The South Asia Channel

The big impact of small footprints

By Thomas Hegghammer A growing number of people, led by Vice President Joe Biden, are advocating a so-called “small footprint” approach to the U.S. military mission in Afghanistan. They propose a significantly reduced military presence that focuses more on destroying al Qaeda than on building Afghanistan, and relies more on airstrikes and special forces than ...


By Thomas Hegghammer

A growing number of people, led by Vice President Joe Biden, are advocating a so-called “small footprint” approach to the U.S. military mission in Afghanistan. They propose a significantly reduced military presence that focuses more on destroying al Qaeda than on building Afghanistan, and relies more on airstrikes and special forces than on conventional tactics. America will get about as much security as before, the argument goes, but at a much lower price. A return of the Taliban to power is not necessarily a problem, small footprint proponents argue, because the regime can be deterred from hosting al Qaeda by the threat of U.S. airstrikes or another invasion.

One of the many assumptions behind this tempting argument is that there is a certain level of proportionality between the amount of force we use and the level of resistance we encounter. If we stop occupying Afghanistan and limit violence to the really bad guys, al Qaeda will be unable, and other radicalized Muslims unwilling, to attack the United States.

This may be true for local insurgencies such as the Taliban, but not for small transnational movements such as al Qaeda. In fact, a significantly smaller U.S. presence in Afghanistan may paradoxically generate more anti-Americanism outside Afghanistan and ultimately more anti-Western terrorism than a more conventional military approach. This is because jihadi propaganda today relies on visually powerful symbols to mobilize people, and intermittent “surgical” strikes, and the casualties they cause, may create more such symbols than continuous conventional warfare.

The history of jihadism is full of examples of seemingly small incidents having a major effect on mobilization. In August 1998, the U.S. launched missiles on Afghanistan and Sudan in retaliation for al Qaeda attacks on U.S. embassies in East Africa. The strikes made Mullah Omar work more closely with Osama Bin Laden and were followed by an increase in recruitment to al Qaeda camps in Afghanistan. In April 2002, the Israeli military’s incursion into Jenin caused a veritable political earthquake in the Muslim world, and demonstrably helped recruitment to al Qaeda in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere. This was despite the relatively few casualties (a U.N. report concluded 52 Palestinian were killed, half of them civilians). In Pakistan, a few failed U.S. airstrikes in the Tribal Areas in 2006 and 2007 caused public outrage.and dramatically increased anti-Americanism across the country.

The power of small incidents has increased in the past decade thanks to the Internet. Increasing bandwidth, cheaper digital cameras and fast-learning activists have turned the world wide web into a giant propaganda tool which can generate powerful visual messages and project them instantly to a global audience. The smallest detail can be dramatically enlarged and turned into a symbol of “Muslim suffering at the hands of non-Muslims.” On jihadi discussion forums such as Faloja (named after the Iraqi city whose 2004 battles between jihadis and U.S. forces made it an icon of Muslim suffering), high-quality video productions appear on a daily basis. The relationship between objective physical destruction and jihadi mobilization has never been less linear. (Of course, the non-linearity works both ways; more conventional power does not necessarily generate less powerful propaganda.)

Why, then, would a small footprint approach in Afghanistan create more visual symbols of Muslim suffering? For a start, a troop reduction would not take away the occupation, at least not in the eyes of non-Afghan Islamists. Al Qaeda has a very wide definition of occupation and would frame any U.S. military presence in the region as such.

Moreover, the surgical strikes would not be that surgical. A significantly smaller U.S. ground presence is likely to produce less good human intelligence, because it will be harder to protect informants. This will increase the risk of hitting, for example, wedding parties.

In addition, fewer strikes means that each individual operation is more visible. This mitigates the problem of information saturation which currently frustrates jihadi propagandists. In war, many bad things happen, but individual incidents drown in the noise of the conflict. This may explain why interest in the Iraqi insurgency on jihadi forums has decreased steadily since 2005; there was so much going on that even jihadis were desensitized. A related dynamic may be behind the paradox that in Pakistan, public outrage over CIA drone strikes seems to have decreased in 2008 and 2009 as the frequency of strikes has gone up. For al Qaeda’s propagandists, less can be more.

Last but not least, the Taliban will be better placed to exploit the attacks politically. Surgical strikes can work, provided the government on whose territory they occur is a relatively friendly one. The killing of al Qaeda operative Abu Ali al-Harithi by a CIA drone in Yemen in 2002 was certainly controversial, but it did not become a major symbol of Muslim suffering, because there was no civilian collateral damage and no images of the incident. Likewise, drone strikes in Pakistan have been unpopular, but Islamabad’s complicity gives Pakistani officials an incentive to keep photographers away from the aftermath.

By contrast, a future Taliban-dominated government would do everything in its power to amplify the visual impact and exaggerate the collateral damage of American operations. It would use diplomatic and other channels to build international political pressure on the U.S. stop its attacks. There would be calls on Washington to offer concrete evidence and justification for each major attack, which would be hard to do without sharing sensitive intelligence. Meanwhile, al Qaeda would hide among civilians. For the Taliban, plausible deniability would be easy to establish: after all, Kabul cannot prevent Arab tourists, charity workers and preachers from entering the country. With the small footprint approach, al Qaeda will have a safe haven in Afghanistan, albeit a somewhat less open one than in the late 1990s.

So what if al Qaeda has a few more safe houses? Hasn’t the Internet rendered physical safe havens less important? Actually, no. This is a misconception based on inverse technological optimism and a superficial understanding of online jihadism today. Cyberspace can admittedly be a place to meet, indoctrinate, and teach weapons techniques. But websites do not allow organizations to desensitize recruits and break down their natural human barriers to the use of violence. It is one thing to rant online about killing infidels, it is something else to slit their throats (which is why the 9/11 operatives practiced on sheep and camels in the camps). Moreover, websites cannot build deep personal trust between recruits in the same way camp life does. A strong esprit de corps dramatically increases a group’s fighting capability (which is why our own militaries spend so much time cultivating it).

Moreover, the Internet has recently become much less hospitable to individuals wishing to do more than access jihadi propaganda. Advances in intelligence gathering have increased the risk of detection for inexperienced internet users. Around the world, hundreds of people have been arrested for terrorism-related online activities. During the eight years that I have followed the jihadi Internet, forum participants have become much more paranoid and considerably less likely to volunteer personal information. The Internet is a formidable propaganda tool, but no safe haven.

It is ironic that many proponents of troop reduction in Afghanistan are also critical of drone strikes in Pakistan. What they do not seem to realize is that the small footprint approach will increase our reliance on drone strikes in Afghanistan. Without a major ground presence, airstrikes will be our principal tool for keeping al Qaeda on the run and deterring the Taliban from hosting them. Such intermittent strikes may well create more anti-Americanism outside Afghanistan than the current occupation.

For these reasons, the small footprint approach will almost certainly produce more terrorism in the West. However, this argument should not end the discussion. Given the enormous cost of the alternative strategies (status quo, a moderate troop reduction, or a surge), the small footprint approach is worth considering. How we weigh the cost of war in Afghanistan against the cost terrorism at home is a political question. Unfortunately, however, we cannot have it both ways.

Thomas Hegghammer is a senior research fellow at the Norwegian Defence Research Establishment (FFI) and an associate of the Initiative on Religion in International Affairs at Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. He edits the blog, which covers developments on jihadi websites.

Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Thomas Hegghammer is a senior research fellow at the Norwegian Defence Research Establishment and author of Jihad in Saudi Arabia. His views do not represent those of his employer or the Norwegian government.