Get Nasty or Go Home

The go-light strategy in Afghanistan is a joke. If Obama's serious about victory, it's time to start making unpleasant choices.

One has to admire the ingenuity of the policymakers, journalists, and generals who are desperately seeking to avoid hard decisions on what to do about America's lost war in Afghanistan. Last spring, the Barack Obama administration, Republican leaders, and senior U.S. generals signed on to the fairy-tale prescription spun by David Kilcullen in his book The Accidental Guerrilla. Kilcullen argued that only limited numbers of Afghans were dedicated insurgents and that the great bulk of the United States' enemies in Afghanistan were either hired by the Taliban or intimidated by Takfiri Islamists. Based on this comprehensive surmise -- for which there is scant evidence -- this April's strategy was to "protect" Afghans from bad guys and give jobs to those waging war for wages. Having attained these goals, the strategy held, cleaning up the unpopular Takfiris would be -- like Iraq -- a cakewalk.

Guess what? No cakewalk. Now, Americans are watching a shellshocked Obama administration trying to decide what to do about Gen. Stanley McChrystal's urgent request for 40,000-45,000 additional U.S. troops. The general's request, of course, is an emergency SOS indicating that the U.S.-NATO coalition is close to losing the Afghan war; a four-star U.S. general does not ask for a near doubling of his force to smooth out minor problems.

Thus, not only did the April strategy utterly fail, but the Taliban-led insurgency's trend line is steadily climbing upward, an ascent that began in 2007 and would not be possible without widespread and increasing popular support. Rather than popular support for the Taliban being based on intimidation and money, what we are seeing in Afghanistan is popular opinion catching up with Islamist determination. Until roughly late 2006, the war against the U.S.-NATO coalition was largely fought by the Taliban, other Islamists groups like that led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, and al Qaeda. Since then, however, the Islamists have been joined by Afghans who simply do not want Muslim Afghanistan occupied by all sorts of infidels from all sorts of Christian and polytheist countries. In short, an Islamist insurgency has evolved into an Islamist-nationalist freedom struggle not unlike that which beat the Red Army. The best way to see the growth of the Afghan enemy facing the United States and NATO is to track the proliferating number of insurgent attacks in the heretofore quiet and supposedly "friendly" arc of provinces from Herat in the west clockwise to Badakhshan in the far northeast.

Team Obama faces quite a dilemma. McChrystal's plan to stave off defeat by asking for substantial immediate reinforcements -- a request that is still far short of what is needed to "win" in Afghanistan -- is a sure sign that long-term intense fighting and high casualties lie ahead. The United States' latest Nobel Prize winner now has a choice: He must act quickly on the advice of McChrystal and the U.S. intelligence community to save a marooned U.S. Army, or dither behind the harebrained split-al-Qaeda-from-the-Taliban strategizing and let more overmatched U.S. soldiers and Marines die amid the ego-building praise of effete Americans, pacifist NGOs, and the Nobelistas.

For now, dithering seems to be on tap. Last week unnamed administration officials and some commentators began floating a new "strategy" based on the formulation that: (a) the Taliban and al Qaeda are separable; (b) the Taliban does not pose a direct threat to the United States; and, therefore, (c) U.S. forces should fight al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Well, simply put, this strategy makes Kilcullen look like Clausewitz and surely could not have been vetted by the U.S. intelligence community. On point "a," it is no news at all that the Taliban and al Qaeda are separate entities; they always have been and will be. What is important is that they are working in tandem toward the same clear and simple primary goal -- to drive out the United States and NATO, destroy Karzai's corrupt and incompetent regime, and re-establish their Islamist emirate. In working toward this goal, al Qaeda's combat role in Afghanistan has decreased as mujahideen forces -- Afghans, Iraq veterans, and other foreign volunteers -- have grown and become better armed, trained, and funded. This should have been apparent to U.S. officials several years ago when Osama bin Laden named Mustafa Abu al-Yazid as al Qaeda's Afghan commander. Yazid's long-practiced fortes are logistics and finance, and he is now running the main components of al Qaeda's changed but still essential Afghan effort: logistics and training, intelligence collection, and media operations. (Nota bene: This is nowhere near a full commitment of al Qaeda's resources, and its remaining assets are assisting other insurgencies -- such as in Somalia, Algeria, and Yemen -- and preparing coming attacks in the United States and Europe.)

On point "b," one has to wonder what can be meant by arguing that the Taliban does not pose a "direct threat" to the United States. Did the drafters of the new strategy bother to ask the intelligence community whom the United States is fighting in Afghanistan? The Taliban and its allies are unquestionably a direct threat to deployed U.S. military forces -- ask the commander of the U.S. post at Kamdesh, Nuristan, mauled on Oct. 4 -- and they intend to prevent everything Washington cites as a goal in Afghanistan: democracy, secularism, the rule of (Western) law, elections, constitutions, central government institutions, women's rights, coeducational schools, and the annihilation of al Qaeda. By protecting al Qaeda, incidentally, Taliban leader Mullah Omar's outfit is also facilitating a "direct threat" to the continental United States.


