WASHINGTON (AFP) – By ordering risky raids against Islamic extremists in Somalia and Libya, US President Barack Obama has shown a renewed readiness to use force while trying to keep the scope limited.
The twin commando operations in the lawless African states came even while the US government was partially shut down and shortly after Mr Obama climbed down from his threats to carry out military strikes in Syria.
Mr Obama supervised the raids on the very day he would have been heading to Asia on a four-nation tour to showcase US clout, a trip cancelled as the rival Republican Party refuses to fund the government without stripping the president’s signature reform of expanding health care coverage.
Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel said the operations sent “a strong message to the world that the United States will spare no effort to hold terrorists accountable.” The use of force brought a rare moment of unison with Republican leaders.
House Speaker John Boehner, speaking to ABC television, hailed a “great example” of coordination among US forces.
In Libya, the United States captured Abu Anas al-Libi, who is indicted in connection with the 1998 bombings of US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. In Somalia, the United States targeted the Al-Qaeda-linked Shebab in the wake of its bloody assault on a shopping mall in Nairobi, although the result of the US raid was unclear.
The operations marked a contrast with “boots-on-the-ground” wars, which Mr Obama has vowed to avoid, and also from attacks using unmanned drones, a tactic which the United States has controversially pursued against extremists in Pakistan and Yemen.
Mr Seth G. Jones, a counterterrorism expert at the Rand Corp. and former military adviser, said that raids by special forces generally result in fewer civilian casualties than drone strikes while allowing for interrogation of suspects and seizure of items of interest.
“You can still accomplish many of the same objectives and collect the intelligence, and it will be a little less controversial” that drone strikes, Mr Jones said.
He warned of the greater risk posed by a possible internationalisation of the targets for the Shebab, which has viewed Kenya and Ethiopia as enemies but had limited direct confrontation with the United States.
“The US has to be careful with direct engagement with Al-Shebab as it leaves open the possibility that they may attempt to strike back against the United States in East Africa or may try to do it outside East Africa,” Jones said.
Several US citizens of Somali descent are known to have joined the extremist network, in a rare example of radicalisation of second-generation Americans.
Mr Jones drew a parallel to the failed 2010 car bombing attempt in New York’s Times Square, which was linked to the Pakistani Taleban. The group, Tehreek-e-Taleban, was “fairly parochial” until a US drone strike killed its leader Baitullah Mehsud in 2009, Jones said.
The United States has been gradually reducing drone attacks in Pakistan, which are seen as contributing to the widespread anti-US sentiment in the country. Just over 100 people have died in 20 drone attacks this year in Pakistan, compared with 679 dead in 101 attacks in 2010, according to an AFP tally.
Unlike drone attacks, operations by the highly trained Navy Seals come with the risk of US casualties, although officials said there were none in the Somalia and Libya raids.
Steven Bucci of the conservative Heritage Foundation said that Obama should dispatch SEALs sparingly, writing on the think tank’s blog: “It cannot be just because it is easier, politically, to send them than to send anyone else.” Mr Obama ordered the raid that killed Osama bin Laden but has been openly philosophical about his mixed views on war.
In a speech in May, Mr Obama said that the United States “cannot use force everywhere that a radical ideology takes root.”
“In the absence of a strategy that reduces the wellspring of extremism, a perpetual war – through drones or special forces or troop deployments – will prove self-defeating and alter our country in troubling ways,” Mr Obama said at the time.
Mr Obama later prepared for a military response in Syria after concluding that President Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons, killing more than 1,400 people, and said in response to critics: “The United States military doesn’t do pinpricks.” But Mr Obama conceded the risks of involvement in an increasingly sectarian civil war and embraced a diplomatic solution with Russia in which Assad would give up his chemical stockpile.
Michael Shank, director of foreign policy at the pacifist Friends Committee on National Legislation, said that the United States should focus on “economic development, not military disembowelment” to curb violence in Somalia and Libya.
“It appears that past US precedent in Libya and Somalia – that of bombing, not building, societies – continues on, unmoved by the failures of past US policy,” he said.
“As a result, be prepared for more instability on the continent, not less.”