Another Disappointing RAND Counterinsurgency Study

BY Herschel Smith
8 years, 7 months ago

In RAND Study on Counterinsurgency in Afghanistan we disapproved of the small footprint model for counterinsurgency advocated by Seth G. Jones. Another RAND study has been issued entitled How Terrorists Groups End: Lessons for Countering al Qa’ida, by Seth G. Jones and Martin C. Libicki. The report is available for download, so the reader can study it later (or perhaps has already studied it). But the summary statement reads thusly:

All terrorist groups eventually end. But how do they end? The evidence since 1968 indicates that most groups have ended because (1) they joined the political process (43 percent) or (2) local police and intelligence agencies arrested or killed key members (40 percent). Military force has rarely been the primary reason for the end of terrorist groups, and few groups within this time frame have achieved victory. This has significant implications for dealing with al Qa’ida and suggests fundamentally rethinking post-9/11 U.S. counterterrorism strategy: Policymakers need to understand where to prioritize their efforts with limited resources and attention. The authors report that religious terrorist groups take longer to eliminate than other groups and rarely achieve their objectives. The largest groups achieve their goals more often and last longer than the smallest ones do. Finally, groups from upper-income countries are more likely to be left-wing or nationalist and less likely to have religion as their motivation. The authors conclude that policing and intelligence, rather than military force, should form the backbone of U.S. efforts against al Qa’ida. And U.S. policymakers should end the use of the phrase “war on terrorism” since there is no battlefield solution to defeating al Qa’ida.

This amounts to 83% – according to Jones and Libicki – of terrorists who either joined the political process or were arrested by the police. So then the solution must be non-military, or so Jones and Libicki conclude.

But they fundamentally fail to understand the nature of the enemy, and so it’s not surprising that the study reaches the wrong conclusions. In Why is there Jihad, we linked a recent report by the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point that studied the internet interview of Ayman al-Zawahiri. They noted many interesting things, but one crucial point to understanding their global movement.

Over the past year, Zawahiri and other senior al-Qa’ida figures have been waging a vigorous propaganda campaign against the Palestinian organization HAMAS. Although Jihadists unanimously denounce Israel they continue to disagree over whether HAMAS should be considered a legitimate Islamic movement. For Zawahiri, HAMAS’ embrace of nationalism, democracy, and its legacy in the Muslim Brotherhood—arguably the three things al-Qa’ida hates most—delegitimizes the group.

To which we observed:

Nationalism is evil and out of accord with the global aspirations of al Qaeda. Nation-states are not just not helpful, or even a necessary evil. They are quite literally an obstacle to jihad, not because they share the loyalties of jihadists, but rather, because they fundamentally don’t acquiesce to the vision of world conquest in the name of Islam and the forcible implementation of Sharia law. What we see as a transnational insurgency is to the jihadists simply a world wide struggle. They don’t recognize nation-states as legitimate.

This is the Sunni perspective, but the radical Shi’a perspective is the same. From Michael Ledeen’s The Iranian Time Bomb, Khomeini succinctly states their view:

“We do not worship Iran. We worship Allah. For patriotism is another name for paganism. I say let this land [Iran] burn. I say let this land go up in smoke, provided Islam emerges triumphant in the rest of the world.”

Ledeen summarizes their views: “Without exception, their core beliefs are totally contrary to the notion that they are a traditional nation-state” [page 17]. Baitullah Mehsud has also shown that his perspective is global, contrary to the views of earlier generations of Taliban. Neither al Qaeda nor the Taliban are about to engage in local or even national politics. It violates the stipulations of their faith.

As for the high value target initiative, the U.S. has been engaged in this for six or more years in both Afghanistan and Iraq (and now Pakistan). It has consumed an incredible amount of money, time, resources, intelligence assets, and firepower, but has only moderate results to show for the expenditure.

