defeating al-Qaida and its affiliates because the United States is “at war” with the terrorist network.

“This strategy is clear and precise in our ultimate objective: we will disrupt, dismantle, and ultimately defeat al-Qaida — its leadership core in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region, its affiliates and adherents to ensure the security of our citizens and interests,” the 19-page document says.

The strategy described targeting al-Qaida through special operation forces and quick deployments of “unique assets,” which was interpreted in news reports as drone strikes.

You can read the full strategy below or read a factsheet from the White House.

John Brennan, White House counterterrorism adviser, said Wednesday that the strategy includes bolstering Afghan security forces and continuing to cooperate with Pakistan. The killing of Osama bin Laden by U.S. forces strained relations with Pakistan, where bin Laden had been hiding in a compound.

Some analysts said they thought the focus on al-Qaida was too limiting. “I think there is fundamental continuity in the counterterrorism strategy, but the narrow focus on al-Qaida — rhetorically and otherwise — raises certain problems,” said Juan Zarate, a senior counterterrorism official under the George W. Bush administration and now a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Those problems include neglecting to address the underlying ideology of al-Qaida or stopping terrorist attacks by non-al-Qaida elements, he said.

The focus also could have the unintended consequence of elevating the status of al-Qaida amid efforts to try to downgrade the group’s relevance, he added.

Juliette Kayyem, a national security columnist at the Boston Globe and former assistant secretary of Homeland Security under the Obama administration, said the White House seems not to want to align or merge a strategy against al-Qaida with that of more general threats, such as cyber attacks.

“It is also not emphasizing radicalization domestically as that utilizes very different methods and concerns than a counterterrorism strategy does,” she said, adding that more acknowledgement is needed on the homegrown terrorism front.

Jessica Stern, a fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution and a member of President Clinton’s National Security Council staff, said the document represents a shift away from a broader, more “difficult-to-accomplish” counterinsurgency strategy, known as COIN.

It’s also a “recognition of the limits of America’s tolerance to continue attempting to bolster Afghan society at a time when we have more pressing and expensive domestic needs, such as improving our schools. It reflects a sober recognition of tradeoffs,” she said.

Stern said the strategy, while recognizing that the core of al-Qaida is weakened, also realizes that small groups are still trying to entice Americans to the extremist cause and rightly acknowledges that American Muslims are key to countering the trend.

“Interestingly, moms may be a critical component of this new strategy,” she said. “The key is to make clear that their kids won’t end up in Guantanamo [prison] if they are flirting with the fad of jihad. But preventing their conversion from fantasy-jihadis to actual line wolves will require a new kind if partnership.”

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