It appears that Anwar al Awlaqi was killed earlier today in a drone attack in northern Yemen. Awlaqi, as an American born cleric, has attracted a great deal of attention. Additionally, is organization Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, has regularly be presented as the next most dangerous incarnation of Islamic Terrorism. While over the next few days analysts will discuss the merits, legality, and effects of Awlaqi’s death, the success of this mission does show that a large military presence is not necessary for successful counter-terrorism operations.
While Al Qaeda and AQAP are similar threats within similar areas, rugged terrain with little to no state control, the United States has followed two very different policies in these areas. In Afghanistan, the United States has occupied and attempted to control through force. At the same time, in Yemen, facing an equally well developed enemy, the United States has avoided putting boots on the ground, choosing instead to operate in a more off-shore fashion. Indeed, observers not affiliated with this organization have noted that this is something of a natural experiment comparing counter-insurgency with an Off-shore Balancing strategy.
With the death of Awlaqi following closely on the heels of the death of Osama bin Laden, it is increasingly apparent that troops within hostile areas which have no intrinsic value merely to ward off terror threats is a wasteful effort. Neither bin Laden nor Awlaqi were particularly successful in attacking the United States after September 11th, and have in fact failed to carry out a single successful terrorist attack on the American homeland in that time. At the same time, bin Laden, Awlaqi, and their proxies are very successful within their respective ‘backyards’, killing thousands of Americans and locals in multiple attacks.
Over the past few years, many advocates of counterinsurgency have doubted Off-Shore Balancing specifically arguing that only large ground forces on-shore could create the conditions for significant intelligence on terrorist operatives. As we saw in the death of OBL in the center of Pakistan and now in Alwaki in Yemen, COIN advocates have missed the boat — most likely because they have confused the ability of soldiers on the ground to collect tactical intelligence about low-level fighters immediately in front of them (which their presence sometimes stimulates) with strategic intelligence about the location of mid and senior level operatives and leaders.
Neither Awlaqi nor bin Laden were within areas with heavy American presence, and yet we were able to kill both of them. It therefore stands to reason that the United States suffers no degraded capability in killing its adversaries absent large ground troop presence, but that terrorist enemies lack the capability to attack Americans unless we are within there immediate area. Therefore, while the War against Terror has been costly in blood and treasure we can now say with some great certainty that a reduction in troop presence will not decrease the American ability to prosecute such war, but it will decrease al Qaeda’s ability to inflict costs on the United States.
As the United States enters negotiations with regards to the budget and its need to reduce its expense burden, it behooves law and policy makers to bear this lesson in mind. While it might make rational sense to incur costs abroad, in the form of war, to prevent costs at home, in the form of terror attacks, it is apparent we do not live in a world where those are necessary risks. At least with respect to the main terrorist threat we face, the United States is completely capable of protecting itself, and proactively defending itself by eliminating its adversaries, even without a large ground force in hostile countries. The United States can therefore probably greatly reduce its debt burden, and potentially even increase its security, by reducing its overseas involvement.