Afghanistan: How best to prevent bad guys from blowing me up in America, more or less

I’m a few days behind on this, per my usual style. But it’s something I’ve written about before, and it came up as a point of contention during testimony in front of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee this week.  The way we’ve confused  counterterrorism with counterinsurgency.

To put it another way: do we need to have 67,000 to 100,000 ‘boots on the ground’ in Afghanistan to kill/prevent terrorists from attacking the United States?

I would say, no, we don’t–which puts me in the Rory Stewart camp, seemingly growing by the day (or is that my wishful thinking?) Rory, who testified along with John Nagl and Stephen Biddle, got right at the confusion in his testimony, which is pretty good read, as testimonies go.

The subject came up again at the hearing, according to Spencer Ackerman’s report, when Senator Kerry asked Nagl why we can’t treat terrorists in Afghanistan like terrorists in Somalia. The recent hit on Al Shaab in Somalia, Nagl said, tells us you can conduct “counterterrorism with a light foot print.”

Which begs the question: why not use a light foot print in Afghanistan?

This is where the folks who want to have a large amount of American troops in that war have to do some neat twisting and turning. Nagl’s response was essentially that we need to have a presence in Afghanistan to make Pakistan safer. (I might point out that our presence in the region has coincided with the rapid destablization of Pakistan over the past few years, but hey.) So we need to fight for Kabul to save Islamabad which, eventually, will lead us on a road through Baghdad to Jerusalem. After a free education, that’s the number one reason kids join the National Guard.

(Read Stewart’s “beat the cat” analogy for another, much wittier, perspective.)

The question came up again in discussion of the “off shore” option–killing bad guys without getting yourself balls deep in quicksand, ie, another way to have a light footprint. Biddle took this one, explaining that we need to have “the host government’s complicity.”  Here’s Mr. Ackerman recounting the events (I should just watch the thing for myself on C-SPAN, I know!):

Later in the hearing, Biddle addressed some of the problems with the so-called “offshore” option, whereby U.S. forces launch the occasional raid, mostly from the skies or with special forces, on selected al-Qaeda targets, dissenting from Stewart’s prescriptions. “Safe havens do not [offer al-Qaeda] real estate for construction of tent farms for training seminars,” he said, but instead they protect al-Qaeda from “human-intelligence penetration on the ground,” upon which such targeted counterterrorism strikes depend. With regard to the drone strikes in Pakistan against al-Qaeda — which the CIA claims has seriously eroded al-Qaeda’s freedom of movement in the tribal areas and which some counterinsurgents fear will ultimately alienate Pakistanis— “control of the government underneath the drones” was an additional prerequisite for success, Biddle said. Take away human intelligence and host-government complicity through an offshoring strategy, and counterterrorism would be a non-starter.

I don’t really buy this. Do we really need 100,000 plus Western troops on the ground to get ‘host government complicity’? Do we need 70,000 plus American to get the human intel to nail Al Qaeda big wigs?  If Michael Sheurer is to be believed, we had a couple chances to nail Bin Laden in the past–and that was before we launched two massive nation building/democracy promoting/counterinsurgency campaigns. Did we get KSM because of intel in Khost?  We seem to have figured out how to work with the disfunctional land known as Somalia without sending in the Vermont National Guard to teach Somalis how to write parking tickets or paving the streets of Mogadishu. Why can’t we do that in Afghanistan? (BTW, the Vermont National Guard is deploying to Afghanistan in November, on their third tour.) In other words, if we keep are focus on the terrorists who actually want to/ have the means to attack America, then it seems to me we could kill the bad guys without becoming a pseudo-occupying force. And, as this RAND study(my favorite RAND Study of all time, perhaps) suggests that history shows us that the best way to eliminate terrorists groups is through, yikes, law enforcement, intel, and diplomacy–not military intervention.

Okay. I’m boring myself here.

Final point: as we continue to make dumb decisions in Afghanistan, we should ask ourselves a three big questions every step of the way. Is what we’re doing going to make us safer from terrorist attacks on our homeland? Not make Pakistan safer, or Kabul safer, or protect our marginal energy interest in Central Asia or whatever. The whole point: to prevent another 9-11, not another Mumbai. And it’s easy–with inertia from the military/civilian machine, political expediency, and think tank philosophizing–to lose sight of that. Is what we’re doing the most effective way to make us safer from terrorism? And have we weighed the costs versus the benefits?


About michaelhastings

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