Another Disappointing RAND Counterinsurgency Study

BY Herschel Smith
6 years, 2 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.



  • Warbucks

    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 election: Is now the time to transition to rebuilding?

    As we press into outlaw regions of the remote frontiers, America should begin to redirect many of its assets including financial assets and know-how to help the broader community of peace loving Muslim brothers open their hearts to see us and respect us not for our ability to wage war, but for our shared values which at their core are the same for all humanity.

    One of the greatest needs of the poorer countries in the Middle East to break the yoke of dependence is to be able to stand on their own and tap into world economic free markets. In this regard, the sovereign debt of a nation-state is qualitatively different from personal debt. Wall Street-wise mentors serving with great Islamic Scholars of the day should be tasked to help build functioning access to world markets for even the poorest Muslim nations.

    We should work patiently to help the Middle East share in the same creative, wealth building forces our free markets deliver in the West. One candidate running for election says you can’t do that, the other says you can. One candidate stands for the premise that wealth building is only a zero sum game, the other candidate stands for the premise it is instead self-reinforcing process of mutual benefit to each participant. One candidate believes you have to take like Robin Hood from the rich and give to the poor. One candidate doesn’t understand or believe in the free markets. One candidate will chain you, your children and this country to the slow moving central planned economy because he has no faith, no trust, and no pride ….. in the business of Freedom. The other candidate does.

    RAND’S advocacy is just that, mere political advocacy. Our foot is big and continues to weigh heavily on the enemy. Candidates are not presidents. The weight of the foot remains in place. But now is the time for leadership to stand tall and help lead by clarifying these contrasting visions each candidate holds for the country.

    Endless war is an unacceptable vision.

  • http://www.captainsjournal.com/ Herschel Smith

    Warbucks,

    You’re a smart guy, but how ’bout taking another tour through this post and come back to the comments again to tell me what you think. I think that you need to think about my arguments again.

    Let me cover this a different way. The article has nothing, per se, to do with whether we apply soft power, or how we do so. I have always advocated the application of soft power in COIN (as well as understanding that there is an ebb and flow to COIN such that troop levels will need to change throughout a campaign).

    More to the point of the post, let’s suppose that I offered Warbucks a chance to be a part of my club, but the price was that Warbucks had to get drunk every night and beat his wife. Warbucks wouldn’t be a part of that club for any amount of money, fame or companionship. Why? Because perpetrating those actions is evil.

    That’s the way the jihadist sees being a part of a nation-state. It is their absolutely consistent, seamless, constant and unanimous testimony that they do not recognize nation-states as legitimate. It has been this way from the beginning with them (the more radical Salafists and Wahhabists). It’s not just that we have not applied enough soft power to bring them into the political process in whatever government applies at the time (Afghan, Pakistan, Iraqi, of whatever). It’s that they see involvement in something like this as evil. They may recognize tribes a legitimate (some don’t, and have worked against tribal leadership in the FATA and NWFP), or they may see family as legitimate. But they do not see nation-states as legitimate.

    Seth Jones is no doubt a smart guy and has much to contribute to COIN. I hope for good things from him in the future. But as to incorporating al Qaeda, the Taliban and other such groups into the political process? Seth could have kept from wasting his time if he had listened to them.

    That’s the key, and one that I find many so-called “experts” do not wish to do. If we want to understand the enemy, we must listen to them tell us about themselves. In a testimony to the frailty of human nature, they are always willing to divulge details about themselves and their motivations. Listening to them do this is the best way to develop counter-strategy. Want to know what they think? Listen to them. Want to know what they’re going to do next? Listen to them. I have, which is why I knew that they were going after the Khyber pass to interdict supplies before NATO knew it and believed it, and which is why I knew there would be a spring offensive while U.S. Army intelligence claimed that there wouldn’t be. I listened to them. What’s next for the Taliban? Many things, but look for security in the port city of Karachi to go down hill as they try to interdict U.S. supplies before they ever hit the road to Afghanistan.

    Finally, even the Marines in Helmand have said that they are not up to the counterinsurgency phase yet. Five months into this they are still in kinetic fire fights so frequently and so intense that they are “full bore reloading” as fast as they can (see my most recent on the Marines in Helmand).

    You think that when the Afghanis are suffering under the reign of Sirajuddin Haqqani or some of Baitullah Mehsud’s or Mullah Omar’s fighters that they can call 911 and get some police to help them out? The Marines are engaging in intense combat. That’s the U.S. Marines. Without our forces there, the police will all get killed. Then, that’s the end of the police. No more police around to “police” the human or geographic terrain. They will all be buried.

    As for “endless war,” if you want to bring this to pass, then try to tackle the problem of al Qaeda and the Taliban with policing actions. This is the surest way to bring about endless war. Ending the war will involve killing the enemy. One more thing. I have heard reports from the front in Afghanistan. It is much more of a kinetic fight that people realize at the moment. Soft power is irrelevant right now. Bridges can’t be used if they have been blown up.

    So I’m back to where I started. Seth Jones wasted his time on this one. I hope for better things in the future.

  • Warbucks

    Captain,

    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.

  • Warbucks

    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 a tribal organized society stuck to the tit of dependence from their wealthier would-be Caliphate, influential neighbors. But it will prove to be entirely different thing when the Iraqi’s and the Afghan’s go into the world capital market, using their sovereign national promise and prestige to agree to payback a debt, and use that hard earned money to build their own bridge. When that locally bought and paid for bridge gets blown up by the terrorist elements local responses from within the local populations will emerge to defend the rule of law and order. When their local hospital and school, bought and paid for by the sovereign pledge and promise of their government gets blown apart by their local terrorist elements, the response will be different.

    Abraham Lincoln went through many generals during the American Civil War before he found a Ulysses S. Grant. America is fortunate to have found General Petraeus, a general and staff who understand the complexities of the region and was able to implement an awakening of our peaceful loving Muslim brothers, bringing improved security into the neighborhoods and the country and giving hope to the vast silent majority of hundreds of millions of residents throughout the Middle East, Europe and the world, each of whom seek the same as we in the West seek, a better life, justice, peace, and intellectual freedom.

    It is an interesting fact that when you take the Muslim totally out of the contamination of the violent-fundamentalist reach and let them assimilate, they are no different and are quite willing to start taking on many of the characteristics of freedom, liberty, justice, and democracy and join the modern world. Within three short generations they are indistinguishable from anyone else. It is the violent-terrorist-fundamentalist elements, the 1/1000 of 1 percent, lead by the big tit of the Persian Empire, a group of fundamentalist radical Imams who preach to a closed, controlled society and to themselves, produce nothing of value in the free world that anyone wants, are incapable of instructing and educating their own people in the useful sciences and skills needed in a free society, that need to keep its sucklings in line, or the entire order changes and God knows change is scary even for me. It is that change that we must lead this region into. You call it soft power, but I call it reclaiming one’s very sole and finding new community expressions, starting at the tribal level if necessary, and joining the world financial markets, a process currently nonexistent unless you have oil to trade for cash.

    The leader not only needs to be ready, willing, and able to take the fight for freedom into the heart of their empire and hold their heel of power on the neck of radicals, but he must set the vision to where we plan to go. Endless war is not a sufficient vision to win an election.

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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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