Thursday, May 19, 2011

COIN versus CT, and it's applicability to Afghanistan

It seems appropriate to revisit Marc Sageman's testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 2009 in light of ObL's demise, and the hopeful prospects of realistic discussion on our presence in Afghanistan. The predictable conflation of Taliban [and assorted other groups] with trans-national terrorism is an unfortunate reflection of the level of intellectual curiosity in our nation today. This of course is usually accompanied by the 'never say lose - stay as long as it takes' crowd. This crowd becomes strangely silent when pressed on the salient points of the issue, preferring rather, to confine their capacities to easily digestible rhetoric.

The reliance on politicians, pundits or invested strategists [such as the Kagan's] yet seemingly utter ignorance of peer reviewed experts like Sageman, Pillar, Kilcullen, the folks at the Institute for Defense Analysis, Strategic Studies Intsitute, NYU's Center for Law and Security, and others represents a failing of our media to present academic analysis of the issues, as opposed to left/right divisive commentary.

Some points from Sageman:
- The dramatic increase in global neo-jihadi terrorism in the first decade of the 21st Century has come from al Qaeda inspired autonomous groups with no link to formal transnational terrorist groups. This is especially true since the 2003 invasion of Iraq, which has inspired local young Muslims to strike out against the West. It seems clear that this invasion has created more terrorists in the West, refuting the thesis that “we are fighting them there, so we don‟t have to fight them here.” The fact that these plots peaked in 2004, one year after the invasion of Iraq provides empirical support linking the two events.

- The dichotomy of the present policy options between counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency is a false one. The choice is not between counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency, but between counter-terrorism and counter-terrorism plus counter-insurgency. No matter what happens in Afghanistan, all Western powers will continue to protect their homelands with a vigorous counter-terrorism campaign against al Qaeda, its allies and its homegrown progeny. The policy option really boils down to, what is the added value of counter-insurgency in Afghanistan to a necessary and continuing counter-terrorism strategy worldwide?
- The proposed counter-insurgency strategy in Afghanistan is at present irrelevant to the goal of disrupting, dismantling and defeating al Qaeda, which is located in Pakistan. None of the plots in the West has any connection to any Afghan insurgent group, labeled under the umbrella name “Afghan Taliban,” be it a part of Mullah Omar‟s Quetta Shura Taliban, Jalaluddin Haqqani‟s Haqqani Network, or Gulbuddin Hekmatyar‟s Hezb-e Islami. There has not been any Afghan in al Qaeda in the past twenty years because of mutual resentment between al Qaeda foreigners and Afghan locals. In the policy debate, there is an insidious confusion between Afghan Taliban and transnational terrorist organizations. Afghan fighters are parochial, have local goals and fight locally. They do not travel abroad and rarely within their own country. They are happy to kill Westerners in Afghanistan, but they are not a threat to Western homelands. Foreign presence is what has traditionally unified the usually fractious Afghan rivals against a common enemy. Their strategic interest is local, preserving their autonomy from what they perceive as a predatory corrupt unjust central government. They do not project to the West and do not share the internationalist agenda of al Qaeda or its allied transnational terrorist organizations.
- The second prong of the proposed counter-insurgency strategy in Afghanistan is the prevention of al Qaeda‟s return to Afghanistan through a military surge. The assumption is that the return to power by the Taliban will automatically allow al Qaeda to reconstitute in Afghanistan, complete with training camps and resurgence of al Qaeda‟s ability to project to the West and threaten the homeland.

a. The possibility of Afghan insurgents winning is not a sure thing. Twenty years ago, it took a far better armed and far more popular insurgency more than three years to take power after the complete withdrawal of Soviet forces from Afghanistan. Unlike 1996, when the Taliban captured Kabul, the label Taliban now includes a collection of local insurgencies with some attempts at coordination on a larger scale. The Taliban is deeply divided and there is no evidence that it is in the process of consolidating its forces for a push on Kabul. Local Taliban forces can prevent foreign forces from protecting the local population, through their time honored tactics of ambushes and raids. General McChrystal is right: the situation in the countryside is grim. But this local resistance does not translate into deeply divided Taliban forces being able to coalesce in the near future into an offensive force capable of marching on to Kabul. Command and control frictions and divergent goals hamper their planning and coordination of operations. They lack popular support and have not demonstrated ability to project beyond their immediate locality.

b. Taliban return to power will not mean an automatic new sanctuary for al Qaeda. First, there is no reason for al Qaeda to return to Afghanistan. It seems safer in Pakistan at the moment. Indeed, al Qaeda has so far not returned to Taliban controlled areas in Afghanistan. Al Qaeda‟s relationship with Taliban factions has never been very smooth, despite the past public display of Usama bin Laden‟s pledge of bayat to Mullah Omar. Al Qaeda leaders seem intimately involved in the Haqqani network in North Waziristan, less so with Mullah Omar‟s Quetta Shura, and even less with Gulbuddin Hekmatyar‟s forces. Indeed, the presence of al Qaeda in Afghanistan divided Taliban leaders before their downfall. Likewise, loyalty for Taliban leader Mullah Omar also divided al Qaeda leadership. This complex relationship between al Qaeda and Afghan Taliban factions opens up an opportunity for the U.S. Government to mobilize its political savvy based on a deep understanding of local history, culture and politics to prevent the return of a significant al Qaeda presence in Afghanistan.

c. Even if a triumphant Taliban invites al Qaeda to return to Afghanistan, its presence there will look very similar to its presence in the FATA. Times have changed. The presence of large sanctuaries in Afghanistan was predicated on Western not so benign neglect of the al Qaeda funded camps there. This era is gone because Western powers will no longer tolerate them. There are many ways to prevent the return of al Qaeda to Afghanistan besides a national counter-insurgency strategy. Vigilance through electronic monitoring, spatial surveillance, a networks of informants in contested territory, combined with the nearby stationing of a small force dedicated to physically eradicate any visible al Qaeda presence in Afghanistan will prevent the return of al Qaeda in Afghanistan. The proper military mission in Afghanistan and elsewhere is sanctuary denial.

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