Micah Zenko

Politics, Power, and Preventive Action

Zenko covers the U.S. national security debate and offers insight on developments in international security and conflict prevention.

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You Might Have Missed: Counterterrorism, Washington Credibility, and Insurgencies

by Micah Zenko
September 27, 2013

A U.S. Marine walks out of Camp Lemonier in Djibouti in 2002. Camp Lemonier is a U.S. military base used for counterterrorism operations in Somalia and Yemen (Njuguna/Courtesy Reuters). A U.S. Marine walks out of Camp Lemonier in Djibouti in 2002. Camp Lemonier is a U.S. military base used for counterterrorism operations in Somalia and Yemen (Njuguna/Courtesy Reuters).

A Conversation with Hassan Rouhani, Council on Foreign Relations, September 26, 2013.

ROUHANI: …While interdependence and competitive cooperative approach, and not enmity, is the order of the day, zero-sum game and win-lose approaches in international relations has already lost ground when it comes to international ties, as no country could pursue its interests at expense of others…

We are committed not to work towards developing and producing nuclear bomb. As enunciated in the fatwa issued by the leader of the Islamic revolution, we strongly believe that the development, production, stockpiling and use of nuclear weapons are contrary to the Islamic norms. I also should reiterate that we never contemplated the option of acquiring nuclear weapons. We believe that such weapons could undermine our national security interests. …Having done so, let me reiterate that we will never forgo our inherent right to benefit from peaceful nuclear technology, including nuclear enrichment, under any circumstances.

Afghanistan, for next year, is something that we are concerned about in terms of its peace and stability for various reasons. One reason being the one you just referred to, that the international forces aim to leave Afghanistan, and another reason being that, unfortunately, American — the U.S. forces intend to say in some basis in Afghanistan. And this could become an excuse for Taliban and other extremist groups to continue resorting to, you know, acts that — actively insecurity (ph) of that country, because one aspect here that contributes to the activity of these groups is the presence of foreign forces in the region…

If we can settle the nuclear debate, it will most certainly be an important step and a good beginning for a better future, which I hope this future will benefit everyone.

SHEERAN:  You’ve been very generous with your time. I think we’ve been able to cover most of the questions that have come in, not only from this room, but throughout the world. I don’t know if we can hear a brief update on the [P5+1] meeting?

ROUHANI: Please.

ZARIF: Good evening, Mr. President. I had a good meeting with P3-plus-three, or as it’s known here, 5-plus-one, very good and substantive meeting. We agreed to jump-start the process so that we could move forward with a view to agree, first, on the parameters of the end game, how we want to proceed Iran’s nuclear program in a year’s time, and also to think about steps, starting with a first step, that should be implemented in order to address the immediate concerns of two sides, and move towards finalizing it hopefully within a year’s time. I thought I was too ambitious bordering naivete, but I saw that some of my colleagues were even more ambitious and wanted to do it faster, so we could go ahead…

ROUHANI: Well, you asked for the first step. They took it.


Craig Whitlock and Greg Miller, “U.S. Moves Drone Fleet from Camp Lemonnier to Ease Djibouti’s Safety Concerns,” Washington Post, September 24, 2013.

Air Force drones ceased flying this month from Camp Lemonnier, a U.S. installation in Djibouti, after local officials expressed alarm about several drone accidents and mishaps in recent years. The base serves as the combat hub for counterterrorism operations in Yemen and Somalia, playing a critical role in U.S. operations against al-Shabab…The Pentagon has temporarily moved the unmanned aircraft from the U.S. base in Djibouti’s capital to a makeshift airstrip in a more remote part of the country

At least five drones based at Camp Lemonnier have crashed since January 2011, Air Force records show, including one that plowed into the ground next to a neighborhood in Djibouti’s capital, which goes by the same name as the country.


Choe Sang-Hun, “North Korea Learning to Make Crucial Nuclear Parts, Study Finds,” New York Times, September 23, 2013.

The new study focuses on production of advanced centrifuges, a technically difficult feat that the United States and others have tried to make harder for the North with a network of sanctions and bans on the export of sophisticated parts and metals. If the North Koreans are successfully making their own parts, they would essentially invalidate much of the international strategy to force them to denuclearize and make it more difficult to monitor their production progress.

“That means, unfortunately, that we won’t be in a good position to spot them expanding the program through foreign shopping expeditions, and that policies based on export controls, sanctions and interdiction won’t get much traction, either,” said Joshua Pollack, one of the experts presenting the findings this week. “The deeper implication, if they are able to expand the program unchecked, is that we’ll never be too confident that we know where all the centrifuges are. And that in turn could put a verifiable denuclearization deal out of reach.”


Remi Brulin, “From Reagan to Obama: Secrecy and Covert Operations in the Fight Against ‘Terrorism’,” Jadaliyya, September 23, 2013.

Ronald Reagan was the first American president to put “terrorism” at the heart of his foreign policy discourse…

These debates highlight the difficulties involved in defining “terrorism” not in the abstract, but as applied to a specific conflict, especially one about which, as was the case with Nicaragua, Democrats and Republicans were deeply divided. They also bear striking similarities to contemporary debates on the Obama administration’s policies of “targeted killings” or the provision of aid to the Syrian rebels.

Since the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, the United States’ “war on terrorism” has, to a great extent, been waged in the shadows. And it has, all too often, borne a close resemblance to some of its most troubling Cold War policies.


