Trump’s First Casualty Is U.S. Counterterrorism
America's success on the battlefield requires Muslim partners. But the president’s travel ban only alienates them.
President Donald Trump’s clear willingness — perhaps even desire — to offend and alienate some of America’s most critical allies in the global counterterrorism fight via the travel ban on refugees and people from seven Muslim-majority countries makes it arguably his most dangerous act among a litany of shockingly ill-advised policy moves since his inauguration a mere two weeks ago. By halting the admittance of individuals from these “terror-prone” nations, all but one of which (Iran) are host to some variety of U.S. counterterrorism activity — as well as pausing the refugee program for 120 days and blocking Syrian refugees indefinitely — Trump has in one executive order made it exponentially harder for the United States to achieve its most critical foreign-policy objective: the reduction of terrorist threats to the U.S. homeland.
There are, of course, myriad other serious problems with the travel ban, including its utter refutation of core American values and the ease with which the Islamic State and other extremist groups can exploit its propaganda value as proof that the United States is, in fact, at war with Islam. But the message the travel ban sends to governments across the Muslim world, including countries not on the list that are smart enough to see through the administration’s absurd assertions that “it’s not a Muslim ban” (i.e., all of them), will make Americans significantly less safe in the immediate term. The United States badly needs Muslim partners to help it track down and neutralize those who pose a threat to America and its allies, not to mention on countless other programs that reduce the specter of extremism in the very places the ban rightly identifies at hotbeds of radicalism.
Telling these nations, from the closest of allies to those that only begrudging allow U.S. troops or special operators on their soil, that their citizens and those of other Muslim-majority nations are too dangerous to set foot in the United States will without a doubt make those nations more hesitant to work with U.S. forces and intelligence agencies. The fact that the immigrants in question may be fleeing those same governments’ repressive actions is unlikely to prevent those governments from taking offense. Backlash will occur both at the most senior diplomatic levels and, perhaps more critically, on the ground, where the most important aspects of the counterterrorism mission, including intelligence sharing, security cooperation, and military operations, take place every day. These governments will take this action seriously, and they will take it to heart. It is difficult to understate the damage this can and will cause.
The United States has not fought a truly unilateral war in the last 200 years and has had allies and partners in every conflict in which it has participated since the founding of the republic. But in the years since 9/11 — and particularly since the disastrous Iraq War in which U.S. boots on the ground exacerbated and by some accounts ignited a deadly insurgency — U.S. military strategy has revolved around the assistance of and close partnerships with foreign civilian, military, and irregular forces. It’s an imperfect strategy, as I’ve explored in these pages and which is apparent in the state of U.S. foreign policy today, but the Barack Obama administration assessed — rightly, in my opinion — that it was better than the alternative, namely large U.S. military interventions in foreign conflicts.
Trump has given no indication that he plans to veer from this approach. In fact, he has declared that such cooperation will be at the core of his counter-Islamic State strategy, stating, “My administration will aggressively pursue joint and coalition military operations to crush and destroy ISIS, international cooperation to cut off their funding, expanded intelligence sharing, and cyberwarfare to disrupt and disable their propaganda and recruiting.” There is, therefore, no reason to think these nations’ cooperation will become less important under his reign; if anything, they will be more so.
Given, then, that Trump means to continue working by, with, and through (to borrow a phrase of art) partner nations, his travel ban shows how fundamentally he misunderstands the forces underlying the relationships that U.S. soldiers, civilians, and intelligence officials have fought and died to maintain in the years since 9/11. They are far more complex than Trump’s simplistic “let’s make a deal” approach can address. In most cases, these relationships are built on years of painstaking trust-building and negotiation. From education programs to military training exercises, economic aid to capacity building, the United States has spent billions of dollars convincing these governments that it shares their interests and views them as valuable partners.
The case with which I have first-hand experience, Pakistan, is a textbook example of a country in which U.S. diplomats, intelligence, and military personnel have labored for decades to build ties that could even begin to support cooperation — despite a range of radically divergent interests. It has not always been successful; in fact, to call the relationship “fraught” is probably an understatement. But it has been enough to facilitate 15 years of moderately effective counterterrorism cooperation, the results of which have undoubtedly saved many lives, including those of Americans. It has been painful and hasn’t always worked, but it has been the least bad option when it comes to protecting Americans.
During my own time supporting that partnership, the brief and mistaken detention of several Pakistani flag officers at the airport in Tampa, Florida, on their way to a training exercise caused us weeks of discord and delays in critical military training activities. One can only imagine then the impact of a travel ban like the one just issued, despite the fact that Pakistan is not on the list (yet). Again, its exclusion is unlikely to prevent backlash at home; any ban that appears to target Muslims by virtue of their religion will (understandably) stand as an affront to any Islamic government. There is, as the Tampa example suggests, huge sensitivity on this front. It does not take much to tip the scales.
A more relevant example today might be the teams executing strikes along the lines of last week’s raid in Yemen, in which a U.S. service member and an estimated 10 civilians were tragically killed. It is not clear from reporting whether Yemeni forces were present on this particular mission (or whether they should have been, given the reported outcomes), although the U.S. team was apparently working with Emirati special forces. However, these types of operations are almost always conducted with the assistance of host-nation forces, who not only provide critical support (intelligence, language, on-the-ground knowledge) but operate alongside U.S. forces in extremely dangerous situations. The trust built between U.S. forces and their foreign counterparts is critical to these operations’ success and can only be hampered by decisions such as implementing a travel ban. (Yemen, of course, is one of the “terror-prone” seven.) To put it another way, I would not want to have to go out on a dangerous counterterrorism mission with my Yemeni — or even Emirati — partners the day after news of the Muslim ban had broken.
The legal, moral, and humanitarian problems with Trump’s order are huge, and its rejection is incumbent on all of us. But from a strictly security-driven perspective, the downsides are striking as well. The United States cannot keep its finger on the evolution of global threats alone. Poking its partners in the eye is not only wrong but shortsighted and dangerous. For all his talk about “crushing” the Islamic State, Donald Trump has just undone years of work in building the partnerships that bolster U.S. security — and undeniably made America less safe.
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