Daniel R. DePetris: The Political Docket

Fighting Terror With Terror

Posted in U.S. Foreign and Defense Policy by Dan on October 30, 2009
Sunni Insurgent

Could the best way to fight terrorism spring from....well... more terrorism?

Well ladies and gentlemen, more than a month after General Stanley McChrystal’s strategic assessment over Afghanistan, the Obama administration is still deciding what the best way forward should be.  Meanwhile, another eight American soldiers have lost their lives in two separate IED attacks, the day after another fourteen Americans (including three DEA agents) were killed in two separate helicopter collisions.  October is now the deadliest month for U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan since the 2001 invasion, and the security situation is only getting worse as Afghan politicians are preparing for the November 7 election-runoff.  Oooh, and did I mention that President Obama is still mulling over his approach?

Out of both academic amusement and sheer determination, I have attempted to place myself in President Obama’s shoes.  Sitting in the Oval Office, I ask an internal question; what should the United States do to curb the Taliban insurgency?  For space issues, I have neglected to discuss the endemic problems facing Afghan society; after all, I would think that after eight-years of warfare, most Americans recognize how fragile and divisive Afghanistan is (corruption, sectarianism, drug production, Islamic radicalism, etc).

Instead, I think long and hard about a new and comprehensive Afghan war-plan, one that replaces Washington partisanship with an approach that would best serve our troops on the ground (and seriously, I actually did think “long and hard.”  Let’s just say seniors in college have a lot of free time on their hands).  And this is what I came up with: counterinsurgency for major population centers in Afghanistan, and guerilla-type attacks in the Afghan countryside.

To some readers, this hybrid plan seems rather strange and unworkable.  How could we possibly defeat an insurgency by relying on insurgent tactics; such as hit-and-run assaults, roadside bombs, decentralized forces, and small tactical units?  My answer is pretty simple; when the war-effort has been going in the wrong direction for the past eight years, and when the Taliban Movement is strengthening at the expense of the western-backed Kabul government, dire straits call for dire measures.

Just think about the plan for a moment.  In the cities, the U.S. Military- with the help of reconstruction teams from USAID and civilians from the State Department- would embark upon a rigorous campaign aimed at protecting the Afghan population from Taliban intimidation.  This is classic counterinsurgency, a method that has thus far been neglected by the United States in the “Af-Pak” region (as General McChrystal amply notices).  And Washington must not forget that this same counterinsurgency doctrine worked wonders in and around Baghdad, reinvigorating America’s chances for success in a seemingly hostile environment.

I truly understand that Iraq is different from Afghanistan in a number of respects (literacy levels, ethnic make-up, and history to name a few), but we must realize the inherent similarities between the two countries as well.  Both are riddled with corruption at the highest-levels of government; citizens of both states are forced to live their lives (at times) with minimal resources; Afghans and Iraqis are deeply susceptible to tribal violence and inter-state warfare; and lastly, both populations seem intent on forging a new way forward for their respective societies.  The United States can learn from these comparisons, and possibly draw the same conclusions (with some modifications).

Now to the controversial part of my strategy; fight terror with terror.  Of course, this seems quite uncivilized.  Western Governments often cringe at the words “terror, civilian casualties,” and “war crimes,” especially against an enemy that is so irrational, if not downright nihilistic.  But, like I said earlier, there comes a certain point when an unconventional strategy needs to be implemented…both for the sake of our troops and for the sake of the mission’s success.  If there is anything that can be learned from the American experience in the War on Terrorism, it is the fact that perception matters.  Wars are often one when the armies fighting firmly believe they are on the victorious end of history.  Take the U.S. victory in World War II and the coalition’s success in the 1991 Gulf War as contemporary examples.

It may be time for the United States to act in accordance with its superpower image.  I do not propose over-using heavy artillery, sophisticated technology, and repeated air-strikes to accomplish this goal; this would undoubtedly create more insurgents than it destroys and make Islamic fundamentalism all that more attractive.  To the contrary, I am referring to the innovation and resolve that makes a country such as the United States the world’s last remaining superpower.  Adapt to the enemy, know his mindset, understand his logic (or lack thereof) and success will come all that closer.  Show your adversary that the methods he considers clever will eventually lead to his own demise.

In World War II, the United States and its European allies defeated Nazi Germany by capitalizing on Adolf Hitler’s misjudgment.  As the Vietnam War drew to a close, the United States was able to improve the situation to the point of an American withdrawal.  In the Gulf War, coalition forces took advantage of Saddam Hussein’s disenfranchised army, quickly driving them out of Kuwait.  Even in Afghanistan, Washington bypassed the operations of conventional armies, providing support to indigenous groups who were angry with Taliban rule.

What is stopping us from continuing this precedent?  Sometimes in extraordinary cases, continuing the status-quo is better than deliberating for weeks on end.  Maybe this is why I am not the President of the United States.

-Daniel R. DePetris

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