The South Asia Channel

All al Qaedas are not created equal

By Brian Fishman Using a counterinsurgency strategy to achieve success in Afghanistan will be more difficult than it was in Iraq because the forces that threaten core American interests in Afghanistan are more durable and more dangerous. Comparing al Qaeda in AfPak to al Qaeda in Iraq illuminates some of those differences and illustrates both ...


By Brian Fishman

Using a counterinsurgency strategy to achieve success in Afghanistan will be more difficult than it was in Iraq because the forces that threaten core American interests in Afghanistan are more durable and more dangerous. Comparing al Qaeda in AfPak to al Qaeda in Iraq illuminates some of those differences and illustrates both the pros and cons of building U.S. strategy in South Asia around a counterinsurgency campaign in Afghanistan. Readers should remember that focusing on al Qaeda offers an incomplete picture of both wars because it obscures the primary roles played by other groups in both military contests.  I do so because al Qaeda and its ideological allies play a critical role in our casus belli in Afghanistan, and because the comparison illustrates some of the key strategic and political differences between Iraq and Afghanistan.

In Iraq, the United States’ main focus was establishing a reasonably stable and cooperative government that could productively engage the international community. In Afghanistan, building a stable and cooperative government is really a means to two ends: preventing Afghanistan from again becoming a terrorist safe haven and mitigating risks to Pakistan’s nuclear weapons. Defeating insurgents via population-centric counterinsurgency (COIN) is an interim step to policy success, not success itself, and this critical point has been missing from much of the debate about a troop increase in Afghanistan. In Iraq, the surge was very successful destroying and co-opting insurgents that threatened the central government — and creating space for the development of a viable government — but terrorism remains a real problem. A COIN campaign in Afghanistan may very well be necessary to protect U.S. interests in South Asia, but it is certainly not sufficient on its own.

Insurgents and terrorists: not interchangeable

In theoretical terms, a key difference between ‘insurgents’ and ‘terrorists’ is the focus for each group: for insurgents it’s the population, but for terrorists it’s self-preservation, namely the ability to train effective operatives while maintaining operational security. Terrorists generally do not have nearly as much influence over a population as do insurgents, nor do they need as much support from it. Unlike an insurgent group that recruits among the population, al Qaeda in AfPak has rarely recruited among Afghans.

U.S. strategic and operational concepts in Afghanistan (and Pakistan) should reflect the differences between insurgents and terrorists. Gen. McChrystal’s leaked memo about the war in Afghanistan describes “defeating the insurgency” there as “a condition where the insurgency no longer threatens the viability of the state.” This definition (or something close to it) has been suitable thus far in Iraq, and it largely makes sense in regard to the three primary threats to the Afghan government Gen. McChrystal notes in his memo: Mullah Omar’s Quetta Shura, the Haqqani network, and Hizb-e Islami Gulbuddin.

But the full scope of enemies in South Asia extends beyond these relatively well-established insurgent groups. Indeed, it is the smaller terrorist organizations that are most likely to strike outside of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Proponents of COIN in Afghanistan rightly point out that counterterrorism missions sometimes require counterinsurgency tools. That’s true. But policymakers should not make the mistake of assuming that the results of a counterinsurgency necessarily meet the needs of a counterterrorism mission. Terrorist groups are often structured to operate within societies that have functional security and legal systems; insurgents operate in parallel to those systems. States capable of defeating insurgents are often still vulnerable to terrorism and certainly can be used by an innovative terrorist group as a safe haven.

The term “viability” in the definition of success above is critical. If “viability” in Afghanistan means something like “stable” and “enduring” governance, this may not describe a government authoritative enough to effectively crack down on al Qaeda and its allies — even if it is strong enough to reliably defend Kabul from Mullah Omar. Al Qaeda does not need to control Kabul to utilize mountainous hideouts to train and plot against the West. Nor do Pakistani militants need bases in Kandahar to project power in the FATA. This is important because it suggests that to undermine U.S. interests — by threatening terrorism abroad and putting Pakistani nuclear weapons at risk — these groups need to achieve less than traditional insurgents, and thus the Afghan government must be more effective to defeat them. This is a very different situation than in Iraq, where AQI had aspirations and excesses — and the vulnerabilities that go along with them — that far exceed AQ in AfPak.

Al Qaeda in Iraq vs. al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan

Despite their shared brand, AQ in AfPak operates very differently from AQI (even in its heyday) and it has very different strategic aims. AQI aimed to control territory in order to discredit the Iraqi government and establish the first blotch in a jihadi oil-spot strategy aimed at redeveloping the caliphate. To achieve this end, AQI built a broad infrastructure that it tried to scale up dramatically, attacked U.S. forces daily, demanded that local insurgents and tribes swear allegiance to a formal State that it declared, provided a detailed — though ridiculous — description of the State’s responsibilities, named a cabinet (that included positions like a Fisheries Minister), and directly imposed judicial punishments. AQI’s aspirations of governance (and, critically, delusions of grandeur) put control over the Iraqi Sunnis at the heart of its strategy, which meant that the group was very vulnerable to a COIN approach designed to separate the group from the population writ large. AQI’s strategy was fundamentally dysfunctional because it adopted the goals of an insurgent group without an entrenched social base and despite the fact that non-Iraqis composed its leadership and provided general direction. This mismatch is what Petraeus, McChrystal, McMaster and others so skillfully exploited in Iraq.

