Daniel R. DePetris: The Political Docket

A Lively Discussion on the “Real” Sources of Terrorism

Posted in Afghanistan/Pakistan/Central Asia by Dan on September 30, 2009


Don’s Argument:

The Washington Post yesterday made available an unclassified version of General Stanley McChrystal’s long-awaited report on the war in Afghanistan. Politically, the report is bold, in that it acknowledges the enemy has the initiative and we have been fighting the war – for eight years – in counterproductive ways. But intellectually, both as analysis and as prescription, it is five pounds of substance in a 50 pound bag.

The report’s message can be summarized in one sentence: we need to start doing classic counterinsurgency, and to do so, we need more “resources,” i.e. troops. In a narrow, technical sense, that statement is valid. Classic counterinsurgency doctrine says we need hundreds of thousands more troops in Afghanistan.

Past that syllogism, the report’s validity becomes questionable. Defects begin with the study’s failure to address Fourth Generation war’s first and most important question: Is there a state in Afghanistan? At times, the report appears to assume a state; elsewhere, it speaks of the Afghan state’s weaknesses. It never addresses the main fact, namely that at present there is no state, and under the current Afghan government there is no prospect of creating one.

The failure to acknowledge the absence of a state leads the rest of the report through the looking glass. For example, it puts great emphasis on expanding the Afghan National Security Forces (army and police). But absent a state, there are no state armed forces. The ANSF are militiamen who take a salary paid, through intermediaries, by foreign governments. How many Pashtun do you find in the ANSF?

Similarly, the report laments that Afghanistan’s prisons have become recruiting centers for the Tailban. It calls for getting the U.S. out of the prison business and turning it all over to the Afghan government. But who will then run those “state” prisons? The Taliban, of course, just as they do now.

In a curious passage, the report says, on page 2-20, The greater resources (ISAF requires) will not be sufficient to achieve success, but will enable implementation of the new strategy. Conversely, inadequate resources will likely result in failure.

However, without a new strategy, the mission should not be resourced. Here we encounter the report’s most dangerous failing. It confuses the strategic and the operational levels of war. In fact, the report does not offer a new strategy, but a new operational-level plan.

How the war is fought, i.e. by following classic counter-insurgency doctrine, is operational, not strategic. America must find a new strategy, since the current strategy depends on an Afghan state that does not exist. But the report offers no new strategy. The passage on page 2-20 thus ends up saying, “If you don’t give us more troops, we will fail. But you shouldn’t give us more troops unless we adopt a new strategy, which we don’t have. And even if you do give us the troops we want for the new strategy we haven’t got, they will not be enough to achieve success.”

This reveals utter intellectual confusion.

The proper response of the White House, the Pentagon, and Congress to General McChrystal’s report is, “Back to the drawing board, fellas.” How might Fourth Generation theory help us re-write the report? At the operational level, most of what it recommends under the rubric of counterinsurgency is sound.

Drawing on the report’s concept of “proper resourcing” that allows for “appropriate and acceptable risk,” we would concentrate our counterinsurgency efforts in a few provinces, such as Helmand, to show the Taliban we can fight it to a stalemate.

We would endeavor to do so while gradually drawing troop levels down, not sending in more troops. The goal of these actions on the operational level would be to buy time both in Afghanistan and on the home front. We would use that time to implement a genuine new strategy. It would proceed from these facts: There is no state in Afghanistan, and none can be created by or for the current Afghan government.

Our strategic goal, as General McChrystal’s report states in its first paragraph, is to prevent al Qaeda’s return to Afghanistan. There is currently no evidence of al Qaeda presence in Afghanistan. One of the best open sources of intelligence, Nightwatch, recently stated this directly, and General McChrystal’s report hints at it.

Our strategic goal would be to see the creation of a state in Afghanistan that can and will prevent al Qaeda’s return. Who can do that? The Taliban. We would use the time bought by counterinsurgency operations to negotiate with the Taliban, the Haqqani Network, the Hezb-e Islami Gulbuddin and other Afghan leaders, including some in the current Afghan government, toward a power-sharing arrangement.

A government that includes the Taliban can create a state. The risk is the Taliban’s willingness to keep al Qaeda out. Why should Mullah Omar agree to that? Because al Qaeda no longer needs Afghan bases. It has far more useful ones in Pakistan. That is why it is not in Afghanistan now. If President Obama and Congress accept General McChrystal’s report and adopt a new operational plan in support of the current strategy, building an Afghan state around the regime now in Kabul, they will guarantee an American defeat.

Sending more American troops to Afghanistan will only magnify the defeat.

Ironically, what Washington needs to do is follow General McChrystal’s own recommendation and refuse more resources without a new strategy. Let’s hope the politicians realize this is their last exit before a bottomless quagmire.

My Argument:

If the United States is really concerned about international terrorism, one would think that the Pentagon would devote more resources towards Africa and the Saudi Peninsula. Given the argument that the Al’Qaeda terrorist network has only a minor presence in Afghanistan (although Al’Qaeda Central remains just across the border), why is the President continuing to focus his “War on Terrorism” in Central Asia?

