So the bin Laden raid leaves us with an empirical test case for a core counterinsurgency contention.
Proposed by Dave Kilcullen and others, counterinsurgency theorists argue that theirs is the truer path to robust counterterrorism, the pursuit of which is the only reason counterinsurgency is germane in the U.S. context. Counterterrorism requires intelligence on terrorists and their environs. Intelligence requires local knowledge. Local knowledge requires the protection of vulnerable populations from reprisal, plus some incentive -- money, justice, political access, whatever -- to make cooperation with the anti-insurgent faction sensible. If you don't provide those resources and meet people where they are, then your counterterrorism hunt is fruitless.
U.S. counterterrorism just succeeded, massively, in a place where we don't have a counterinsurgency campaign. But we clearly had sufficient local knowledge (read: informers and ground operatives) -- plus signals intelligence, plus persistant surveillance -- to meet our objective.This seems like a pretty simple deal, right? Let's reformulate what Spencer has written in the simplest possible terms:
- Some COIN advocates sold their operational approach by saying that it involves the collection of intelligence that enables accomplishment of the primary national objective, which is the destruction of al-Qaeda and its associated movements.
- A significant step towards the accomplishment of that objective was achieved in a manner that suggests that the COIN campaign in Afghanistan did not meaningfully contribute.
- As such, we should reconsider whether the massive expense, reduced operational readiness, and other sacrifices being made to enable that COIN campaign are actually essential to accomplishment of the fundamental goal; i.e. is the war in Afghanistan really accomplishing anything vis-a-vis the president's stated objective, which is, lest we forget, to "disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al Qaeda"?
During the debate over possible courses of action that preceded the president's announcement of an escalation, the various positions were basically boiled down to "CT," "CT-plus," and "COIN." I'm not going to rehash the details of all of that, because it's boring and you almost certainly already know the broad strokes. (If not, read this.) But!: one of many, many insidious effects of that simplification was the way that "counterterrorism" or "CT" came in the popular lexicon to mean something like targeted direct action against terrorist networks, personnel, and support infrastructure -- i.e. killing terrorists -- without what constitutes the other half of that definition in military doctrine: "action taken indirectly to influence and render global and regional environments inhospitable to terrorist networks." Now, it may be the case that the DOD definition is too broad to be meaningful, and you could certainly make that argument. But by this definition and according to the justification of the mission provided by Presidents Bush and Obama, any USG activities undertaken in Afghanistan would constitute "counterterrorism"... including COIN, FID, SFA, development assistance, economic support, etc etc ad infinitum.
Now take another look at Spencer's post in this light. "Counterinsurgency theorists argue that theirs is the truer path to robust counterterrorism, the pursuit of which is the only reason counterinsurgency is germane in the U.S. context." He goes on to explain the presumed linkage between security to governmental capacity to popular loyalty to local knowledge to actionable intelligence, which serves to clarify what he really meant by "the truer path to robust counterterrorism": COIN ops will presumably result in military forces getting more information about the environment and the enemy than they otherwise would have (without sustained on-the-ground presence), meaning you can kill more terrorists this way.
I want to vigorously dispute Spencer's characterization of this questionable (and opportunistic) corollary as "a core counterinsurgency contention." What we see here is a cunning conflation of two superficially plausible semi-truths: 1) persistent, visible, dispersed presence by counterinsurgent security forces will enable the accumulation of local knowledge that is essential to effectively targeting insurgent cadres and thus enabling the broader counterinsurgency effort, and 2) the local knowledge that's accumulated as a result of sustained presence and security will include intelligence that allows the counterinsurgent force to undertake targeted, effective offensive operations against al-Qaeda terrorists (whose numbers in the Afghan AO are infinitesimal if not zero).
It's only fair to further note that when Spencer writes "the pursuit of [counterterrorism] is the only reason counterinsurgency is germane in the U.S. context," he's engaging in a bit of selective memory (or revisionist history). Many advocates for escalation and a broad-based COIN effort in Afghanistan were proponents of a widely-held view in both liberal internationalist and neoconservative circles, one that has only recently -- with a downturn in popular support and enthusiasm for overseas adventurism -- started to recede from the public forum: faith in what we can call the "state strength" paradigm. They believe(d?) that weak states posed the greatest threat to global and national security, that poverty, disenfranchisement and lack of economic opportunity not only drove local conflicts, but threatened Americans' way of life. Here's how it's pitched (pdf):
We know where extremists thrive. In conflict zones that are incubators of resentment and anarchy. In weak states that cannot control their borders or territory, or meet the basic needs of their people. From Africa to central Asia to the Pacific Rim – nearly 60 countries stand on the brink of conflict or collapse. The extremists encourage the exploitation of these hopeless places on their hate-filled websites.In this telling, poor economic conditions and injustice stoke disaffection and rage while weak governments are insufficiently capable of taking steps to either ameliorate these conditions or control their disaffected populations, and the whole thing ends up with pissed-off foreigners flying airplanes into office buildings. In short, they believed that failed states created terrorists, and that the best way to fix these failed states would be to build governmental capacity through a wide-ranging nation assistance and state-building effort while taking direct military action to defeat the most immediately dangerous security threats... what's been called, in the imprecise shorthand of our political narrative, "COIN."