The security situation in Afghanistan is headed in the wrong direction, while Iraq has been secured. Counterinsurgency requires force projection, a doctrine we have argued for two years. It has worked in Iraq, and will be required in Afghanistan. A few more policing assets in Afghanistan and Pakistan would mean simply a few more policing assets to die at the hands of Taliban and al Qaeda.

The answer is not black or special operations, police, surreptitious behind-the-scenes deals, prison cells, interrogations, incorporation of the enemy into politics, or negotiations. The immediate answer to the problem of an enemy who would kill you is to kill the enemy with fire and maneuver.

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It’s not that the RAND study is necessarily wrong; it’s that its political bias emerges prematurely in order to facilitate one political candidate’s views. RAND study work product is by and large journalistic advocacy and when viewed in such light can play a constructive role in the larger scheme of war planning. American has a lengthy history of treating its vanquished enemies with economic redevelopment from Germany to Japan. We help unleash their own creative energies and rebuild their economies. While the argument can be made the enemy is not yet vanquished, America nonetheless must rise to the level of its greatness as a symbol to the world. This is the challenge of leadership. Elections are the season where these great questions must be challenged. The lion controls and moves her cubs by placing her greatest weapon (teeth) around the cubs’ most vulnerable neck while moving the cubs to a safer environment. So it is that the great democracy of the free world affords itself the opportunity to change. The heel of power is held tightly upon the throat of violence as we explore new options. This is what greatness demands of us. We much test this premise during the… Read more »


We seem to be saying the same things but with some subtle and perhaps important differences. If you are saying that it is a misguided waste of time to let up on the use of deadly force, I agree.

The point I stress is that in a free and great democracy, we can afford to also test the peace building processes at many different levels even as the intensity of battle increases, that is the measure of our true greatness and not a weakness

Offering a vision (during an election cycle) that the only nature of the enemy is to fight on endlessly and therefore we too must accept the enemy’s terms for endless war, is not an acceptable vision. The election must not be allowed to take place on such bleak alternative futures.

I want my candidate to win. Endless war is an unacceptable vision upon which to win an election.

Brian H

A war is only endless if there is no way to win or lose.

Both are possible here, in several ways. Winning is a multi-stage affair, beginning with suppressing all substantive concentrations of military and anti-civilian power possessed by the Global Jihad (in staged areas, one city/province/country/region at at time, or a few at a time). The civilians in each area will NOT respond to soft power unless the hard power is demonstrably in place first, because hard power destroys soft power. Then the soft power of civilian co-operation and bootstrapping can make the terrain safer for themselves into the medium future.

But even in “safe” environments, inadequate application of hard power (through complacency or excessive reliance on routine law-enforcement) can invite disaster. Several EU cities are looking this prospect in the face, e.g.

There’s no substitute for ability and willingness to stomp ’em.

Point well taken BH. There seems to be an understandable site-related paranoia that wants to make certain I am kept focused on a matter that I already agree upon, that the continuation and the escalation of force is essential to victory. On this point we agree. Your brilliant instruction and reporting and deductive reasoning on where the next hot spot will be and why, I read, probably understand, and accept as better intelligence analysis that any other form media material to which I have access. My point is, my man running for office must not let a vision of Endless War be the vision upon which we vote. This concedes to the view our enemies of freedom project for us and not where we wish to go. The type of soft power I describe in helping set a vision of the poorest Muslim countries to gain access to world financial markets through the use of their sovereign national debt through Quranic validation of its acceptability, is a new type of soft power. The old type of soft power has American taxpayers putting up all the money. It’s one thing to blow up American capital when it comes so readily to… Read more »
The Captain's Journal » Gates on a Nuclear Iran

[…] the Western secularists, but absolutely necessary in order to understand the radical Mullahs, who believe that: “We do not worship Iran. We worship Allah. For patriotism is another name for paganism. I say […]


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This article is filed under the category(s) Counterinsurgency,RAND and was published July 31st, 2008 by Herschel Smith.

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