Can Counter-Insurgency Win the War on Terror?

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Ever since the U.S. troop surge in Iraq put a lid on the boiling sectarian cauldron, counter-insurgency has been the talk of the town (at least, the particular town that cares about this sort of thing). The debate over American strategy in Afghanistan has brought counter-insurgency warfare into even sharper focus, as the Obama administration mulls a massive influx of American troops to bolster General Stanley McChrystal's proposed strategy there.

Unlike conventional warfare, where destroying the enemy and his fighting capacity is the order of the day, counter-insurgency is "population-centric." It aims, in the words of Marine Corps Gen. James E. Cartwright, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to make the civilian population and its attitude the main determinant of success or failure. In testimony before Congress, General Cartwright noted that "one of our key metrics for success [in Afghanistan] will be over the next few months to see whether or not there is a shift in the attitude of the local residents."

This recognition - that the attitudes of a population matter - is central to any successful counter-insurgency. When the population hates America, our job is harder. When it likes, or at least tolerates the United States, our job is easier.

In Iraq, it was only when Sunni Arab attitudes towards al-Qaeda shifted did they switch sides to aid coalition forces. The strategy sketched out by General McChrystal for Afghanistan similarly prizes the attitudes of local Afghans and seeks to pull opportunistic Taliban from the hard core of implacable zealots.

Yet for all the focus on Afghanistan, there is a larger and perhaps more urgent question: can (or should) America apply the principles of counter-insurgency to the global insurgency that is Islamic terrorism?

After all, Iraq's Sunni tribes - much like the Taliban in Afghanistan - are second-order threats. Both took up arms against American forces because we were (and remain) on their territory; not out of any ideological commitment to destroying America. The real threat to American lives and interests are transnational terrorists aligned with Osama bin Laden; who are either based in the West and lured to jihad or, like the Saudi 9/11 hijackers, are willing to travel into the West to attack us. Even if the U.S. were able to mollify the Afghan Taliban much the way it mollified Iraq's Sunnis, we would still face a very serious threat from people such as 24 year old Najibullah Zazi (a legal U.S. resident since 1999 who was recently arrested on allegations he was planning to attack mass transit hubs), or Abdulla Ahmed Ali, the London-born jihadist who was recently convicted for an attempt to blow up multiple transatlantic airliners in flight.

Yet if the dictates of counter-insurgency point to the necessity of winning hearts and minds, the challenge in applying these lessons to a global insurgency is infinitely more complex. While the U.S. was able to placate Iraq's Sunnis with cash and political accommodation (scaling back de-Baathification, urging the Shiite-led government to provide a greater role for the Sunnis), finding an accommodation with the Middle East and radicalized Muslims in the West would be far more difficult.

The problem is simple: the very policies that tend to drive radical recruitment are the ones the U.S. will almost certainly never change. America's overt military presence in the Persian Gulf, its support for autocratic regimes such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt and its tight alliance with the state of Israel are all well established elements of American foreign policy. They enjoy bipartisan support. Yet time and again, opinion polling in the Middle East reveals that these are the policies that have turned the population of the Middle East against the United States.

In a wide ranging survey of predominantly Muslim countries, and the University of Maryland found that "large majorities agree with al-Qaeda's goal of pushing the United States to remove its military forces from all Muslim countries and substantial numbers, in some cases majorities, approve of attacks on U.S. troops in Muslim countries." Even the newly minted Nobel Laureate has not turned back the tide of Islamic antipathy. According to a recent report from Pew Research, President Obama "receives more negative reviews than positive ones in places such as Lebanon, Egypt, Jordan and the Palestinian territories. And in Pakistan ... only 13% believe Obama will do the right thing in international affairs."

If those urging a robust counter-insurgency effort in Afghanistan are to be believed, only a substantial effort to turn the tide of Muslim opinion can truly secure the United States from the broader threat of Islamic radicalism. Just as the attitude and perception of Afghan civilians is the "center of gravity" for a counter-insurgency strategy in Afghanistan, so too the opinions and perceptions of Muslims in the Middle East and in Europe must be the center of gravity for a global counter-insurgency.

For now, however, the U.S. has chosen to meet the global threat of Islamic radicalism with what some would dub (in the Afghan context) a "narrow counter-terrorism" approach. We use intelligence to pick off al-Qaeda operatives on the battlefield, or police and investigative work to derail plots already set in motion, while mostly ignoring the psychological and political milieu from which radicalization occurs. To date, though, such an approach has been fairly effective. Terrorists have managed to kill scores in Europe (Madrid and London) but have yet to reprise a 9/11-scale atrocity inside the United States.

While al-Qaeda is infamously known for spacing its attacks out over several years, it has also been faced with unprecedented pressure since 9/11. U.S. and allied efforts may have permanently crippled al-Qaeda's ability to launch mass casualty attacks on American interests. (Of course, if that's true, it would severely undermine the counter-insurgent's case for a stepped up commitment to Afghanistan). On the other hand, we may simply be in a lull before the next massacre.

Unfortunately, we won't know until it's too late.

What we do know is that technology will only advance, allowing smaller groups of individuals to perpetrate ever more lethal attacks. The Internet ensures that even if physical safe havens such as Afghanistan become inhospitable, like-minded holy warriors can still find support and perhaps technical training in "virtual safe havens." We know too that while targeted military action and investigative work can yield tactical successes, America could well remain behind the strategic curve if broad swaths of the Middle East or pockets of Western Europe's Muslim community remains sympathetic to bin Laden's narrative.

Ironically - while there is a broad cross-section of elite opinion willing to countenance a truly massive investment in Afghanistan to win ordinary Afghans away from the Taliban - there is scant discussion, much less the political will, to embark on a strategic reorientation of America's Middle East policy and apply some basic precepts of counter-insurgency to that wellspring of jihadism. Indeed, it's just the opposite. As the centrifuges spin in Iran's nuclear facilities, America will likely double-down on the very policies the region finds so objectionable - strengthening its military presence in the Gulf and entrenching its defense relationships with the region's autocracies and with Israel.

In such an environment, all we can do is hope that Washington stays at the top of its tactical game. As Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld frequently observed, the U.S. has to be lucky 100 percent of the time but the terrorists only need to get lucky once. That being the case, it would be far better for the U.S. if there were fewer terrorists.

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