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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…
By Jose Rodriguez
Last week, the Obama administration released its much anticipated assessment of the war in Afghanistan.
After seven years of neglect, President Obama made Afghanistan a top foreign policy priority. By the end of 2009, a strategic policy for Afghanistan was decided, which resulted in a surge of 30,000 additional troops. However, it was not until summer 2010 when all of the troops were in the country, bringing the total number of American troops to 97,000. The counter-insurgency strategy, therefore, has had roughly three months to operate at full capacity, a point mostly neglected in the mainstream media.
Though President Obama agreed to 30,000 additional troops, it was still fewer than what the military had requested. General David Petraeus, Commander, International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and Commander, U.S. Forces Afghanistan (USFOR-A), has therefore focused on a triage approach, which placed our forces in the major population centers, particularly in the Helmand and Kandahar provinces. These southern provinces have been the strongholds of the Taliban.
Many in the media, from liberals on MSNBC, to conservatives like Joe Scarsborough and George Will, predicted total and complete failure in Afghanistan. Following the release of the assessment, the media has basked in the glory of its cynicism. Headlines, like the following, are ubiquitous: “Obama’s Afghanistan Report: Progress and Challenges”, and “Afghanistan Report Finds Progress ‘Fragile,’ Offers Few Details”. Even the language in the report suggests that the Obama administration is not impressed with the progress made thus far.
The report highlights three areas of progress: disrupting and dismantling al Qaeda; Pakistan; and Afghanistan.
Al Qaeda’s senior leadership has been dwindled as a result of our attempts to hunt them down and kill them. Because of our intense efforts, they have been forced to find safe havens in more remote (and less secure) areas, making it more difficult for them to plan, prepare, and carry out acts of terrorism. Our efforts have been both in Afghanistan and Pakistan, especially since al Qaeda has been in hiding on the Pakistan side of the border. The report underscores our government’s concern that al Qaeda could threaten the stability of Pakistan, a nuclear armed nation.
Pakistan, in the last year, has been cooperating with US efforts to root out al Qaeda and Taliban leaders in the FATA region. These efforts have had deadly consequences for Pakistan’s civilians and military. Nonetheless, Pakistan has to do more to develop the FATA region, which will do more to bring stability to the region. This will do more to deny al Qaeda and the Taliban safe havens than military action.
Afghanistan is also an area where there has been progress. The report neglects any discussion of Hamid Karzai and accusations of corruption, which has earned the report criticism. Regardless, the report highlights efforts by the US to begin transitioning all responsibility to the Afghans. Though the US military will be out of Afghanistan by 2014, the US will be there to assist Afghanistan for years to come. The surge of civilian resources has also had the benefit of improving the competence of the Afghan government and government programs. They have also been monitoring progress in combating corruption and emphasizing accountability. The most important progress has been demonstrated in the provinces of Helmand and Kandahar, where US forces have displaced the Taliban.
For seven years, the Bush administration neglected Afghanistan. During that time, all the energy, focus, and resources were diverted to Iraq. Afghanistan was forgotten and assumed to be a complete success. The Taliban took advantage of our situation in Iraq, and they re-established themselves in many parts of the country. Indeed, they set-up secret governments, which, in many respects, were more responsive to the civilian population. Since President Obama’s surge, the Taliban’s gains have been reversed. As we approach July 2011, the US will be evaluating the ability of Afghan security forces to competently assume full control over areas cleared and held by American and coalition forces.
The report also makes it clear that, while these improvements are crucial, they are also fragile and reversible.
But amid all the back-patting of the media and critics of the Afghanistan war, the ability of US forces to clear and hold the south is an important indication that we are indeed turning the corner. In places like Marjah and Nawa, the Taliban, who were once the dominant presence, have been completely displaced. Bazaars, restaurants, and businesses are open. The people are no longer concerned about Taliban intimidation, since they know that US forces are there to protect them. The counter-insurgency strategy is working, albeit slowly, and it needs time.
Richard Holbrooke, a legendary diplomat, famous for his efforts to end the Bosnian war, died on December 13th. He was the Obama administration’s lead diplomat to Afghanistan and Pakistan. Liberal critics of the war, especially on the Huffington Post, have latched onto his final words: “End the war in Afghanistan.” However, for those who knew Holbrooke best, his final words were not a death-bed plea, but part of jovial banter between himself and his family. Ever the obsessed and driven man, he was focused on bringing about a solution to the Afghan war, even on his death bed. His family and the doctors around him were trying to get him to calm down and rest, and they asked him what they could do to calm him down. He responded, “Stop this war.”
In the final analysis, this war will not be ended through military force, a fact everyone (including Holbrooke) understands. But there, unfortunately, has to be force. In order for there to be a political resolution to this conflict, the Taliban has to be brought to its knees. If the Taliban feels as though they have the ability to succeed over American and ISAF forces, they will not negotiate. If we pull out now, as critics have urged, the Taliban will undoubtedly successfully bring down the fragile Afghan government. Needless to say, al Qaeda will, once again, have the freedom to organize, plan, and export terrorism, just as they did before 9/11.
The United States has abandoned Afghanistan twice.
The last time we abandoned Afghanistan was in the early lead up to the war in Iraq. We allowed the Taliban to become resurgent, the government to become corrupt, and lost our legitimacy with the Afghan people. This abandonment has caused made it difficult to regain the trust of the Afghan people.
The first time we abandoned Afghanistan was after the Soviets withdrew their forces. We had been secretly supporting, funding, and arming the mujahedeen’s efforts to expel the Soviets. Once that conflict drew to a close, we stood back as Afghanistan fell into a bloody civil war. Over 400,000 Afghans were killed as a result. Also, more importantly, the Taliban were able to grab control of Afghanistan.
If we abandon Afghanistan again, then we will have blood on our hands. To be sure, there are no good options. To be sure, this is not a war we can win. But what we can do is bring stability to Afghanistan and allow them an opportunity to take control of their own future. For that to happen, we have to continue our efforts against the Taliban, deny al Qaeda sanctuary, and improve governance in Afghanistan. This will require time and patience.
Both the Iraq and Afghanistan wars provide an excellent lesson for the American people: do not support foolish military ventures that will be difficult to get out of. As the saying goes, “You break it, you bought it.” And now the American people are feeling buyer’s remorse.
Be sure to read my first post on the Afghan war: https://dissentiscool.wordpress.com/2009/03/30/whats-the-deal-with-afghanistan/