The world is becoming a safer place for all—except terrorists

New tactics and technologies make war safer for bystanders

Christopher Griffin / Reuters

Legendary North Vietnamese military leader Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap—mastermind behind the defeat of the French colonial army at Dien Bien Phu in 1954 and a fierce adversary of the Americans during the Vietnam War—recently died at age 102.

U.S. Sen. John McCain spent five years in a North Vietnamese prisoner of war camp and, this week, the former presidential candidate recalled his old foe’s accomplishments with admiration. “The U.S. never lost a battle against North Vietnam, but it lost the war,” McCain wrote in the Wall Street Journal. “Giap persisted and prevailed.”

The mighty modern American army has often found itself at a frustrating disadvantage against smaller, poorly armed but more mobile and committed adversaries. Time and again, guerrilla tactics, terrorism and other forms of asymmetric warfare have proven effective, despite the overwhelming firepower of Western nations.

Last weekend, however, provides evidence that American strategy in the global war on terrorism under U.S. President Barack Obama has incorporated some important lessons from previous campaigns. And the world is becoming a safer place for everyone, except terrorists.

In Libya, American special forces grabbed Abu Anas al-Libi, an al-Qaeda leader suspected of planning two American embassy bombings in Africa in 1998. He is expected to be returned to the U.S. for trial, where he’s already been indicted by a New York court.

On the Somali coast, another group of American commandos attempted the same feat with Abdulkadir Mohamed Abdulkadir, a member of al-Shabaab, the group behind the deadly Nairobi mall attack last month. Unfortunately, members of SEAL Team Six, the same force that killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan in 2011, found themselves in a fierce firefight on the beach and abandoned their mission. It was a rare failure in a recent string of successful special forces missions.

Since the beginning of his first term, Obama has been reluctant to commit conventional troops en masse, engineering disengagements in both Iraq and Afghanistan. His recent climbdown over chemical weapons in Syria can be seen in a similar light. In place of invasion and direct country-to-country action, Obama has looked for more modest and focused ways to project American power.

Part of this is motivated by the fiscal crisis in the U.S.—Obama simply can’t afford another full-blown war. But beyond financial necessity, a strategic evolution is ongoing. To use baseball lingo, the president is now playing small ball. Rather than relying on brute force to crush his enemies, he’s content to build a lead with small singles, bunts and stolen bases.

The hallmark of Obama’s presidency is the drone attack. Technological advances now allow American drone pilots to launch missiles against individual terrorists from thousands of kilometres away. Waging drone warfare over foreign airspace is controversial; while the U.S. Congress has authorized military force against the perpetrators of 9/11, critics claim drone attacks violate national sovereignty, as well as international law. Such complaints, however, fail to recognize the severity or insidiousness of the terrorist threat—particularly since it deliberately targets civilians.

It is noteworthy that Obama has faced far less public outrage over his drone killings than previous American unconventional war tactics, including former president Ronald Reagan’s support for Nicaraguan death squads in the 1980s. Not only is there a universal lack of sympathy for the enemy these days, but you can’t argue with the sheer effectiveness of drones.

“Dozens of highly skilled al-Qaeda commanders, trainers, bomb makers and operatives have been taken off the battlefield. Plots have been disrupted,” Obama said earlier this year in a speech on the role of drones in the fight against terrorism. But, he added, “Don’t take my word for it. In the intelligence gathered at bin Laden’s compound, we found that he wrote . . . ‘We cannot fight air strikes with explosives.’ ”

These new tactics and technologies are also making war much safer for bystanders. Civilian casualties have always been a tragic consequence of war. In the Second World War, for example, millions more civilians died than actual combatants. Drones have vastly reduced this collateral damage.

According to the London-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism, so far in 2013, the CIA has carried out 22 drone strikes in Pakistan and killed an estimated 99 to 160 targets. Civilian deaths in these instances are estimated at between zero and four. While every civilian death is a tragedy, such a tiny ratio of collateral to intended deaths must be unprecedented in modern warfare.

Last weekend’s two snatch-and-grab missions may signal yet another change in American strategy. Capturing suspects alive and hauling them back to the U.S. not only resolves many of the legal and moral ambiguities surrounding assassination from above, it also promises to reduce the civilian death toll even further.

The war on terror may never end. But it is becoming more intelligent and focused.

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.