Best Defense

What Joe Biden doesn’t get: Why CT alone isn’t the answer in Afghanistan

Counterterrorism without counterinsurgency is alluring — it seems cheaper and easier — but it is usually pretty meaningless and in fact can be very counterproductive. People who advocate just doing counterterror generally don’t understand that. This is one of the best explanations I’ve read of why the short, easy way just doesn’t work, from a ...

Mark Wilson/Getty Images
Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Counterterrorism without counterinsurgency is alluring — it seems cheaper and easier — but it is usually pretty meaningless and in fact can be very counterproductive. People who advocate just doing counterterror generally don’t understand that. This is one of the best explanations I’ve read of why the short, easy way just doesn’t work, from a friend who can’t be identified, but who is in a position to understand this.

If you work at the White House, please read this slowly.

By Mr. XYZ
Best Defense terrorism columnist

To avoid killing the wrong people, you need intelligence. Good intelligence demands you have very close contact with, and cooperation from, the very constituency the Terrorists are seeking to mobilize. These folks won’t cooperate unless they have security of person and property AND believe you won’t abandon them after the next presidential election. That means that you can’t CT without COIN.

Oh you can try. Clinton made a sport of it — firing several hundred million dollars worth of cruise missiles into the deserts of North Africa, the Middle East and South Asia. Predictably, fire weapons and fire weapons alone not only did not compel the enemy to surrender, it caused them to multiply.

No serious student of strategic aerial bombardment I know of still believes that bombing a civilian population — short of nuclear weapons — will do anything more (or less) than awaken a sleeping giant — Pearl Harbor and 9/11 are perfect examples, but so too are the largely failed terror-bombing campaigns of the Luftwaffe of Britain (1940-41 and ‘44-45) and the British reply to Germany (1942-1945).

The reason terror bombing does not work, is it causes predictable outrage in the survivors. Even if you use precision weapons — no, especially if you use precision weapons — killing anyone in my family will make of me an implacable enemy. I say this because if you use precision weapons you purportedly have the ability to avoid killing the wrong people and yet you killed one of mine. Hence, you MEANT to kill my relative. And now, I will have to return the favor — especially if I am from a Shame Culture.

Used alone, navies and air forces cannot, therefore, win against insurgents. Why? Because they are fire weapons — and fire weapons alone can never compel the enemy to surrender. The enemy may choose to surrender — as happened in Serbia in 1999 and Japan in 1945, but the decision is left to the enemy. True decision in war comes from shock forces — Marines/ infantry. Once shock forces go into action the enemy must repel the attack or leave. If they can’t leave or defeat the attack they must surrender.

If you’re going to employ shock forces, you are now going to be in and among the population. If you are going to have a population that is at least neutral, if not supporting you, then you will need to understand their language, culture, and aspirations, and help to provide for their needs. You must also be prepared for a long and costly war, in both money and casualties.

Could we have merely launched a punitive raid into Afghanistan after 9/11, toppled the Taliban and warned we would be back if they ever supported al Qaeda — or any other terrorist organization that attacked the United States or its allies — again? Sure. But each excursion would have been increasingly more deadly AND we would have to wait for another 9/11 to justify the next punitive expedition — i.e., we would have had to give the initiative back to the enemy.

All this having been said, I agree with Mike Scheuer that killing these guys in onesies and twosies, while "hoping" for "hearts and minds" is a recipe for defeat. To do more than kill one or two at a time, we have to either: 1) make it in Pakistan’s interest to once and for all end the sanctuary for both the Taliban and especially al Qaeda, or 2) if Pakistan cannot or will not do this, we need to eliminate the sanctuary ourselves — not with fire weapons, but shock forces (marines and infantry taking and holding the ground and controlling not only the resources, but the people there.)

Given the political costs of option 2, I vote for option 1. The question is, what possible leverage can we give Pakistan to get them to once and for all remove the Taliban threat to Afghanistan that is currently based in the FATA? Surely, the world’s remaining superpower — despite the squandering of immense opportunities, treasure and too much blood over the past nine years — still has the clout and the savvy to make Pakistan and offer it cannot refuse to embrace with the proper sense of urgency.

I will offer only one small item for contemplation, as I need to get back to work. Pakistan is an artificial construct whose legitimacy as an independent nation-state is increasingly called into question — not only by some in the international community, but by increasing numbers of their own population. The largest Muslim nation in the subcontinent is not Pakistan, but India. Muslims live well — indeed, on average, better — in India than in Pakistan. This is not lost on the Pakistanis. Prognostications for India over the coming fifty years are pretty rosy from an economic perspective. That can hardly be said for Pakistan — whose Punjabi elites control but a mere sliver of land between India and the FATA region to the north and west — largely peopled by the Pashtuns. Further to the west are the Baluchis — no friend of the Punjabis either and eager to go their own way.

Given all of this, what if the U.S. finally decided to take into account the strategic culture of the region and decided to go over the heads of both the Pakistani and Afghan governments and make the following offer. The Durand Line is no more. We support the existence of a free and independent Pashtunistan and Baluchistan. Moreover, we could invite India to assist in this with Muslim Indian troops. It worked in Bangladesh. Why not here?

If Islamabad were to be handed this as our alternative to their fixing the Taliban/ al Qaeda sanctuary once and for all, I think we would have their attention and their absolute cooperation.

I go back to something I read during the Vietnam War: A country that cannot defend its neutrality is not neutral. If the enemy is operating from and staging combat forces in your country — and you do nothing about it — you are no longer neutral.

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. Twitter: @tomricks1

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