In a defense and foreign-policy establishment where this worldview predominates, almost to the exclusion of all others, is it fair to say that "the pursuit of [robust counterterrorism] is the only reason counterinsurgency is germane in the U.S. context"? I would argue that it isn't the only reason, and that Kilcullen et al's focus on the CT-enabler angle was merely a matter of opportunistic calculation to appeal to those few "realists" who may not have fully bought into the contemporary conventional wisdom. The real challenge doesn't come from such obviously inadequate policy justifications as the narrowly-circumscribed one that Spencer seeks to highlight, but rather from the undifferentiated monolith that is the state-strength paradigm. It is close to a fact of political science that the risk of civil violence is closely correlated with low per-capita GDP/quality of life (as Jay Ulfelder points out today in a fortuitously-timed post). But it is far more difficult to establish causation, and causation is what we need to understand if we want to bring policy instruments to bear on a security problem. Consider just a few of the multivariate assumptions about the causes of conflict and violence that are embedded in the state-strength paradigm.
Violence is caused by: poverty; unequal access to or distribution of resources; unemployment; the inability of the justice system to fairly adjudicate disputes; the inability of the police to enforce the writ of the state; the inability of security forces to maintain the monopoly of violence; the inability of security forces to defend borders/sovereignty/protect against outside influence and/or infiltration of adversarial elements; the inability of security forces to undertake and/or sustain effective offensive operations against identified targets such as terrorists or insurgent groups; etc.Some of these may be true, some specious, and some outright absurd. But the lumping of these many purported causes, drivers, or enablers of conflict under one broad rubric -- "state weakness/failure" -- has allowed for that paradigm's furtherance through unified (or at least complementary) advocacy by disparate power bases and interest groups: DoD can talk about the requirement to build capacity and capabilities in partner security forces in order to defend borders and eliminate safe havens; while State can emphasize the need to build whole-of-government capacity with a specific focus on the institutions of justice and so on; and USAID and the development community can pitch the imperative of improving the delivery of basic assistance to address human suffering, economic inequality, and other purportedly fundamental drivers of conflict.
This is how we end up with a sort of meta-COIN, a universalization of vague and arguably specious tactical principles to the level of foreign policy: a global emphasis on development, the effective provision of goods and services, and capacity-building (both in governance and security); counterterrorism in the very most literal interpretation of the definition, emphasizing both the indirect actions that influence and render global and regional environments inhospitable to terrorist networks (economic development, conflict resolution, civil governance capacity-building) plus direct action against terrorist networks... but the easier and cheaper version: direct action by partner security forces (military assistance, foreign internal defense, security force capacity-building). And then you've still got the ultimate trump card in reserve: direct military action by U.S. forces, which Kilcullen insists is basically the worst-case, avoid-at-almost-all-costs scenario.
What I'm getting at is this: while advocates of escalation in Afghanistan may have used the troop presence ---> security ---> popular confidence ---> actionable intelligence ---> direct action against terrorists rationale to help justify their preferred operational approach, it's hard to imagine they were being totally serious and/or honest with themselves. (How were COIN ops in Afghanistan going to provide actionable intelligence about terrorist networks and individuals that reside almost exclusively in Pakistan?) Most COIN advocates are (were?) also believers in the bigger idea, the state-strength paradigm; they saw COIN as a means of sanctuary denial, as an extended process through which Afghan society would be inoculated against the threat of insurgency and by extension, al Qaeda influence. And state-strengthening is/was the answer for Pakistan, and Yemen, and Somalia, and... everywhere, right?
What's wrong with all that, then? Well, the whole concept might be totally bogus, for one thing. We don't really understand the root causes of civil violence, even at the sub-national level. There are a whole bunch of different kinds of civil violence, and localized insurgency with a terrorist component is very, very different to international terrorism (even if you want to identify that as a component of "global insurgency" (pdf)). We can't say why, for example, one country's contentious social issues spark civil war, while those of a similar country do not, at least not with any real certainty... and that question isn't half as complicated as why some disaffected individuals choose to engage in international terrorism against a distant adversary, one that is almost certainly unconnected in any clear way to whatever tangible, material grievances that individual may have, while others join a political party or a local insurgency or just do a lot of drugs. And that's something we ought to think about before we decide to re-order our foreign and security policy around the imperatives of global development, state strength, and capacity-building. There may be plenty of good reasons to prioritize state strength, but it's not totally clear that counterterrorism justifies it.
To parrot Spencer: Let's consider this, shall we?