By Bill Roggio & Alexandra Gutowski
The United States launched a record number of airstrikes in Yemen and Somalia in 2017, and more importantly has reinitiated the targeting of terrorists in Pakistan and Libya.
The pattern of operations in 2017 in what the Obama administration used to call areas “outside of active hostilities” (or active war zones such as Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria) indicated that the US will continue the reinvigorated air campaign in these theaters in the coming years.
The increased targeting of jihadists in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and Libya provides proof that the Obama administration strategy to defeat terrorist groups in these countries with airpower and limited support to local governments has failed.
The US has targeted Shabaab in Yemen since 2007 and Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula since 2009, yet both of these al Qaeda branches maintain a robust insurgency and continue to control territory to this day.
US renews counterterrorism activities in Pakistan and Libya
While increased US activity in Yemen and Somalia is readily apparent, the renewed counterterrorism efforts in Pakistan and Libya has largely gone under the radar.
At first glance, comparing strike totals in Pakistan and Libya from 2017 to previous years may appear to indicate a reduction in counterterrorism activity in these theaters. However, the opposite is true.
In Pakistan, where the drone campaign began in 2004 under the Bush administration, the US conducted eight strikes in 2017, a sharp difference from previous highs, including a peak of 117 in 2010.
The Obama administration decreased strikes in Pakistan as it sought to wind down the war in Afghanistan and counterterrorism operations in Pakistan.
The Obama administration justified the reduction of strikes in Pakistan by incorrectly claiming al Qaeda’s “core” in South Asia has been decimated.
However, under the Trump administration, the 2017 total in Pakistan more than doubled from the previous year (three strikes).
There was a 10-month hiatus in strikes between the last in 2016, which killed the Taliban’s previous emir, Mullah Mansour, and the next in Pakistan, which took place on March 2, 2017.
Most of the strikes in Pakistan in 2017 targeted prominent jihadists from al Qaeda and the Taliban, including: Abu Bakar Haqqani, Abdul Raheem, and Qari Abdullah Subari.
President Trump has called out Pakistan for continuing to provide safe haven for jihadist groups such as the Taliban, which in turn supports al Qaeda and other global terrorist groups.
The administration has also sought to re-engage Pakistan to end its support for friendly jihadist groups and has limited the number of strikes in Pakistan in order to reduce tensions.
But after Trump called out Pakistan on New Year’s Day for providing “safe haven to the terrorists we hunt in Afghanistan” and saying “33 billion dollars in aid over the last 15 years” has “given us nothing but lies & deceit,” it can be expected that the US will resume targeting jihadists with increased zeal in 2018.
When comparing strike data in Libya from 2016 to 2017, the numbers appear to show that they have dropped precipitously, from 497 in 2016 to 12. However, all but two of the strikes in Libya took place under the aegis of Operation Odyssey Lightning, the US air operation which enabled Libyan Government of National Accord forces to recapture Sirte.
The Obama administration declared during Operation Odyssey Lightning that Libya was an area of “active hostilities,” thus those strikes took place in what was essentially an active war zone. The 12 strikes in 2017 were all counterterrorism strikes.
Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of FDD’s Long War Journal.
Alexandra Gutowski is a military affairs analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.