Monday, November 2, 2009

Counter Insurgency or Counter Terrorism

Later this week President Obama will definitively respond to General McChrystal's request for 40,000 additional troops to fight the war in Afghanistan. The Presidents answer is not simply about whether the General will get the troops he wants. His answer will signal whether Obama intends on pursuing a Counter Insurgency (CI) or a Counter Terrorism (CT) strategy in the war against Al Quaeda and the Taliban. So, whats the difference ?

Counter terrorism in Afghanistan
If President Obama opts for this strategy then there will be no need for any additional troops. In fact he could afford to gradually decrease troops levels as under this method there will be little of no conventional engagements on the battle field between the Taliban and the US Army or Marines. The CT approach relies heavily on deploying special forces teams and Predator UAV (unmanned areal vehicles) to hunt down Taliban commanders and assassinate Al Quaeda leaders. The main benefit of this approach is that there will be few casualties among NATO forces. In May President Obama replaced General McKiernan with General McChrystal as commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan. General McChrystal had famously used the UAV to great effect in Iraq when in June 2006 it was used to kill Abu Musab Al Zarqarwi, probably the most murderous man in the Middle East. It is believed that Zarqarwi caused a rift within Al Quaeda such was the level of violence he unleashed in Iraq. When you're too violent for Bin Laden you really have some anger management issues. The UAV approach which McChrystal used so successfully in Iraq relies entirely on Signals Intelligence (SIGINT) and CIA networks to locate targets. Mchrystal was brought into Afghanistan to do to Taliban leaders what he had done to Zarqarwi in Iraq.

However since he began his new post in May he seems to have come to the conclusion that CT, special forces and UAV's are not sufficient to defeat the enemy. I can think of two main reasons why this is. Firstly the enemy can adapt to SIGINT by deploying its own counter intelligence. By operating in cells, leaking false claims on locations and rooting out informers the Taliban and Al Queada leadership have become quite successful at avoiding drone strikes in recent months. Secondly, when the UAV strikes go wrong they go very wrong. There have been several high profile instances where scores of civilians have been killed. General McChrystal seems to believe that the damage these strikes are doing to NATO's image in the country is doing more harm to the overall effort than good. For this reason General McChrystal has requested 40,000 more troops to implement a Counter Insurgency Strategy.

Counterinsurgency in Afghanistan
The CI strategies core principle is to protect the civilian population from insurgents by military and political means. This will require more troops to occupy large population centers in order to avoid the common situation where NATO forces oust the Taliban from a town only to leave and have the Taliban re establish their influence afterward. This has resulted in many tribal leaders being reluctance to cooperate with NATO forces out of fear of Taliban retaliation. The CI approach is a political statement as much as anything else to say to the Afghans we are ready to commit and we are prepared to take risks to protect you. Some would call this nation building, a concept that many conservatives in the US are hostile to. This is a highly ambitious strategy but there seems to be a confidence in the US military at present that believes the successes in Iraq post surge can be replicated in Afghanistan. There is a political corollary to this approach which was illustrated recently when Obama sent Senator John Kerry over to Kabul to make it clear to the Karzai government that the US is not going to go to all this effort just to keep him in power. He promptly responded by agreeing to a re run of the recently disputed presidential election.

General McChrystal and President Obama met last month on board Air Force One to discuss the new strategy for Afghanistan.

The debate over CI and CT is interesting because it falls outside the predictable political discourse that we normally see between conservative republicans and liberal democrats where the former accuse the latter of being weak on national security. On this issue we are seeing hawks and doves, Democrats and Republicans, conservatives and liberals be in favour of both CI and CT with no obvious political pattern emerging. There are those on the right that fear Americas long term ability to stay ahead of China and India economically could be seriously jeopardise by a ten year Counter Insurgency campaign in Afghanistan. They fear that such a campaign in a country that probably has the worlds most inhospitable terrain could bleed the US to such an extent that it might never fully recover. Many like minded people also feel that putting more boots on the ground is fighting the war on the enemies terms. More troops means more targets for the Taliban and it certainly means more casualties. This is why some hawks are arguing that they should stick to fighting the Taliban by eliminating its leadership with special forces and UAV drones. But don't worry, the usual band of republican cheer leaders are filling the right wing talk radio and Fox News calling Obama a weakling who doesn't have the stomach for a war. They have reached this conclusion simply because he hasn't made a decision yet. They conveniently ignore that less than a month into his presidency he sent a further 17,000 troops to Afghanistan, a larger troop increase than anything seen during the Bush years. Apparently making a decision quickly is more important than making it correctly. However there are some more respectable figures on the right arguing for a CI escalation. These people are reasonably arguing that a commander in Chief should always listen to his generals (didn't General MacArthur want to nuke Korea?)and if McChrystal wants more troops then he should have them. Fair point but the danger as I see it is if CI goes wrong, it will go spectacularly wrong.

The Liberals also appear all over the place on this issue. There are clearly plenty of Obama lovers who will support him no matter what he does. The anti war crowd want all US troops out of Afghanistan but if pushed on the issue they would prefer to see CT adopted as CI will inevitably be an escalation of the war. Moderate Democrats appear split. This became most evident when Vice President Biden publicly criticised the McChrystal plan fearing that America will get bogged down in an un-winnable war. His stance on this led to praise from all sides which indicates how this issue has fractured the political status quo. Other Democrats are in favour of CI out of a sense of optimisms, a belief that Afghanistan can be rebuilt like the Balkans. Maybe they are getting a bit too carried away with the "Yes we can" rhetoric if they think that Obama can turn Afghanistan into a western style democracy.

I think that this is not only the toughest decision Obama has been confronted with so far as President but will ultimately turn out to be the most difficult one of his entire Presidency, whether it lasts another 3 or 7 years. The one comfort I think he has is that he is taking it from a politically sound position. If Obama goes against McChrystal and opts for a CT strategy, are the republicans really going to accused him of not being committed to Afghanistan. Hardly a wise thing to do since George Bush first invaded back in November 2001 and kept less than 30,000 troops in the whole country for most of the following seven years. Having said that, I cant help thinking of the movie "Thirteen Days" about the Cuban Missile Crisis which I watched recently. In one scene President Kennedy says to his advisor Kenny O'Donnell, played by Kevin Kostner "I woke up this morning and for a minute, I wished somebody else was President". No doubt Obama has had a similar moment over the last few weeks. In any event, Gubu World will report on Obamas decision.

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