Friday, October 23, 2009

In today’s debates about how to proceed in Afghanistan, the relationship between counterinsurgency and counter-terrorism operations needs to be clearly understood. First and foremost, we should acknowledge that, in light of our original counter-terrorism goals, our Afghan and Pakistan policies have been remarkably effective. There is no need to panic.

We invaded Afghanistan eight years ago to prevent another terrorist attack on our nation, and we have been successful. Prior to Sept. 11, 2001, al Qaeda attacked us three times in three years: at our African embassies in August 1998; the USS Cole incident in October 2000, and finally on our homeland on Sept. 11, 2001. In the eight years following Sept. 11, they have failed to attack us on our soil. In fact, al Qaeda can count only one terrorism attack in the entire West (London, 2005), with perhaps “partial credit” for another (Madrid, 2004).

This, by any standard, is a failure on the part of al Qaeda and a testament to the effectiveness of our worldwide counter-terrorism programs. And that success is a product of aggressive intelligence operations that reach from the mountains of Afghanistan, through foreign capitals around the world, and all the way to the streets of New York City. It has been no accident; the U.S. military, the CIA, FBI, the New York Police Department, and others should be credited.

However, in Afghanistan, we have continually moved the “goal posts” of our counter-terrorism success in the name of a counterinsurgency campaign. The initial objective of kicking out al Qaeda has now morphed into an ambitious program of “reinventing Afghanistan” as a modern state.

We have gotten ourselves bogged down into a complex insurgent war that the Taliban can sustain at some level almost indefinitely, even though they have no real prospects of actually winning.

Without transforming Afghanistan into a stable and modern state, some reason, the Taliban will return to power and provide al Qaeda a sanctuary to enable it to restore its pre-Sept. 11 operational capability.

But this assumption does not stand up to careful scrutiny.

A major reason for our post Sept. 11 counter-terrorism success has been the enormous pressure on al Qaeda’s first- and second-tier leadership in Afghanistan and Pakistan. And yes, we must be ruthless in continuing to deny al Qaeda the ability to plan, train and launch worldwide operations from a “sanctuary of impunity” they enjoyed in Afghanistan and Pakistan prior to Sept. 11.

But our success in throttling the strategic al Qaeda was achieved without pacifying Afghanistan and without occupying western Pakistan. Instead, we have used a massive intelligence operation to find and destroy al Qaeda’s strategic capability there and denied them the ability to mount terrorist attacks outside of their immediate operational area.

The U.S. Army’s recent “rediscovery” of its counterinsurgency doctrine was long overdue and certainly increased their effectiveness and will hasten the withdrawal from Iraq.

But in relearning counterinsurgency doctrine, the Army must recall its most fundamental principles, and not just apply its tactics and techniques. One of those principles is the critical importance of using local militia and constabulary units to do the primary fighting of local insurgents and keeping the foreign “footprint” as small as possible.

The “Sunni Awakening” in Iraq was successful largely due to the mobilization of local militia forces to fight insurgents on their own terms, in what was often nasty and brutish affairs. For those that call for a smaller U.S. presence and an increase of Afghan responsibility for the war, they should brace themselves for an ugly war. This is not a strategy of weakness, as claimed by some who reject any troop withdrawals.

In transferring security to the Afghans, the war will get more messy and brutish in the short term, and we will need to support our imperfect allies. It will call for a different type of toughness from American policymakers.

Today in Afghanistan, the U.S. Army is still the main fighting force in the country. In essence, it remains an occupational force with counterinsurgency doctrine sprinkled on top. While U.S. conventional soldiers are kicking in doors of mud homes in poor Afghan villages, it is hard to envision long-term success, no matter how many health clinics they build the next day.

Our interests in Afghanistan may require a long-term and robust presence in that country, and this article is certainly not a call for a fast drawdown at this critical time. We will require a massive economic, security and diplomatic assistance package that will guarantee the viability of the central government.

We will also need substantial conventional forces in Afghanistan to guarantee the viability of the central government, support Afghan forces in extreme situations, and to protect bases to launch counter-terrorism operations in the region.

Our intelligence programs and special operation strikes against strategic al Qaeda (not the local insurgent fighters) will remain our highest priority in the theater. And that is the recipe for a policy that aligns with our primary national security interests and will be the basis for the continued success of our global counter-terrorism strategy.

Michael Sheehan, a fellow at the New York University Center for Law and Security, was a counter-terrorism and counterinsurgency adviser in the U.S. Army Special Forces, ambassador at large for counter-terrorism at the U.S. State Department and deputy commissioner for counter-terrorism at the New York Police Department.

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