It is time to face the facts. The Taliban and its allies have waged an eight-year insurgency against the United States, NATO, and the Afghan government that is growing in geographical reach, battlefield success, and popularity in the Muslim world. As long as U.S. forces are in Afghanistan, this reality will remain the same. The only way to create a less threatening Taliban is for the Obama administration to admit defeat and turn over Afghanistan to Mullah Omar, knowing that he will allow bin Laden and al Qaeda to stay in place and that U.S. defeat will have an enormous galvanizing impact on the Islamist movement around the world.

Point "c" is another mystifier and one that the intelligence community was forced to unsuccessfully pursue by President Bill Clinton in the late 1990s. One must assume Obama and his advisors will not abjectly surrender in Afghanistan, at least not before the 2010 midterm elections. Based on this assumption, the idea of focusing U.S. forces on al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan raises the question of who will fight the still raging Taliban-led insurgency in Afghanistan while the United States shoots in the dark at al Qaeda targets it cannot locate? The Brits and the Canadians? Massively reinforced NATO contingents? The Afghan National Army and police? India? Not bloody likely. Unless the United States is going to do its al Qaeda hunting Clinton-style from U.S. Navy carriers and submarines and/or Saudi, Iraqi, and Kuwaiti bases -- and thereby be even less successful than it is now -- U.S. forces are unavoidably going to do the bulk of the fighting against the Taliban in Afghanistan while simultaneously hunting al Qaeda.

For the sake of U.S. soldiers and Marines in Afghanistan, let us hope this new strategic formulation is quickly dropped and forgotten and that Washington's focus is refixed on the hard but simple Afghan choice it faces: Because the U.S.-NATO occupation powers the Afghan insurgency and international Muslim support for it, we must either destroy it root and branch or leave. This issue merits debate, but that must wait until McChrystal gets the troops needed to delay defeat. Afterward, only the all-out use of large, conventional U.S. military forces can be expected to have a shot at winning in Afghanistan. Since 1996, the United States has definitively proven that clandestine operations, covert action, Special Forces actions, and aerial drone attacks cannot defeat al Qaeda. It has likewise proven beyond doubt that nation-building in Afghanistan is a fool's errand.

That said, military victory would require 400,000 to 500,000 additional troops, the wide use of land mines (even if Princess Diana spins in her grave), and the killing of the enemy and its civilian supporters in the numbers needed to make them admit the game is not worth the candle. This clearly is not a viable option. We do not have enough troops, and U.S. political leaders, many U.S. generals, and the anti-American academy and media do not think "military victory" is an appropriate or moral goal; their mantra is: "Better dead Americans at home and abroad than criticism from Europe, the media, and the academy."

Overall, then, we are well along the road to self-imposed defeat in Afghanistan, and about the best we can do is give McChrystal the troops he needs to slow defeat. After doing that, we can figure out how to get out of Afghanistan in an orderly manner, while preparing to absorb more al Qaeda attacks in North America.



The Safe Haven Myth

Washington needs to broaden and diversify its understanding of safe havens if it intends to end them in the war in Afghanistan.

At the International Institute of Strategic Studies in London earlier this month, Gen. Stanley McChrystal admonished an audience of listeners to question "generally accepted, 'bumper sticker' truths" about Afghanistan. As U.S. President Barack Obama and his advisors decide on the best way to proceed with the war, they might want to reconsider one in particular: safe havens.

"Since first invading Afghanistan nearly a decade ago," Matthew Rosenberg and Siobhan Gorman wrote in last Monday's Wall Street Journal, "America set one primary goal: Eliminate al Qaeda's safe haven." Over the past eight years, virtually no one has questioned what that means exactly, or the buzzwords used to describe the problem.

In late 2008, former CIA director Michael Hayden extolled the virtues of drone strikes into Pakistan: "By making a safe haven feel less safe," he claimed, "we keep al Qaeda guessing. We make them doubt their allies; question their methods, their plans, even their priorities." Explaining his AfPak strategy this August, Obama said, "If left unchecked, the Taliban insurgency will mean an even larger safe haven from which al Qaeda would plot to kill more Americans."

Much of what Washington thinks it knows about insurgent and terrorist safe havens is defined by the common geopolitical understanding of security, an understanding first articulated by a neoconservative White House. During the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan, the White House followed the logic that if the Taliban controlled the country and sheltered al Qaeda, then defeating the Taliban would allow the United States to rout its real enemy. It never wavered from that logic, and it wasn't long before "terrorist sanctuaries" became an entrenched part of the national security strategy, annual State Department reports, and Pentagon briefings.

