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Counterinsurgency, Counterterrorism and Tomorrow’s Af-Pak Rollout

About that Marc Ambinder post previewing tomorrow’s Af-Pak rollout that I mentioned. Marc writes this, about a scaled-back focus:

The new bearing reflects Vice President Joe Biden’s imprint. He has been arguing internally for a more focused counterterrorism mission rather than a larger, more complex counterinsurgency mission, which would involve significantly more American resources and troops. Though the President plans to endorse the concepts of counterinsurgency as a means to fight the Taliban, it will not be the primary objective of U.S. and NATO troops. U.S. policy also focuses on improving the legitimacy of Afghan government institutions by endorsing anti-corruption drives, by devoting U.S. resources to counternarcotics missions, and by providing basic goods and services to Afghans outside Kabul.

This is kind of a false choice. The ultimate goal is a counterterrorism goal: eradicate the al-Qaeda safehavens in Afghanistan and, more aptly, Pakistan. (Or however Obama will put it tomorrow.) “Endorsing the concepts of counterinsurgency as a means to fight the Taliban” would not ever be a primary objective of U.S. policy — it’s always going to be a chosen means to an end. The real questions here would be if (a) U.S. troops were placed on a counterterrorist hunt rather than a population-protection mission; or (b) the goal became the cultivation of a stable Afghanistan with counterterrorism as a means to that end. The mission, in other words, was always going to be a counterterrorism mission, ever since Obama said at his first press conference that the measure of success was “root[ing] out those safe havens.”

Let me try to put it another way. You’re trying to kill the terrorists who attacked the United States on 9/11 and their structure of support. That’s why we’re in Afghanistan, after all. (Sorry, it’s not for some oil pipeline.) You have some choices for how to go about it. You can draw up a list of who’s a member of the targeted organizations and go after them, focusing entirely on the enemy, and apportion resources accordingly — better intelligence and surveillance platforms, for instance, and precision-strike capability, and light infantry. Alternatively, you could focus on the population, provide for their safety and material well-being, and in turn enlist them in the fight against the terrorists — drying up their base of support, denying them allies, exposing their supply lines, and making them easier to target. One drawback of the former approach is that the population knows better than you do who the terrorists are and where they are, and unless they see concrete benefits, they’re not going to help you. A drawback of the latter approach is that it takes time, coordination and a lot of extra-military resources and the population might still not support you.

This is the real counterinsurgency vs. counterterrorism debate. Notice it has nothing to do with ends, and everything to do with means. For more, see Exum, Andrew.

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