The Two Wars of Afghanistan

Nov. 1, 2009

In Afghanistan, the US faces a choice between two types of war. One is a traditional military operation centered on finding, tracking, and killing terrorists and insurgents. The second war would defend Afghans from those same terrorists and insurgents.

The question President Obama needs to answer is this: Which war will the United States emphasize? The answer will have a major effect on the size and composition of the military force the US sends to Afghanistan, for, although the wars may sound similar, they are in fact profoundly different.

The first type of war—counterterrorism—has been Washington’s top priority since 2001. The US has attempted to root out terrorists, eliminate their refuges, track them down, and kill them. After eight years of war, the insurgency has regained strength, and there is serious concern that this approach is doomed to failure.

Two approaches, for two types of war. (USAF photo by TSgt. Beth Holliker; USA photo)

For that reason, President Obama this summer directed Army Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal to determine a new approach. McChrystal, a renowned special operations officer, wrote that if the US fails to “gain the initiative and reverse insurgent momentum,” it “risks an outcome where defeating the insurgency is no longer possible.” Speaking in London Oct. 1, he rejected the notion of allowing Afghanistan to devolve into a “Chaos-istan” the US manages “from outside.”

Counterinsurgency is the second war. McChrystal wants to wage a standard counterinsurgency campaign. It will require up to 60,000 additional ground troops.

McChrystal would shift the focus from defeating the enemy to protecting civilians until Afghanistan’s security forces are able to defend against the Taliban and al Qaeda on their own.

Expanding the second war means huge investment and risk. Protecting Afghanistan’s population will require US forces to take off their body armor and become more accessible to the public. This could very well increase casualties in the short-term.

Concerns about the existing strategy echo those voiced about the situation in Iraq in 2006, before the “surge” of US forces there led to a dramatic reduction of violence.

Of course, the influx of US troops was not solely responsible for the turn of events in Iraq. There, the insurgents were mostly unwelcome foreign fighters who tremendously overplayed their hand by brutally targeting civilians. The surge gave Iraqi citizens an opportunity to rally behind local leaders and eject the terrorists.

Circumstances appear quite different in Afghanistan, a state far larger than Iraq. Counterinsurgency success depends on the population rejecting the insurgents—something many have been unwilling to do. An immediate problem is a lack of trust in Afghanistan’s central government, which is generally considered corrupt and incompetent. Widespread allegations of fraud in this summer’s elections further damaged the regime’s credibility. Also problematic is the fact that most insurgents in Afghanistan are locals, not jihadists imported in from other nations. Even McChrystal anticipates years of grueling effort.

That, however, assumes the US will go with and stay with the “counterinsurgency” route.

Vice President Joseph Biden advocated a smaller counterterrorism approach, with increased reliance upon special operations forces, Predator and Reaper unmanned aircraft, and targeted attacks. Needless to say, that approach would require far fewer troops on Afghan ground.

That idea drew a vigorous riposte from the boots-on-the-ground contingent. Relying on long-range attacks is “very problematic because it doesn’t address the fundamental causes of violence and insecurity,” said Army Brig. Gen. H. R. McMaster. “You can confuse activity for progress,” he added.

Nobody is seriously advocating abandoning Afghanistan. However, some question whether the mission is worth the cost.

The US seeks to prevent al Qaeda from “re-establishing” bases in Afghanistan, but why? Terrorists have had safe havens in Pakistan for years, and there is no shortage of other outcast locales such as Haiti, Myanmar, Somalia, Yemen, and Zimbabwe to which terrorists can flee if they are driven from Afghanistan. As George F. Will (op-ed columnist, Washington Post) asked in September, “Must there be nation-building invasions of … other sovereignty vacuums?”

For eight years, the US has been able to manage the threat from al Qaeda with an “under-resourced” force in Afghanistan—terrorists have not struck the US since 2001.

The concern is that reducing the ground presence in Afghanistan will end the intelligence tips needed to keep al Qaeda on the run. Terrorist successes in Afghanistan could then destabilize Pakistan, which is a far more troubling scenario because of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons.

The options then are these: A larger CI operation could stamp out the insurgency in Afghanistan. This will be costly in dollars and lives, and political support may collapse before the effort can succeed.

A smaller, targeted counterterrorism operation could keep the Taliban and al Qaeda in disarray, but intelligence could dry up without a significant presence on the ground.

The Administration’s top national security officials planned a series of meetings throughout the fall to pick a winning strategy. Obama’s choice could go far toward determining the outcome in the area known as “the graveyard of empires.”

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