Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Paul Pillar wrote the essay I should've written six months ago

I never sat down and did it, and then it was December. By then I would've just looked like a bandwagoner, right? Oh well. Mine would have been an obnoxiously over-sourced 9,000-word jeremiad, totally lacking in the clarity and elegance of Pillar's piece. So go read his. Here's a taste:
It would be fruitless to search the contours of current international terrorism for a compelling explanation of why the United States is escalating a military campaign in Afghanistan. Clearly there is a disconnect between where war is being waged and where terrorism is rearing its ugly head. The appropriate response is not to run off, guns blazing, to find new battlefields, be they in Yemen or anywhere else. The U.S. military, pressing the limits of sustainability and winding up one war while slowly winding down another, does not have the resources to open a new front in every territory that may become associated with terrorism. There is no shortage of such places.

Regardless of the available resources, it is a mistake to think of counterterrorism primarily, as Americans have become wont to do, as the application of military force to particular pieces of real estate. This pattern of thinking is rooted in a history in which the vanquishing of threats to U.S. security has consisted chiefly of armed expeditions to conquer or liberate foreign territory. The pattern has been exacerbated by the unfortunate “war on terror” terminology, which confuses and conflates the seriousness of, the nature of and the means used to counter the threat.

The strength of a terrorist adversary, al-Qaeda or any other, does not correlate with control of a piece of territory in Afghanistan or elsewhere. If a terrorist group has a physical safe haven available, it will use it. But of all the assets that make a group a threat—including ideological appeal and a supply of already-radicalized recruits—occupation of acreage is one of the least important. Past terrorist attacks, including 9/11 (most of the preparations for which took place in scattered locations in the West), demonstrate this.
Also, if you're interested, John Nagl disagrees. (Or as Josh Foust put it, Nagl says we're at war because the President says we're at war. Or something like that.)


  1. It's actually kind of funny to read a pretty solid case from Pillar and then see it followed immediately by the absurd piece from Nagl.

    What did you think of Finel's piece in AFJ? It seems consistent with Pillar's essay.

  2. Two thoughts, and one miscellaneous:

    One, is it the US military as a whole that lacks the assets to pursue terrorism everywhere, or SOF/CIA Special Activities Division assets in particular? Needless to say, even the latter assets are finite - indeed, more finite than the US military as a whole. But those are the assets (dare I say "Ninjas"?) which would be primary in direct action missions against terrorists.

    Two, it's striking to me how much Pillar parallels Stephen Walt's commentary on the issue. I'll have to check to see if SMW put PP on his suggested Red Team for the foreign policy bureaucracy.

    Third, from the whining and complaining department, I've had trouble cutting-and-pasting to your comments section, as well as the mere act of hitting the space bar more than one space from the nearest character (if that makes sense).


  3. In some browsers, you need to edit your comment in order to cut and paste (though maybe not in Chrome). It's a safeguard to prevent spammers from pasting their spam without the work of providing user information.

  4. Yep, Walt's Team B includes people who agree with him, including Paul Pillar. Shocking.



  5. Pillar's argument is good, very good. It's what one would have hoped the Obama administration's response would have been a year ago. Nagl's argument is pretty damn weak. His COIN focus has pretty much obviated any kind of strategic argument that could be made for Afghanistan, and that's pretty sad.

  6. When COIN is your only tool, everything looks like a vending machine.

  7. Are we escalating? I thought we were, er, surging (sorry, I don't really mean surge but you get my point) so that we could leave? I don't know, I didn't really read the whole thing, too busy, and also, kind of irritated by the question posed at the beginning. Seriously, that question now? Why?

    If we are escalating anything, it's that whole Af-Pak, fix Pakistan to fix Afghanistan, nonsense that seems to have infected our entire Foreign Policy apparatus right/left/up/down/whatever(hyperbole check!)

    Holy Strategic Flail, Batman!

    Break up all the networks you want now, but all that money pumped into the system means that the networks can be reconstituted over a certain amount of time. In fact, just in time to take on a government that's on its own for the first time!

    I don't know. My usual sign-off. I DON'T KNOW.