Tuesday, September 15, 2009

This is exactly why a light footprint counterterror campaign will never work in Afghanistan!

Stand-off CT missions lack necessary intelligence. We can't get to targets in time. We'll never tell friend from foe. The bad guys will never show their faces if they're allowed to live in places controlled by sympathetic regimes or factions. Al-Qaeda is too capable and dangerous to try to fight from the other side of the globe. Large troop commitments are necessary to sustain the logistics and support operations that accompany counterterrorist trigger-pullers. Like so:

American commandos killed one of the most wanted Islamic militants in Africa in a daylight raid in southern Somalia on Monday, according to American and Somali officials, an indication of the Obama administration’s willingness to use combat troops strategically against Al Qaeda’s growing influence in the region.

Western intelligence agents have described the militant, Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan, as the ringleader of a Qaeda cell in Kenya responsible for the bombing of an Israeli hotel on the Kenyan coast in 2002. Mr. Nabhan may have also played a role in the attacks on two American embassies in East Africa in 1998.

American military forces have been hunting him for years, and on Monday, around 1 p.m., villagers near the town of Baraawe said four military helicopters suddenly materialized over the horizon and shot at two trucks rumbling through the desert. The trucks were carrying leaders of the Shabab, an Islamist extremist group fighting to overthrow Somalia’s weak but internationally recognized government. The Shabab work hand-in-hand with foreign terrorists, according to Western and Somali agents, and in the past few months, as the battle for control of Somalia has intensified, the group seems to be drawing increasingly close to Al Qaeda.

American officials on Monday provided few details, but confirmed that Special Operations forces, operating from a nearby American warship, participated in the helicopter raid.

Whoops. Turns out all that stuff I said up there was wrong, and this is an example of exactly how the light footprint can be done.

Ok, ok, I'm being smarmy and I'm not really engaging substantively in this debate. I get it. And just because you can do it in one place doesn't mean you can do it -- or that it's the best way to do it -- in another place. The Afghanistan-Pakistan frontier is less accessible to offshore assets. There are more targets there. Surveillance is probably more difficult than in the desert of Somalia. I get all of this.

But please, please, can we stop dealing in self-assured assertions like "remote, kinetic counterterrorism would never work in South Asia"? Killing one guy ain't the same as winning the war, I know. But until we (all of us that are involved in this debate, I mean) stop taking everything so personally and clutching on to our beliefs like baby birds, stop refusing to accept anything that doesn't fit into our construct, stop labeling people as "gets it" or "doesn't get it," it's going to be really difficult to make any progress.


  1. Gulliver, I actually saw this over at the USNI blog. I didn't think to put it together with AfPak, though. I wonder what we will find out about what we are doing in Pakistan, years from now, when it can all be public. Hmmm.

    (Now, see what you and Lil and Alma and Gunslinger and MK have got me doing? I NOW READ THE USNI blog. What is going on with my life?)

  2. Killing one guy ain't the same as winning the war, I know.

    Then don't indulge in the faulty leap of logic, my friend. I don't think anyone has ever suggested we wouldn't be able to knock off some AQ targets with a 'light footprint' CT campaign in Afghanistan (although how you keep that footprint from becoming a target for ever-larger groups of insurgents I don't know).

    But let's say we go that route, the Taliban seize control of the south (say all of RC-South, and maybe as far north as Wardak), and fighting continues between regimes based in Kabul and Kandahar, respectively. Aside from how nasty it may be for many Afghans who threw their lot in with us, we also will suffer from a reduced flow of intel, and when we inevitably hit civilians by mistake, there won't be any other engagement with the local populace in the re-nascent Talibanistan to mitigate their anger. Even assuming the Kabul-based regime doesn't ask us to leave their territory because of such mistakes (possible, if they see it as attacks on their enemies, or we remain critical to their survival), what's the impact on the trans-boundary Pashtun population? We're already working to make sure the conflict isn't perceived as being against the Pashtun, and as Fnord has pointed out, mobilization rates seem to suggest we've managed so far - what happens if we tip it in the wrong direction? And how about in Pakistan?

    Finally, and I keep beating this drum, but how would engagement with Afghans almost exclusively through munitions impact the struggle for the global strategic narrative? I've seen a few suggestions that AQ's appeal has been hurt by its brutality, but what would a shift on our part to raids and drone strikes do to the Ummah's perception of their legitimacy?

    And from now on, when you guys give me flak about not posting, I'm going to claim I'm pursuing a light footprint strategy through smartass comments. All because you engaged in the faulty logic.

  3. I don't think anyone has ever suggested we wouldn't be able to knock off some AQ targets with a 'light footprint' CT campaign in Afghanistan (although how you keep that footprint from becoming a target for ever-larger groups of insurgents I don't know).

    No, but isn't this the point? As Gunslinger wrote in his most recent post, this is all about framing the options: what if "knock[ing] off some AQ targets" is all we're really trying to do? What if it's basically all we can hope to do, or the only thing that can be done with what's determined to be an appropriate investment of resources and effort?

    I'm not gonna make excuses about how nice things would be for everyone if the Afghan government fell and the Taliban took over. I don't really even want to engage in those sorts of hypotheticals right now, because it's far from certain what would happen if American involvement were to draw down (or what form post-drawdown American involvement would take). Would a lot of Afghans die? Yes, probably, and I don't want to sound sanguine about that. (Having said that, the cycle of defection and changing loyalties is perhaps even shorter and more fluid in Afghanistan than any other conflict zone, as we saw in the early days of OEF and the fall of the Taliban government. It's probably fair to say that a certain number of people who worked with/for the coalition or the government would be spared by a post-war Taliban regime that understood that it's just sort of the way things go in war.)

    I'm surprised that you would bring up the "global strategic narrative" and suggest that American involvement in Afghanistan -- that is, troops on the ground in Islamic lands -- is working in our favor, or that departure would work against us. Are you joking? You think that there are Muslim undecideds who will favor the West, or the liberalization of their societies, because of a demonstration of American commitment, and that those people will somehow have their heads turned by a somehow triumphant al-Qaeda -- which, to be clear, has fled to a neighboring country in the face of American power -- if we leave Afghanistan? Forgive me for saying so, but this strains credulity.