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‘Shadow war’ is Plan B to fight terror

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Illustration by Michelle Christensen, Deseret News

Back in 2007, those of us assigned as "expert advisers" to the Baker-Hamilton Commission were given a straightforward assignment: Come up with a plan to salvage the deteriorating situation in Iraq. Few of us thought that was possible. Only a small minority — I was perhaps the most vocal — enthusiastically supported the "surge" — the counterinsurgency strategy conceived and implemented by Gen. David Petraeus.

It will be years before we know for sure whether the surge permanently transformed Iraq. But it clearly averted what would have been an American defeat at the hands of al-Qaida and Iran's proxy militias. Such a defeat would have been consequential in ways most people — including most Baker-Hamilton advisers — have never taken the trouble to imagine.

Whether it was wise for President George W. Bush to have invaded Iraq in the first place is a separate question. Also a separate question: whether it was wise for President Barack Obama to have declared Afghanistan the "good war," the war that must be won.

Actually, I'd argue they are the same war — just different theaters, much as Europe, Asia and North Africa were different theaters of World War II. But I guess that, too, is a separate question. The pertinent fact is Obama did commit to Afghanistan and he doubled down on that commitment by ordering a surge of his own and assigning, once again, Petraeus to command the mission.

On the left, support for Obama's Afghanistan policy now seems to be eroding. Meanwhile, some conservatives aren't convinced Obama has the determination to see the mission through. Others believe the mission has become too focused on "nation-building," and not enough on disabling America's enemies.

That brings us to a rare instance of left/right consensus: Hardly anyone believes that the U.S. should replicate the Iraq/Afghanistan model in Somalia or Yemen or other corners of the globe. So whether or not Plan A works in Afghanistan, we will still need a Plan B to fight the long war being waged by what Obama calls "violent extremists" — sworn enemies of the West who see themselves as "jihadis," warriors commanded by the Koran to fight non-Muslims until all submit to Islamic law and Islamic rule.

News bulletin: There is a Plan B — and it's already being implemented. As The New York Times reports, the Obama administration is now fighting a "shadow war against al-Qaida and its allies."

The Times continues: "In roughly a dozen countries — from the deserts of North Africa, to the mountains of Pakistan, to former Soviet republics crippled by ethnic and religious strife — the United States has significantly increased military and intelligence operations, pursuing the enemy using robotic drones and commando teams, paying contractors to spy and training local operatives to chase terrorists."

According to the Times, what is taking place is nothing less than a "transformation of the CIA into a paramilitary organization as much as a spying agency."

Most Republicans are not criticizing Obama for these policies because they believe that it is imperative to take the war to the enemy rather than wait for him to come to us. Most Democrats also are holding their tongues. Partisanship, no doubt, is one reason. But the Times may be correct to surmise that many Democrats have become eager for an alternative to the Iraq/Afghanistan model of ground wars requiring years of American military occupation.

Among the concerns one might have about this policy: It focuses on non-state actors; it does not address the long-term threat from state actors, notably Iran, which is seeking nuclear weapons and using its oil wealth to sponsor terrorist organizations from the Middle East to South America. In the final analysis, Iran is a much greater threat to the U.S. than its rival — and occasional collaborator — al-Qaida.

Nevertheless, Plan B is under way. We should hope it succeeds. And we should begin working on Plan C just in case it does not.

Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on terrorism and Islamism. E-mail cliff@defenddemocracy.org