Intelligence sources for the past two years have argued that Al’Qaeda is establishing itself in areas where the United States either lacks control or has reliable allies. Omar Bashir’s Sudan, the fractious Somali state, and the deserts of Yemen are all examples of this phenomenon.

In fact, there is every reason to believe that joint U.S./NATO exercises in Afghanistan have been so successful (against terrorism) that Al’Qaeda was forced to retreat. While the upper-Qaeda management would certainly deny the success of American counterterrorism, there is no question in the minds of logical people that bombing raids and special-forces were devastating to Osama bin-Laden. In his mind, the only way his apocalyptic movement could survive was to fold back and create new bases on the African Continent.

Surely, the U.S. Military continues to use drone strikes and air-assaults on terrorist camps inside Somalia and Sudan. This was confirmed a few weeks ago, when Washington reportedly killed Somalia’s number-one Qaeda chief through a tactical air-campaign. However, if the U.S. security apparatus is intent on defeating terrorism, perhaps Afghanistan is not the best place to start.

Yemen, Somalia, Sudan, Pakistan, and sleeper-cells in Western Europe are all at risk…

P.S… Don, thank you for referring to my blog..highly appreciated

MAJ Chad Foster’s Argument:


Great points about where the “front” in the war against terrorism really is. There is at least some level of acknowlegement about the increasing importance of Africa and other areas outside of Afghanistan and Iraq within the Military (this is something that I have discussed with my peers at length on many occassions).

Perhaps it gets back to something that I tried (rather poorly) to address in an earlier reply. Namely, that Al Queda and the Taliban are not necessarily the same thing. Therefore, is the effort in Afghanistan really a war against the terrorists or is it a war against the Taliban? There are many who make a compelling argument that the two are indistinguishable, but it might be helpful to keep in mind Kilcullen’s “Accidental Guerilla” model: some of our “enemies” are only fighting us out of local concerns or merely because we are there in their backyard. Groups with a global agenda such as AQ often use them to fight us through proxy. The now de-centralized nature of AQ facilitates this, not by establishing central leadership or C2, but by offering an ideological umbrella for many different groups to rally beneath as they fight for their various “causes” and grievances.

If that is the case, the perhaps we should shift to where the “real” enemy is trying to re-establish himself. The places that you mention (Somalia, Sudan, Pakistan proper, etc.) would then be the logical conclusion. Unfortunately, we are still left with the problem of what to leave behind in Afghanistan . . . whatever it is, there has to be at least some hope that it will not degenerate back into what it was prior to 9/11.

Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I always enjoy seeing different ways of thinking about these very wicked problems. That is why this blog and others like it are so valuable. We should always seek out those who “think differently about the things that we think about.” We, as a nation, haven’t really done a good job of that in the past. Discussion is essential to good thinking.

Another one of my responses:

Chad, thank you very much for your kind words. Unfortunately, our country is in quite a predicament. On the one hand, U.S. soldiers are fighting a Taliban insurgency that only appears stronger and more resilient by the day. On the other hand, Washington’s obession with Afghanistan is providing Al’Qaeda with a unique opportunity to expand their operations to other parts of the world (i.e. my point with Somalia, Sudan, Pakistan, and Yemen). The question you raised is exactly what policymakers must ask themselves: is the War in Afghanistan against terrorism in general, or against the Taliban movement?

The President and his cabinet have yet to answer this query. Yet, any logical person familiar with terrorism studies can distinguish the Taliban’s main goals with Al’Qaeda operatives. Recently, I had the pleasure of watching a documentary focusing on Osama bin-Laden’s rise in Afghanistan during the mid 1990’s. Contrary to popular believe, Taliban Chief Mullah Mohammad Omar was highly skeptical of his presence; believing that the apocalyptic goals of Al’Qaeda could cause significant trouble for the Taliban Government.

And guess what happened…the Taliban Regime became a victim to an international coalition, thanks to Osama’s miscalculations. Is there any reason to believe that after a U.S. withdrawal, the Taliban would make the same mistake twice?


Thank you officers and gentlemen all, for a most
stimulating thread.

You see, I don’t have the benefit of sitting across
a table from you, and having a casual conversation,
and so I occasionaly out a mild sense of frustration
feel compelled to force the point.

Guess what, everyone one of you surprised me
pleasantly with the responses and analysis.

It’s good to know I’m in such good company,
and it’s an honor.




Max, Chad, all,

This is what I have been wanting to happen for the last year (started the blog March 2008), and hope it will be a lot more. I am devoting more time in managing it. But this went well as it should, with no guidance at all. I am posting another of Bill’s pieces soon. I myself, have been relentless on the think tanks and how at the cost of the nation, they push their own agendas.

Take Care, and keep up the fire. That is how we get better.



One Response

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  1. vigrx said, on October 23, 2009 at 11:47 am

    There is obviously a lot to know about this. I think you made some good points in Features also.

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