America’s allies have come under intense scrutiny this election season. The Republican presidential candidate, Donald Trump, postulated at times that he might, if president, break long-standing alliances with NATO. His premise: America’s allies aren’t paying their share of the burden in fights around the world. Trump’s call for reexamining alliances to better understand what return Americans get on their investments has merit but focuses in the wrong direction. He has taken European allies to task while giving America’s counterterrorism allies in the Middle East, North Africa, and South Asia a pass. The preponderance of U.S. alliances in recent years have not been through traditional Cold War agreements but instead through ad hoc arrangements to pursue al-Qaeda and its later spawn, the Islamic State.
Over the last fifteen years, the U.S. has partnered with dozens of countries, providing military assistance and cooperation for targeting terrorists or building partner capacity or, in some cases, foreign aid to mitigate the root causes for terrorism. The results of these partnerships have been uneven at best. Tactical gains against specific terror targets have, in many cases, been offset by long run strategic divergence between the U.S. and its counterterrorism allies. Some alliances often put the U.S. in a twist both internationally and domestically. Just this month, President Obama, attempting to preserve a counterterrorism ally, vetoed a bill authorizing U.S. citizens to sue Saudi Arabia for perceived complicity in the 9/11 attacks – a veto overridden by Congress.
Moreover, the cross-cutting, ad hoc development of counterterrorism alliances have put America at odds with other state partners while simultaneously confirming the grievances of terrorists. The current U.S. fight against the Islamic State provides a prime example. The U.S. decision to lead the fight against the Sunni Arab Islamic State has resulted in a) support to an Iraqi Army backed by Iran with whom the U.S. conducts nuclear negotiations that agitate Sunni partners; b) partnering with Kurdish forces while simultaneously allying with their enemy, Turkey, for airbases; c) working with Saudi Arabia while they pursue a sectarian conflict against Yemen’s Iranian-backed Houthis and inflame sectarianism throughout the Middle East; and d) negotiating, partnering and then breaking off cooperation with Russia while they undertake airstrikes on Syrian civilians. Aside from the contradictory implications in fighting the Islamic State, the U.S. counterterrorism approach has established enduring alliances with nations that have also been sources of terrorism – namely Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt. These three so-called essential partners in America’s counterterrorism operations, it could be argued, also represent the three largest fountains of jihadi terrorism over the past thirty years. Here’s a quick snapshot of these three contradictory relationships.