Enter Georgetown University's Paul Pillar, a former CIA official turned author and academic. This September, Pillar wrote that the United States has "largely overlooked a ... basic question: How important to terrorist groups is any physical haven?" He forcefully argued that U.S. efforts in Afghanistan would not decrease the terrorist threat to the United States because, as he put it, "by utilizing networks such as the Internet, terrorists' organizations have become more network-like, not beholden to any one headquarters."

"In the past couple of decades," he wrote, "international terrorist groups have thrived by exploiting globalization and information technology, which has lessened their dependence on physical havens." But this argument relies on another unquestioned assumption: that "havens" and "states" are the same thing. In fact, it is a dangerous oversimplification to suggest that they are.

Different militant organizations use sanctuary in different ways -- and the United States must reconcile itself to this heterogeneity. Guerrilla armies need territory in which to encamp, train, and credibly challenge the writ of the state. Networked organizations don't, but whether they're legitimate revolutionary movements, urban guerrillas, or clandestine terrorist cells, they don't stop operating in the physical world and they don't stop needing safe spaces in which to operate. The difference isn't whether physical havens are needed, but how they're created and distributed.

This raises questions for countries attempting to coordinate cross-border counterterrorism policies and practices. How big does a safe haven have to be to qualify for a military campaign to eliminate it? Is a safe house big enough? How about an urban ghetto? Is there a difference between sanctuaries and safe havens? How safe do havens have to be? Do they even have to be physical?

Moreover, policymakers need to recognize that some terrorist groups -- the ones that survive and persist -- change over time. Before 2001, al Qaeda needed serious patches of territory to run training camps and field its paramilitary units. Now, the few remaining al Qaeda militants could not control that much space even if they wanted to. Al Qaeda's track record shows that eliminating one base of operations is no guarantee that terrorists won't simply establish another one somewhere else. Worse, once pushed underground, these militants inhabit havens that look more like cells than garrisons. Shape-shifting organizations like al Qaeda and its affiliates, in other words, put the lie to the assumption that safe havens and states are indistinguishable.

The current debate on Afghanistan strategy does not take into account such changeability and shades of gray. It generally hinges on two options: commit to a large-footprint counterinsurgency operation, saturating the country with thousands more troops; or turn to surgical counterterrorism options that don't require a large or continuous presence and focus on a much narrower set of goals and activities. Both strategies intend to create an Afghanistan that can survive without the security blanket of foreign troops, with some semblance of stability and some capability to self-police as the central benchmarks. Under that vision of success, Afghanistan would cease to be a resource for insurgents and terrorists.

But realities on the ground defy both resource-heavy counterinsurgency and more tactically nimble counterterrorism -- and suggest policy options that straddle the two strategies. The military could continue to target training camps in Waziristan, a suburb of Quetta, or a city block in Peshawar. At the same time, the forces in Afghanistan could create "safety zones" for civilians as outlined in international humanitarian law. The French did so during Operation Turquoise during the 1994 Rwandan genocide. The United Nations established safe cities in Bosnia-Herzegovina during its 1992-1995 war and a no-fly zone over Kurdistan in Iraq in the late 1990s. These aren't perfect examples, but they show that the United States might be able to make a "model district archipelago" to help make the country more stable and safe.

International humanitarian law also identifies safe havens of another kind -- protected sites like schools, hospitals, and religious facilities. Such physical structures, usually located in urban areas, present a different set of potential problems, particularly in light of Gen. McChrystal's plan to withdraw from rural areas and focus on securing Afghanistan's cities. Security forces in Afghanistan will likely have to contend with an increase in clandestine cells of urban guerrillas, reliant on networks of safe houses, covert training sites, and other underground havens to conduct operations like last Thursday's Indian Embassy bombing in Kabul.

U.S. and coalition forces have already witnessed extensive sectarian targeting and the exploitation of mosques by insurgents in Iraq. In Afghanistan, girls' schools and hospitals have consistently been hit with insurgent violence. In Pakistan, the 2008 raid on the Red Mosque, where militants had taken refuge, demonstrated the strategic significance of a local event -- precipitating no small amount of bad press for the government and contributing to nationwide discontent. None of these locations were states; all of them were statutory havens; all of them hosted high-visibility events that challenged the security policies crafted to deal with them.

Ultimately, Obama and his advisors can use whatever language they want to describe this war, but recent history has shown that the right choice of words is key to continued legitimacy and a convincing claim of success. Pinning counterinsurgency and counterterrorism options to a narrow, neorealist vision of sanctuary is potentially misleading, could foster misguided expectations, and will most certainly miss out on some of the local dynamics that Centcom hopes to acquaint itself with through its new Afghan Hands program. If they've outlived their usefulness, then perhaps it's time to let this set of bumper-sticker buzzwords die.