Bill Roggio, “U.S. Drones Kill 7 in North Waziristan,” Long War Journal, September 22, 2013.

The US killed seven suspected militants in a drone strike in Pakistan’s Taliban-controlled tribal agency of North Waziristan. Today’s strike is just the second in Pakistan this month.

(3PA: The drone strike conducted on September 22, 2013 was President Obama’s 400th targeted killing, which is roughly eight times the number of drone strikes conducted by former President George W. Bush.)


Peggy Noonan, “Noonan: A New Kind of ‘Credibility’ Gap,” Wall Street Journal, September 20, 2013.

When America does not move militarily as some people wish it to, they say, “This is another Munich”—appeasement that in the end will summon greater violence and broader war. When America moves militarily as some people do not wish it to, they say, “This is Vietnam”—jumping in where we do not belong and cannot win.

What I am saying is that the old, Washington definition of credibility, which involves the projection of force in pursuit of ends it thinks necessary, and the American people’s definition of credibility, which is to become stronger and allow the world, and the young, to understand you are getting stronger, are at variance. And that will have implications down the road.


Christopher Paul, Colin P. Clarke, Beth Grill, and Molly Dunigan, “Paths to Victory: Detailed Insurgency Case Studies,” RAND Corporation, 2013.

Countering insurgents, or supporting the efforts of allies and partners as they did so, became the primary focus of U.S. operations in both Iraq and Afghanistan. While debates continue to rage over how and even if the United States should be involved in future campaigns against insurgents, no one predicts that the future will be free of insurgencies…When a country is threatened by an insurgency, what strategies and approaches give the government the best chance of prevailing?

The findings show that external or externally supported COIN forces win almost as often as wholly indigenous COIN forces…The historical cases primarily followed one of two paths: The “iron fist” path, with a focus preponderantly (and often almost exclusively) on eliminating the insurgent threat, or the motive-focused path, with primary or at least balanced attention to addressing the motives for beginning and sustaining the insurgency.

While both paths can lead to success, historically, COIN forces following the iron fist path won only 32 percent of the time, while those on the motive-focused or mixed path won 73 percent of the time. Not only have iron fist COIN efforts failed more often than they have succeeded, but they have almost always involved atrocities or other COIN force behaviors that are considered “beyond the pale” by contemporary American ethical standards


Hans M. Kristensen and Robert S. Norris, “Global Nuclear Weapons Inventories, 1945-2013,” Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, 2013.

We estimate that, combined, the nine nations with nuclear weapons possess more than 10,000 nuclear warheads in their military stockpiles.

Estimated Nuclear Warheads

Estimated Nuclear Warheads

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  • Posted by Kir Komrik

    Thanks for another great set of pointers to what one should, imo, be thinking about,

    “We are committed not to work towards developing and producing nuclear bomb. As enunciated in the fatwa issued by the leader of the Islamic revolution, we strongly believe that the development, production, stockpiling and use of nuclear weapons are contrary to the Islamic norms.”

    Not to take the wind out of the sails of a peacemaker, but taqiyah could be in play here. And I can assure you that the “religious authority” in the IRI knows how to use it. This is really what Netanyahu is saying but doesn’t know how to say it … he needs to explain taqiyah, imo. So, I say trust but validate. Surely there must be some scheme by which USG and others can be confident that only moderately enriched uranium is being used in nuclear reactors. Someone needs to get creative, for with every danger lies opportunity, imo. The bottom line is that USG needs Iran’s petroleum, IRI wants nuclear power, and I’m sure something mutually pleasing can be worked out.

    Whatever the case, I do _not_ agree with Netanyahu’s hawkish approach to Iran and an armed conflict would be both disastrous for the Iranian people and unnecessary. Some Iranians are “quiet” atheists and most Iranians could care less about the Shia “religious authority” or fatwas loaded with taqiyah (secrecy doesn’t work well anywhere, but it sure is popular). They like America and want a secular government. Save for the occasional nutjob in Qom, most Iranians are very smart, well educated, aspiring people who want the isolation of Iran to end.

    “Since the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, the United States’ “war on terrorism” has, to a great extent, been waged in the shadows. And it has, all too often, borne a close resemblance to some of its most troubling Cold War policies.”

    Which is absolutely destroying representative governance and riddling daily American life with moral hazards. The general public has no idea what is going on in the world and cannot possibly vote or lobby intelligently anymore. There are too many secrets. Washington, and the character of neo-liberal “democracy” itself, is now a circus act.

    “What I am saying is that the old, Washington definition of credibility, which involves the projection of force in pursuit of ends it thinks necessary, and the American people’s definition of credibility, which is to become stronger and allow the world, and the young, to understand you are getting stronger, are at variance.”

    I’m amazed to hear Noonan say this, given the great speeches she has written in the past. In any case, I think she is half right. Most Americans think of USG’s idea of credibility as _integrity_, not credibility. Nope, they are not the same thing. To most Americans credibility is possessing the capital of believability – basic honesty – and that is what USG lacks; in the eyes of most Americans. And it is justified because there are too many secrets and it is not as though it isn’t obvious. This problem is structural and does not admit of a solution from within the existing framework.

    There is only one proposal in existence I am aware of that has seriously attempted to solve all these problems; and done a bang-up job of it, imo. It’s all over google and can be found by typing “General Federalism” there. I am becoming more and more convinced that it should be required reading for anyone advising USG policy.

    - kk

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