(Read on)

In contrast, governance — real or faux — has never been part of AQ’s strategy in AfPak. Its mountainous safe havens are simply places to train new recruits, plot, plan, propagandize, and provoke the West into expending valuable resources. AQ in AfPak studiously avoids the complexities of local administration, relies on a relatively narrow infrastructure, only occasionally conducts unilateral military action, and defers authority on judicial matters to its various allies. Its medium-term strategic goals and operational model are very different from AQI’s. Not only has this protected AQ in AfPak from much of the local backlash that contributed to the downfall of AQI, it represents a very different way of projecting power. AQ in AfPak has found a way to be influential without assuming the risks and costs of taking a leadership role along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.

Some readers will protest that the Afghan Taliban — AQ in AfPak’s close cousin — does try to control the Afghan population, much as AQI did in Iraq. That is true. But AQ in AfPak and the Taliban have very different purposes and strategies, though their goals are similar. Al Qaeda operated along the Durand Line before the Afghan Taliban were formed, and it is reasonable to assume they could muddle along again even if the Afghan Taliban are marginalized. Would AQ in AfPak be as dangerous in such a scenario as it would if the Taliban controlled Kabul? No, almost certainly not. Training camps will be fewer, smaller and the likely requirement for increased operational security measures will disrupt normal activities. The relative threat posed by al Qaeda will be less if the Taliban are kept out of Kabul, but it does not take much of an on-the-ground presence to train the right team of terrorists to commit a deadly attack in the West or against Western interests. An Afghan government that can defend itself from the Afghan Taliban does not mean the end of al Qaeda.  If the Afghan government has limited capacity to project power across its entire territory, al Qaeda will utilize remote portions of the country as a safe haven whether or not Mullah Omar threatens to capture Kabul.

One reason that AQ in AfPak is durable is that it has inculcated its ideology among many actors along the Durand Line. AQ in AfPak interacts with and influences local militants by proselytizing, offering specific military expertise, mediating between groups, using violence in the service of local militant leaders, and utilizing its propaganda skills to promote and empower various local actors. AQI projected power locally by murdering opponents, provoking Shi’a attacks on Sunnis and then assisting frightened Sunnis, and trying to centralize authority. Not only is AQ in AfPak’s operational model much more careful and guarded than AQI’s, but the ideology of “al Qaedism” is now much more prevalent in AfPak today than it ever was in Iraq. This means that jihadis will be poised for a comeback in Afghanistan whether an Afghan government lasts until 2010 or 2020.

AQ in AfPak’s durability is critical because the group is far more dangerous to the U.S. homeland than AQI ever was. The reasons are plentiful: primary focus on attacks in the West, better strategic leaders, vastly superior training and talent-recognition efforts, and longer planning cycles. These differences matter to U.S. security. And they mean that unlike in Iraq, where a decimated but still functional AQI is substantially less threatening to U.S. interests, a lingering AQ in AfPak will remain a critical threat to American interests.

Terrorism after COIN

Counterinsurgency achieved what no other strategy could have in Iraq. The Iraqi government is more functional than it was three years ago, and AQI is a shadow of the organization that it was in 2006 and 2007. But even after a COIN strategy was successfully implemented, AQI is still capable of mounting attacks that kill hundreds of people at a time. And because of that, it is worth thinking about the dynamics that have enabled AQI to remain operational in Iraq.

First, AQI has accepted a scaled down operation and adapted to a reduced role as an old-fashioned terrorist organization rather than a would-be insurgent group posing as a government-in-waiting. It has embarked on a typical terrorist strategy of delegitimizing the government via occasional large-scale strikes against civilians and softened its tone toward other militants. Gathering intelligence to purge such a group is far more difficult than picking apart a large-scale insurgent group.

Second, numerous Iraqi factions still find AQI’s presence useful, either because AQI serves their immediate interests or because the specter of AQI strengthens their hand politically. The most obvious example is in Mosul, where AQI has found a niche exploiting ethnic strife between Arabs and Kurds. Even in the rosiest scenarios, it is hard to imagine an Afghanistan in which some political factions do not find it useful to have a violent anti-government group like al Qaeda to keep other groups off balance.

If the U.S. strategy in South Asia ultimately depends on building a stable Afghan government, the policy community would be wise to accept the commander’s judgment about how to build it. But there are reasons to worry that even a successful COIN campaign in Afghanistan that produces an Afghan government that can defend itself from insurgents will not be adequate to prevent Afghan territory from being utilized by al Qaeda or its Pakistani allies. 

An Afghan government unable (or unwilling) to control its entire territory will not adequately protect U.S. interests in the region. Though U.S. COIN strategy rightly prioritizes protecting the Afghan people over controlling territory, a COIN-produced Afghan government must eventually control both the people and the land, or al Qaeda will still have a safe haven from which to plot against the West. Pakistan has not controlled the Federally Administered Tribal Area for years. Iraq neither controls its northern third or its borders. To protect U.S. strategic interests, the Afghan government will have to do better.

Brian Fishman regularly consults with the U.S. government regarding terrorism, insurgency, and al Qaeda.  He recently left the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, where he served from 2005-2009, most recently as Director of Research.


Brian Fishman is a counterterrorism research fellow at the New America Foundation.

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