The Trouble With Counterterrorism

(Bundeswehr photo)

(Bundeswehr photo)

A Germany military officer said something to our group earlier that I thought was interesting, and particularly interesting coming from the Germans who don’t have the reputation in the United States for being really enthusiastic about boots on the ground.

He was talking about the idea, that you also often hear floated in the United States, that instead of an ambitious “nation building” counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan we ought to be embarking on a more limited campaign of targeted counterterrorism strikes against al-Qaeda. He said the problem with this is that even though people think of it as a more modest approach, it’s really a strategy for endless war. Unless through some weird stroke of luck you manage to kill everyone simultaneously or something, you’re going to need to keep doing it over and over and over and over again until the end of the time. If you’re talking about Israel fighting Hezbollah across the border, this may be an acceptable result since Israel isn’t going to stop being adjacent to Lebanon anytime soon. But unless NATO wants a perpetual military presence in Afghanistan, you either need to just leave and let the chips fall where they may or else you need to be making increase capabilities on the part of friendly Afghans the main objective of the strategy.

Whether that amounts to “counterinsurgency” as it’s currently understood in the US conversation, I couldn’t quite say. One concern I think we have to have about the idea of “training” as we’re currently doing it is that we seem to mostly be training Afghan military units to operate as adjuncts to US forces. Counterinsurgency done that way is about building Afghan capabilities, but also about building Afghan dependence on their patrons—trying to turn an allied government into a kind of perpetual vassal. I’d feel better about the theory that COIN is the only way to ever create a safe exit from Afghanistan if there were some more clearly articulated vision of exit with our work clearly oriented to making the Afghans as capable as possible of doing without us.