Fighting Insurgency—Not Terror—in Afghanistan

Columns / Feb. 25, 2010 11:57am EST

When America invaded Afghanistan in late 2001, our stated national purpose was to eliminate Al Qaida. That goal was rapidly forgotten with the ill-timed invasion of Iraq in 2003 and our focus subsequently morphed from counter-terrorism to counter-insurgency.

Since then, we have fought Al Qaida in Iraq, while they joined an ongoing insurgency against us, and waged an unconventional war against them, mostly in Pakistan, consisting of special operations and drone missile strikes against their known and suspected people and positions. Those operations have decimated Al Qaida leadership.

We have focused on Pakistan because there are virtually no Al Qaida terrorists left in Afghanistan. What is left of the original Al Qaida leadership is now hunkered down somewhere in Pakistan’s Waziristan, simply trying to survive.

Al Qaida as we knew it has radically changed. It has been franchised out to discrete local volunteer terrorist groups. They now exist as Al Qaida Maghreb, Al Qaida Arab Peninsula, Al Qaida Yemen, and on and on. Al Qaida Central has little if any command and control over these groups. The situation is further complicated by the new phenomenon of singleton volunteers like the Nigerian Abdul Mutallab and US Army Major Hassan who were self-radicalized and therefore extremely difficult to uncover and neutralize.

Quite simply, America is today fighting a counter-insurgency in Afghanistan, an exceedingly difficult task. As long as that is our primary goal, the tactics we use will draw more and more fighters to and sympathy for Al Qaida, making them, our real enemy, increasingly difficult to defeat.

Combating terrorism, compared to counter-insurgency operations, is relatively simple and always potentially more successful. Terrorists do not often enjoy the support of the populations where they are operating. This has been true in Iraq and is definitely true in Afghanistan today. For that reason, they are easier to vanquish than insurgents.

Insurgents usually do have the support, or at minimum the tolerance of the local population. More often than not, as natives, they are preferable to a disliked regime in power or a foreign occupier. They can fade into that supportive population whenever threatened.

As things stand right now, we have none of the necessary advantages in Afghanistan needed to defeat an insurgency, a fact that makes any sort of ultimate “success” exceedingly illusory.

We do not have the overwhelmingly superior troop numbers needed to shut down a country as vast and geographically complicated as Afghanistan.

We do not have the support of the population because we are the foreigners and we are allied with a central "government" for which they have little use.

As long as that is the reality, we will not have the quality intelligence needed to adequately protect ourselves and keep them on the defensive because neither we, nor the Karzai government, is trusted by the bulk of the Afghan people.

In this respect, it doesn’t really matter that we think of ourselves as benevolent liberators, it only matters that Afghans think of us as foreigners occupiers.

Because Afghanistan always has been what it now is—a group of tribes unfavorably disposed to foreigners telling them how to live—our prospects for success in any form are extremely limited.

Al Qaida is finished in Afghanistan. The Obama administration, like its predecessor, claims we are fighting terrorism there. That is simply not true. It is a pure counter-insurgency issue. Why have we changed our goals? What is our concern with this purely national insurgency? What is our real goal and is it attainable?

We clearly hope to install a government of our liking in Afghanistan, yet it’s not at all clear what it would look like. The age-old resistance of the Afghan people to any sort of central government will make it difficult to implement any plan for the country that is consistent with our values.

The logical outcome, in the unlikely event we are successful in defeating the Taliban insurgency, would be further involvement in nation building in Afghanistan. Yet there is little evidence to indicate that the goal of any kind of "nation" familiar to us is attainable.

It took 33 years for Sri Lanka to vanquish the Tamil Tigers’ insurgency—and that struggle never involved foreign troops of any kind. In fact, there are very few examples of successful counter-insurgencies.

How long will the American people support an American counter-insurgency program in Afghanistan, particularly when its success, however unlikely, would likely lead to decades of costly nation building?

Haviland Smith is a retired CIA Station Chief who served in East and West Europe, the Middle East and as Chief of the Counterterrorism Staff. He is a former long-time resident of Brookfield who now lives in Williston.

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