Nagl Responds

March 1, 2010 Topics: CounterinsurgencyMilitary StrategySecurity Regions: Afghanistan Tags: Insurgency

Nagl Responds

by Author(s): John Nagl

PAUL PILLAR argues that Afghanistan is the wrong war against the wrong enemy, that al-Qaeda has a minimal presence in Afghanistan, that victory in Afghanistan would have little effect on terrorist sanctuaries in Pakistan and elsewhere, and that the military is the wrong tool to use against our enemies.

His argument would have more force if American resources were not fungible-if the United States could not walk and chew gum at the same time. But, in fact, it is well within American means to fight a troop-intensive counterinsurgency campaign in Afghanistan, where a lack of governance and local security forces make such efforts necessary, while simultaneously pursuing a less costly form of counterinsurgency in Yemen and waging an information and education campaign against al-Qaeda in Europe and the United States. To defeat al-Qaeda the United States and its allies must pursue a global counterinsurgency campaign against a disaggregated enemy-using the right tools for the job in each country and region. Military power is not the right tool in every case-but it is absolutely necessary in Afghanistan.

Pillar correctly notes that depicting the struggle against al-Qaeda and the associated terror groups it inspired as a "war on terror" has overmilitarized a conflict that cannot be won through the force of arms alone. Victory in counterinsurgency comes when states afflicted by insurgents develop the independent capacity to defeat them; achieving that level of independence requires not just military training and help with killing and capturing terrorists, but also economic development and the creation of effective governance structures. In Afghanistan, in Pakistan and in many other troubled parts of the world afflicted by al-Qaeda, we focused for too long on just one aspect of this strategy.

That all changed in 2009. The United States finally began to provide the resources Afghanistan has long needed to build a stable state, and Pakistan finally began to recognize the threat that the Taliban posed to its government. More effective counterinsurgency operations on both sides of the border have put increased pressure on the Taliban and al-Qaeda; a larger Afghan army and a refocused Pakistani military are now learning to conduct counterinsurgency. It will take years and significant resources to sufficiently empower the governments and security services of both countries to stand on their own, but the investment is worth the cost.


PILLAR ADMITS that "if a terrorist group has a physical safe haven available, it will use it." There is no safe haven that al-Qaeda covets more than the border regions of Afghanistan and Pakistan, which present a unique opportunity for our enemies and a threat to us. Situated in rugged terrain hundreds of miles from any coastline, with weak or nonexistent governance and security services, this region provides both a home to al-Qaeda and possible access to nuclear weapons. Recognizing the danger, an alliance of more than forty nations is working together to clear out the terrorists, protect the population, and build the security forces and governance capacity that in time will make Afghanistan and Pakistan an unappealing base for terror.

In most places afflicted by al-Qaeda, the United States can implement counterinsurgency with a lighter footprint, providing economic-development assistance and focusing on training and equipping counterterrorism forces with local government partners. But in Afghanistan, the government and its security forces are not yet strong enough to stand on their own without significant help from us and our allies. That help is an investment in building a more secure region from which we have been brutally attacked and in which more attacks are now being planned.


PILLAR IS disappointed that after ousting the Taliban from power and al-Qaeda from Afghanistan, we "did not declare victory and return home." Should we do so now, we would soon have a great deal more to regret.