Is the U.S. Government Getting Rid of Counterinsurgency?
Should defeating the remnants of Al’Qaeda overshadow the traditional methods of counterinsurgency (and nation-building) in Afghanistan?
This is the controversial question that so many officials within the Obama administration have been asking themselves over the past few days. With General Stanley McChrystal’s assessment calling for more U.S. troops and a sustained American presence on the ground, President Obama and his foreign-policy circle seem divided as to what type of policy would actually turn the Afghan quagmire around. Whatever the case, a policy needs to be enacted quickly if the United States has any chance of taming the Taliban insurgency.
As I have mentioned earlier in my last post, Vice President Joseph Biden is leading a camp within the administration that is dealing exclusively with Pakistan’s role in the wider War on Terrorism. According to a number of government sources, the VP’s office has been investigating options that would expand U.S. counterterrorism operations on Pakistan’s eastern border; that infamous tribal-area where Al’Qaeda operatives remain strong and relatively protected from ground assault. VP aides are going so far as to determine whether special-operation forces should be introduced onto Pakistani soil, an action that would bolster Islamabad’s foothold in the country’s lawless region.
From what I can gather, Vice President Biden’s plan is gaining significant traction within the administration…so much so that the United States Congress recently passed a resolution increasing the amount of aid to Pakistan’s Government ($1.5 billion per year for the next five years). Is this simply an extension of the eight-year security arrangement between Washington and Islamabad? Or is this House-Senate bill a brand new package aimed at enforcing a doctrine of counterterrorism over counterinsurgency? Based on news circulating around the Beltway, one could conclude that the U.S. Military is re-evaluating the very core of its terrorism doctrine.
Certainly, defeating Al’Qaeda should be America’s number-one priority. President George W. Bush made his living in the Oval Office preying on Al’Qaeda militants, through enhanced domestic security and outright invasions. President Barack Obama, while an anti-war candidate last September and November, has practically transformed himself into the Democratic-version of the former Texan president. It would be a rather difficult task to distinguish Mr. Obama’s rhetoric from his Republican predecessor. Both have vowed to use all the resources in the executive branch to disturb, disrupt, and dismantle Al’Qaeda terrorist cells wherever they may reside.
Despite the President’s anti-Qaeda goals, one has to question his methods at achieving them. However valuable U.S.-drone strikes over Pakistan have been over the past year- and indeed they have been successful- an outright dependence on one course of action is not necessarily the best way to conduct the War on Terrorism.
One course of action did not prevent the loss of 3,000 American lives on September 11, 2001, and one course of action failed to stop a spiraling of sectarian violence in Iraq during 2005-2007. The U.S. Military and the White House should both learn from previous mistakes, and the lesson is rather clear: a combination of initiatives- military force and diplomatic outreach- is the most likely method for a successful security policy.
Once again, just take a look at America’s experience in Iraq. Immediately after U.S. troops marched into Baghdad and disposed of Saddam Hussein’s regime, Iraq policy centered on defeating hostile elements and quickly establishing a functional Iraqi governing authority. From the onset, Washington intended to place pro-American politicians in charge, regardless of tribal affiliation or cultural-sensitivity. And what did the United States get out of this policy in return? The result: a full-fledged insurgency against American troops that would only escalate into a devastating civil war.
The United States may have been able to take control of the situation in Iraq much sooner if it was not for a reliance on traditional-forms of military force. Only after three years of violent conflict did the U.S. Military adapt to a new approach (counterinsurgency); cutting deals with local Sunni’s and making sure that the center of Iraqi political power (Baghdad) was cut off from major acts of terrorism and insurgent violence.
In essence, what President Obama is doing today is casting away the doctrine that made the U.S.-mission in Iraq such a success after years of ethnic cleansing and Sunni v. Shia animosity. Protecting the indigenous population and improving the Afghan Government is being sacrificed by another one-dimensional approach. Surely the administration understands that bombs alone will not hamper Al’Qaeda’s capabilities over the long-term?
Once again, I am not disparaging counterterrorism as an ancient way to combat asymmetrical dangers. What I am simply arguing is that counterterrorism, when pursued alone, has its limitations. Assassinating leaders of terrorist networks will not eliminate the reasons why so many young-men join its ranks in the first place. As long as the United States and its allies fail to realize this fact, Al’Qaeda and like-minded groups will continue to draw recruits- whether in Pakistan, the Middle East, Europe, or North America.
This is precisely why counterinsurgency is so precious in the 21st century. The doctrine tackles the problems associated with the root causes of terrorism in general (a lack of security and governance, and feelings of desperation and hopelessness). As the debate over General McChrystal’s assessment continues, I hope that the President will not prematurely displace the tenants of the Counterinsurgency Field Manual. Rather, I pray the administration gives the Afghan population a second-chance before repeating past mistakes.
-Daniel R. DePetris
-Information from Robert Haddick of the Small Wars Journal and Josh Rogin the ForeignPolicy.com contributed to this blog. Both articles can be found at ForeignPolicy.com