How to Win Afghanistan

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.

Third, the most successful counterterrorism campaigns historically have depended on the presence of combat forces to obtain critical tactical intelligence through daily interaction with the indigenous civilian population. The relentless piecing together of ground-level intelligence from civilian populations was at the heart of the success achieved by David Galula and his men in Algeria some fifty years ago. It was also how the British military weakened the IRA in Northern Ireland from 1985 onwards-following sixteen years of inadequate intelligence and immense frustration. Training British infantry units to acquire this street-level and village-level intelligence was one of the main aims of the NITAT (Northern Ireland Training and Assistance Teams) program that prepared troops for service in the province.

Finally, although reliance on drones, augmented by special operations forces, is undeniably appealing, it perpetuates the misconception that al-Qaeda and its local militant jihadi allies can be defeated by military means (decapitation) alone. Instead, success will require a dual strategy of continuing to systematically destroy and weaken enemy capabilities by killing and capturing al-Qaeda commanders and operatives-the counterterrorism strategy advocated for Afghanistan-but embedded within the broader counterinsurgency strategy for the country, advocated by General McChrystal, that aims to effect long-term, environmental changes in Afghanistan through a population-centric approach alongside effective information operations to counter al-Qaeda's and its local allies' propaganda campaign.

The war on terrorism has frequently been termed a "war of ideas." Yet, while the United States has been tactically successful in killing or capturing key al-Qaeda leaders, their key lieutenants and many of their foot-soldiers, we have been less successful in strategically countering al-Qaeda's ability to ally with local terrorist movements, dampen down its ideological appeal and continued ability to radicalize sympathizers both in existing terrorist organizations and among new recruits, as well its continued capacity to energize supporters and thereby sustain its struggle.

Indeed, al-Qaeda's sanctuary in Pakistan accounts for the movement's vitality today and the threat that it presents to the stability and security of both that country and Afghanistan. The al-Qaeda of 2009, it should be noted, is a mere shadow of its pre-9/11 self. It does not have the freedom of movement, massive personnel numbers, robust network of training camps and operational bases, functioning international infrastructure, and considerable largesse that it possessed nine years ago when it was located in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan. Its key operatives and senior commanders are relentlessly hunted. But, as the previous section argued, al-Qaeda has nonetheless been able to reconstitute its global terrorist reach. It has also shown itself to have a deep bench of well-trained, experienced, and battle-hardened veterans from which to draw from and continue to replenish its ranks despite the inroads made by the U.S. Predator strikes. Accordingly, the threat that even a weakened, diminished al-Qaeda still poses cannot be discounted.

The dangerously rising tide of insurgent activity in Afghanistan is a case in point. U.S. military officers believe that "foreign influence" has been behind this dramatic upsurge in insurgent operations is "huge."[1] Arabs, Turks, Chinese, Uzbeks, and Chechens comprise an international jihadi contingent based in Pakistan that, though not large, nonetheless is actively fomenting, assisting and participating in cross-border attacks. Al Qaeda's role in particular is seen as pivotal. It acts primarily as a "force multiplier": providing training and advice and otherwise strengthening existing capacity among indigenous insurgent groups. The standard basic insurgent training package of riflery and field craft, for instance, is augmented by al-Qaeda instruction in advanced ambush techniques and the use and emplacement of increasingly sophisticated improvised explosive devices. Al Qaeda additionally provides overall strategic guidance and assists in the coordination of operations between the Taliban and other insurgents. It imparts useful noncombat skills as well: teaching local jihadis how to plan and execute psychological and information operations and generally improve and strengthen operational expertise and organizational resiliency. U.S. commanders have specifically cited al-Qaeda's sanctuary in FATA as the reason for the escalation of insurgent attacks in Afghanistan. "The insurgency here," I was told on a visit to Afghanistan last year, "is fed by arms, expertise and guidance from al-Qaeda" personnel based in Pakistan's Bajaur Agency in FATA and the Malakand area of the NWFP.[2]