As July approaches, so too does the beginning of a withdrawal from Afghanistan. This has sparked some measure of debate in this country. Unfortunately, much of the debate around the future of our involvement in Afghanistan and the region is ill-informed. The most annoying debate is whether or not we should abandon counter-insurgency and embrace counter-terrorism. Allow me to simplify the effects of both strategies: The latter will result in prolonged war, while the former will bring about a negotiated settlement. But listening to the pundits, politicians, or reading the newspaper (or blog) writers, one would come away with the idea that counter-insurgency has failed and that counter-terrorism is the best strategy as we go forward. If we are to leave Afghanistan with some semblance of security, then we must continue the counter-insurgency strategy that has been in place for a year-and-a-half. Failing to do so will result in prolonged conflict.
Conventional wisdom says that the killing of Osama bin Laden has boosted the argument for pursuing a counter-terrorism strategy. The detailed account of helicopters swooping down on a compound, with armed commandos rappelling down onto unsuspecting terrorists, has captured the imagination of Americans everywhere. It seemed so effective; indeed, bin Laden has a bullet in his head and chest to attest to the effectiveness of SEAL Team 6. Unfortunately, this is not exactly how counter-terrorism works. And if it did, it would require much more energy and money.
Vice President Joe Biden is the White House’s biggest advocate of counter-terrorism. During the White House’s long internal discussion over what to do in Afghanistan, he pushed for a counter-terrorism strategy. In his view, a smaller footprint would yield better results, particularly if U.S. military forces went after Taliban and al Qaeda leaders. The larger footprint required by counter-insurgency would only create more terrorists, he argued. Biden also described counter-insurgency as nation-building. Throughout the internal debate, Biden sought to undermine the arguments of General David Petraeus and General Stanley McChrystal, the military brass. In the end, the President did not fully embrace the counter-terrorism strategy. He agreed to the strategy proposed by the military: counter-insurgency.
The military, during the internal debate, argued that the Taliban was effectively winning the war. The momentum was on their side. But, in their view, the Taliban had an ally in Hamid Karzai. Karzai was corrupt and did not have the trust of the Afghans. A lack of security was also driving factor in allowing the Taliban insurgency to flourish. The only way to improve security and governance, they argued, was to add more troops on the ground and adopt a counter-insurgency strategy. They hoped for 40,000 more troops, but the President only approved 30,000 troops. Believing that the military was trying to box him in, the President dictated five pages of memorandum that were meant to straightjacket the military. He feared that they were pushing him into the trap of mission creep.
Counter-terrorism sounds good on paper, which is why there were some vigorous supporters of CT in the White House. But the debate inside the White House (which is going on now in the public square) ignored the fact that insurgency is different from terrorism, and therefore require different approaches. This misunderstanding can be attributed to the Bush administration’s failure to accurately explain the post-9/11 challenge. By invading Afghanistan and Iraq, the United States created a power vacuum, which was the perfect environment for an insurgency. Salafist and takfiri Islamic militants were seeking to overthrow the governments established by the U.S. through the use of terrorism as a tactic. The Bush administration mislabeled the insurgents as “terrorists,” and that became the term everyone used to describe the enemies we faced in Iraq and Afghanistan. There are major differences between the two, which should inform our military strategy in Afghanistan.
When talking about terrorists, it is imperative to note that these are generally acts of violence that are committed by individuals with radical goals. They and their goals are not representative of their social group. They use terrorism as a means to shock both the public and government into accepting the demands of the terrorists. These are criminal acts of violence. Counter-terrorism is a form of law enforcement, whereby the terrorists are captured (or killed) and brought to justice. This is what recently happened to Osama bin Laden.
Insurgents are different in most respects, though terrorism is a popular tactic among insurgents. But here is the deeper issue: insurgents are representative of their social group, and their goals or grievances are widely shared within that social group. In other words, the insurgents are representative of deeply rooted problems in society. The way to counter an insurgency is through a whole-of-government approach that marginalizes the grievances through a compromise or reform. The Arab Spring is an example of a non-violent insurgency.
Now we come to the crux of the matter.
There is no way to kill our way out of Afghanistan or the region. We cannot simply capture or detain our way out either. These are the methods of counter-terrorism. Furthermore, the region is crippled by deeply rooted problems that have allowed militant Islamic fundamentalists to gain influence and threaten the stability of governments in the region. These are not simply terrorists that we can seek out and arrest or kill, as counter-terrorism would have us do. The way to defeat these insurgents is through a counter-insurgency strategy that protects the public, increases government responsiveness and transparency, and addresses the deeply rooted grievances of the public. This will undoubtedly require some sort of compromise with the Taliban. All of this will require time and patience, something the public lacks, which is why they are now hoping to pursue a CT strategy. If we are serious about getting out and leaving behind a secure Afghanistan that we will not have to re-invade some time in the future (I’m not talking about winning, mind you), then a COIN strategy is our only hope.
But I hate to leave the impression that we should do a purely COIN strategy. Certainly, that should be our guiding strategy in Afghanistan. However, there is a need for CT. We are doing that in some areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan right now with our have drones policing the skies. And obviously we just took out Osama bin Laden using CT. A hybrid strategy is useful. But this talk about ending COIN and adopting a purely CT approach is not only silly, it is irresponsible.
As General David Petraeus has said many times, we cannot win this war. There will never be a time when we can have a ticker-tape parade and see al Qaeda and the Taliban sign a document to end the war. We may never live in a world that is free of either organization. So, the goal is to ensure that the people of the region are satisfied with their government, have hope for their future, and feel secure… at least enough so that we can leave and the Afghan government can continue what we started. The Arab Spring is showing us that the people in this region are taking it upon themselves to bring about change. Let’s hope they succeed so that we do not have to pursue a COIN or CT strategy.
And just because it made me smile…