The South Asia Channel

COIN confusion

The ongoing discussion of the attempted Times Square bombing in New York has been unsurprisingly colorful. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg invoked the old saying that terrorists only need to be lucky once, while their opponents need to be lucky every time — and this time, we were "very lucky." The New Republic‘s Jonathan Chait ...

SHAH MARAI/AFP/Getty Images
SHAH MARAI/AFP/Getty Images

The ongoing discussion of the attempted Times Square bombing in New York has been unsurprisingly colorful. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg invoked the old saying that terrorists only need to be lucky once, while their opponents need to be lucky every time — and this time, we were "very lucky." The New Republic‘s Jonathan Chait and former NYPD Deputy Commissioner for Counterterrorism Michael Sheehan noted the incompetence of most plotters: Chait with the memorable assertion "terrorists are basically dolts," Sheehan suggesting that "lone wolves" are generally "as incompetent as they are disturbed."

Luck and incompetence are interesting concepts, especially hard on the heels of al Qaeda’s failed underpants bomber, but they’re hardly substitutes for good counterterrorism planning. Indeed, for Sheehan, chance favors the prepared. He lauded the NYPD for its counterterrorism acumen: "No other city even attempts to do what New York has accomplished," he wrote, conceding that "money and political risk" limit how far most cities can go when it comes to preventing what, at the end of the day, is a marginal phenomenon. But there are some obvious limits to the logic of Sheehan’s point, and as the investigation into the attack deepens and more of Faisal Shahzad’s suspected terrorist associates are rounded up inside and outside the United States, things start to get murky. 

Case in point: the debate, early in Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s tour as top commander in Afghanistan, over whether violence in Afghanistan is best addressed using counterterrorism (CT) or counterinsurgency (COIN) methods. Last fall, when the Obama White House was trying to decide how best to proceed in the region, pundits and policymakers alike were positively animated over the two and how they might be combined to mitigate the twinned challenges of al Qaeda and Afghanistan. Vice President Joe Biden pushed for a "counterterrorism plus" option, and Obama "dithered," finally settling on a compromise plan, the principal rationale of which was to neutralize al Qaeda. Michael J. Boyle, a lecturer in international relations at the University of St. Andrews, provides a highly readable account of the deliberations in a recent issue of the journal International Affairs. The title says it all: "Do Counterterrorism and Counterinsurgency Go Together?"

Boyle’s article is behind a pay wall, but it’s worth a close read. He argues that "the conflation of these two models of warfare stems from an ‘intellectual error’ predicated on the assumption that al-Qaeda and the Taliban are a fused threat, and fused threats require ‘joint or blended’ CT and COIN measures. Given their inherent differences, they aren’t necessarily mutually reinforcing or even compatible." The costs, Boyle indicates, are high: combined CT-COIN operations require an investment of blood, treasure, and attention that’s politically distracting and exhausting; operationally, they lead to "popular backlash," "countermobilization of enemy networks," a "legitimacy gap," and "diminished leverage." The main take-away of the piece is that CT and COIN are now hopelessly muddled policy concepts, the former essentially collapsed into the latter — "global insurgency and counterinsurgency" essentially obsolete metaphors for how we wage multiple "wars," multiple ways, in multiple locations.

The issues that shape domestic and foreign policy often play off each other, but they’re also distinct beasts. Part of the problem is the language we use to describe what we do. That’s not just about how we articulate ideas, some of which become policy; it’s also about how they then translate to real-world costs and consequences. In New York, the issue is terrorism and how best to focus intelligence, law enforcement, and prosecution to deal with perpetrators. Those issues are often mired in partisan debates about security, freedom, and the nature of democracy, but they’re also clear-eyed compared with foreign-policy discussions about South Asia. As evidence mounts of a Pakistani Taliban role in last weekend’s Times Square event, it may become increasingly difficult to remember that messing about in someone else’s backyard might not be the wisest approach to protecting our own.

Michael Innes is a research fellow in the School of Politics and International Studies at the University of Leeds, editor in chief of Current Intelligence magazine, and a regular contributor to the AfPak Channel.

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