How to Win Afghanistan

Drone attacks alone won’t work. We need boots on the ground to defeat al-Qaeda and the Taliban.

The decisions that will soon be made about America's policy for Afghanistan will also determine our success in the war on terrorism. Both are inextricably intertwined. Yet, America has clearly reached a crossroads with respect to Afghanistan and its centrality to this struggle. Wearied by eight years of perplexing and inconclusive fighting in that country (in addition to six years in Iraq), bereaved by the rising death toll of our valiant service personnel, and hobbled by our own economic travail and budget deficit, the attraction to embrace a lighter footprint in Afghanistan and thus pursue what has been termed a counterterrorism, as opposed to a counterinsurgency, strategy is compelling.

Two arguments in particular are made in favor of this option. The first, which I addressed in a previous article for TNI Online, is that since al-Qaeda does not require geographical safe haven to plan and plot terrorist attacks, the danger of Afghanistan again becoming a sanctuary for terrorist planning and operations is exaggerated. The second, which is the subject of this piece, holds that the increased troop levels requested by General Stanley McChrystal are unnecessary and perhaps even counterproductive when unmanned aerial drone attacks coupled with light, rapidly inserted special operations, are sufficient to contain any threat from al-Qaeda.

Which approach-counterterrorism or counterinsurgency-can best protect the United States from future terrorist attack and assure to the greatest extent possible the safety and security of the American people? The answer lies in understanding the continuing threat from al-Qaeda along with the realization that terrorists cannot be defeated, and the threat they pose contained, by a decapitation strategy alone.

The success of U.S. unmanned drone attacks in killing at least thirteen senior al-Qaeda operatives over the past fifteen months has raised expectations that this tactic-coupled with rapidly deployable special operations forces-are sufficient to deal with any continuing threat from al-Qaeda and thus forestall the need for additional U.S. ground forces in Afghanistan. It is worth recalling that for the past century similarly extravagant claims about the efficacy of airpower-not least in obviating the need for large numbers of ground forces-have often been made. And, just as frequently these claims have proven more complicated by on-the-ground realities, if not, unfounded. This is not to argue that the drone program has not been effective in making the lives of al-Qaeda's leaders far more difficult by forcing them to pay ever more attention to their own security and survival. Rather, it is to note that decapitation on its own has rarely proven successful in defeating a terrorist organization.

At the end of the day, the unmanned Predator and Reaper attacks can hold al-Qaeda at bay and disrupt some of its operations, but they can neither eliminate al-Qaeda entirely nor completely neutralize the threat that it poses. In fact, counterterrorism efforts relying on decapitation efforts historically have not been very effective. David Galula, the French army officer who is widely regarded as one of the founding fathers of modern counterinsurgency doctrine, wrote nearly fifty years ago about the fallacy of decapitation as a solution to terrorist and insurgent challenges in the context of France's war in Algeria between 1954 and 1962. Israel has similarly pioneered the use of targeted killings for more three decades-yet Palestinian terrorism continues. In the case of Hamas, Israel eliminated its chief bomb maker in 1996; suicide terrorist attacks thereafter escalated both in frequency and intensity. More recently, in 2004, Israel assassinated Hamas's leader and founder, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, and then just weeks later killed the movement's political head, Abd Azziz Rantisi. Their assassinations would arguably be equivalent to the back-to-back killing of both bin Laden and al Zawahiri. Yet, even despite the loss of Hamas's spiritual and political leaders, the threat to Israel hardly diminished-and eventually prompted the Israel Defense Force's massive ground force invasion of Gaza in December 2008 known as "Operation Cast Lead." In the context of America's war on terrorism, a U.S. air strike in 2006 killed Abu Musab al Zarqawi, the leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). As important and significant a blow as this was, al Zarqawi's death did not end AQI attacks and, indeed, following Zarqawi's killing, violence attributed to the group actually increased.

Second, the continued success of the drone program is dependent on al-Qaeda continuing to present accessible targets-rather than adapting and adjusting to obviate this particular tactic. Throughout its twenty-one year history, however, al-Qaeda has shown itself to be a learning organization, capable of adapting and adjusting to even the most formidable governmental countermeasures directed against it in order to continue its struggle. Having survived the concerted onslaught directed against it in Afghanistan eight years ago by an unprecedented international coalition that was mobilized against terrorism as a result of the 9/11 attacks, it is likely that al-Qaeda will attempt to devise means to counter the drone attacks that could reduce their effectiveness.