Too Little, Too Late

Too Little, Too Late

Many critics of General Stanley McChrystal's nation-building counter-insurgency approach in Afghanistan are nonetheless reluctant to accept the collateral conclusion that no alternative approach will be successful there. In rejecting McChrystal's argument, many advocate a militarized counterterrorism approach targeting al-Qaeda and Taliban leaders with off-shore missile strikes. While such an approach might be effective tactically against those specific opponents, it will almost certainly not reduce the increasing strength of insurgent forces in Afghanistan.

Clearly, the United States must formulate and implement effective counterterrorism programs. But, because terrorism is different than warfare, effective responses must also be different. When terrorism is employed as a tactic of broader conventional warfare conducted between states, it is best ended by employing organized military forces and diplomatic efforts. At the other extreme, when terrorist acts are committed within the borders of a single state by individuals or small groups of citizens or legal residents of that state, the appropriate response is to rely on domestic intelligence, law enforcement and criminal prosecution. But the appropriate response is not as clear when terrorism is employed within a country by organized insurgent groups also capable of fielding more conventional military forces or terrorism is committed by non-state actors from beyond the borders of the state.

The current situation in Afghanistan is characterized primarily by insurgent groups (the Taliban) fielding organized armed units committed to overthrow and replace the recognized government in Kabul. The massing of insurgent combat units numbering a hundred or more is not an act of terrorism or a characteristic of most terrorist groups-although specific violent actions taken by such groups constitute terrorism if the purpose is to create feelings of insecurity among the civilian population. Against an enemy of that kind, only a classic counterinsurgency effort is appropriate-in that sense, General McChrystal is correct. The problem is that such an effort is either already too late or unlikely to be won in Afghanistan within any resource or time limitations acceptable to the American public.

Within Pakistan, the threats are substantially more diverse. One set of conflicts is between Islamabad and local tribal groups or non-tribal warlords. That conflict would not ordinarily threaten Pakistan as a state or its government-desires among a minority to establish a Pashtun state notwithstanding-because the primary objective of those groups is to dissuade Islamabad (and/or potentially an effective government in Kabul) from direct intervention in local affairs. These groups rely primarily on more traditional, and substantially less organized, defensive insurgent tactics. However, neither a militarized counterterrorism or counterinsurgency approach is likely to be successful against such local tribal groups or non-tribal warlords because: (1) the removal of individual leaders will not render them powerless because such groups have an organic life of their own and (2) classical counterinsurgency "hearts and minds" campaigns are unlikely to appeal to people who have chosen to remain in largely traditional peripheral communities despite the lifestyle options available elsewhere. Those conflicts will most likely end by a return to the modus vivendi existing between Islamabad and local leaders prior to the recent Pakistani "surge" into those areas.

Another set of conflicts in the region involves transstate pan-Islamic movements, including the original al-Qaeda leadership, the Pakistani Taliban and more regionally focused Jammu/Kashmir "liberation" groups. Most terrorist acts in Afghanistan and Pakistan are committed by these organizations. That is the threat against which a militarized counterterrorism campaign would be most likely to succeed-at least theoretically. But the practical reality is quite the opposite because the members of such pan-Islamic groups are increasingly embedded physically and sociologically in the same communities led by more traditional tribal leaders-with whom they sometimes compete for authority even as they cooperate in alliances of convenience against their common enemies in Kabul and Islamabad.

But the primary constraint to a militarized counterterrorism approach in the AfPak region is the absence of adequate local intelligence. Think in terms of a more technologically advanced version of a police SWAT team knocking down a door in response to an anonymous tip. The key to that kind of policing is good local intelligence. If the tip is bogus, the police knock down the wrong door and neighborhood resentment against them increases. And without good intelligence, people are sometimes incorrectly identified as terrorists-especially in countries whose people we do not understand very well.

Unfortunately, our own intelligence assets are technologically rich and people poor-in part because America's status as the only global economic, military, and political superpower does not often translate well into effective political power at local levels overseas. Without human intelligence, it is almost impossible to provide real time information about the precise location of specific terrorists, discern whether or not a tip is really a manipulative attempt to settle a local score, or learn about the political preferences of civilians in the immediate vicinity of an identified target. The possibility that the wrong door will be knocked down or innocent bystanders will be injured remains high. And if the door is knocked down anyway, a resident population is further alienated and more young terrorists are produced. That is clearly the situation in the AfPak region-although that does not necessarily preclude future success elswhere under different circumstances.

Given that dismal assessment, what is to be done? The fact is that we have scored significant successes against terrorist threats. Within the United States, we rely on the FBI, state law-enforcement agencies, and local police. An effective counterterrorism program needs to include international-as well as domestic-intelligence collection and coordination. However, our reliance on the military as the spearhead of our international counterterrorism efforts has been a mistake.

Prompted by General McChrystal's request, a strategic review of America's international interests and appropriate approaches to pursuing them should include consideration of the following seven principles. First, accept the reality that adapting to real constraints increases our power while squandering resources on unattainable objectives reduces it. Second, walk away from any assertion that the war in Afghanistan is a "war of necessity." Success in Afghanistan, Pakistan, or both would not eliminate or substantially reduce the terrorist threats directed against the United States from an increasingly broad swath of territory worldwide. Third, chalk Afganistan and Iraq up to lessons painfully learned and begin the difficult process of devising an exit strategy that provides for an acceptable negotiated withdrawal-or at least the appearance of one. Fourth, recognize that once a politically embedded insurgent organization voluntarily exposes itself, it is probably too late to defeat it. Fifth, continue to rely on targeted intelligence and the human infiltration required to provide it, but also emphasize reliance on the police for investigation and arrests of existing terrorists and the criminal justice system to prosecute and encarcerate them. Sixth, rely on containment abroad and homeland security at home-the arrest of Najibullah Zazi is not an argument for increasing our military presence in Afghanistan, but for beefing-up our intelligence and police capacity here and abroad. And finally, begin a serious review of our national interests globally that distinguishes life or death core interests from interests that are merely desirable.


As most counterterrorism successes suggest, our proactive efforts overseas should rely on the technical, material, logistical and financial support of people already clearly committed to expelling, incarcerating, or otherwise eliminating the terrorists among them. As with war itself, we have not yet eliminated generic terrorism-we can only prevail against specific terrorist threats. But whatever path is chosen by the Obama administration, our counterterrorism concerns should not blind us to the importance of not taking actions in the short term that hinder or preclude achievement of America's broader strategic interests over the longer term. If that means we must live on this planet with terrorists dispersed among various inhospitable "safehavens" around the world, so be it. An emphasis on reducing our own casualties here at home and beefing up our intelligence capacity both domestically and internationally is more likely to pay greater dividends than deploying our military assets to fight "terrorists" far beyond our shores.



Jerry Mark Silverman has a Ph.D. in international relations-government, and his career has involved him directly in nation-building efforts for almost half a century in more than forty countries, including Vietnam and Iraq. His most recent publication in TNI Online was "The Folly of Nation Building."