Counterinsurgency Versus Counterterrorism

BY Herschel Smith
4 years, 6 months ago

John Nagl recently testified on Capital Hill.  Here are a few of the highlights.

At the hearing, when Kerry asked John Nagl to explain the difference between a counterinsurgency campaign and a counter-terror campaign, Nagl said that the “latter is component of former. Counter-terrorism ‘focuses on the enemy,’ while a counterinsurgency focuses on people who, in turn, provide intelligence about where the enemy is hiding and fighting from. The reason that a counterinsurgency campaign is so much more comprehensive than a counter-terror campaign is that it involves a civilian component to stabilize the government, institutions, and necessities of the populace.”

According to Khaled Hosseini, author of The Kite Runner, most Afghanis want a more involved approach. “When you speak to Afghans on the ground, their fear is not more engagement,” he said, “their fear is less engagement . . . fear of abandonment.” The problem is that although Afghans support the U.S. troop presence far more than they support the Taliban, the Taliban simply gives the people more services than their own government does. “It’s a commonly accepted principle of counterinsurgency theory that if you’re losing, you are not being outfought, you are being out-governed,” Nagl said.

Nagl thinks that effectively completing this counterinsurgency strategy would take five years and “we should expect to spend over those five years what we spent in last eight years.” But Kerry believes that more troops have not improved the situation and that the current light-footprint has been relatively successful: “The goal of the president is to prevent al Qaeda from attacking from Afghanistan and from destabilizing Pakistan. We are doing better in Pakistan and there is no al Qaeda in Afghanistan,” he said. “Does that tell us something about lighter footprint success?” When Nagl explained that you can conduct counter-terror, but not counterinsurgency, with a light footprint, Kerry responded, “exactly the point I’m trying to get at . . . you can do counter-terror with a light footprint.”

As for Kerry’s notion of doing counterterrorism with a light footprint, let me be clear.  No we can’t.  Or to be more clear in case you missed it, NO WE CAN’T.  Or one more time a little differently …

NO … WE … CAN’T!

Joe Biden is apparently trafficking in the same rubbish as Kerry.  Who knows.  Maybe Obama is listening to this rubbish because it feels good to think about winning with a small commitment – like a little whiskey and a good after-dinner cigar.  Uncle Jimbo lampoons Biden’s position.

We have been laughing on our back channel about the Biden plan to have our secret squirrels locate al Qaeda and then let our magic ninjas swoop in and take them out. The idea is ludicrous for many reasons, but mostly because we don’t have the will to do the dirty trickery necessary to pull it off.

Ever since we eviscerated the CIA in the Carter era and destroyed any ability to do human intelligence we have relied on electronic intercepts and satellite imagery for our weak and generally wrong “intelligence”. While those tools can be useful, absent a humint capability, they are woefully inadequate. So the idea that we could rely on them is a joke I ‘m surprised they have the stones to make. Targeted strikes by UAVs in Pakistan have been successful, but expanding that into a theater-wide, pipehitter free fire zone is not gonna happen.

If I thought for a minute that they were serious about actually resourcing this and providing the networks of spies, warlords, assassins, and shady characters with satchels of cash it would take to make it work, I might could get behind it. But does anyone see the Obama administration, which right now is thinking about prosecuting the CIA for being mean to terrorists, doing any of that? All right, get up off the floor.

True, Carter (and Clinton who UJ doesn’t mention) destroyed the CIA humint capabilities, and the Obama administration has continued the war with the CIA.  But just to be clear, it isn’t all about surreptitious cloak and dagger raids by SOF any more than it’s about satchels of cash.  I have been clear about my disdain for the use of SOF to perform ONLY raids while infantry performs ONLY policing and foot patrols.  This division has hurt the readiness and capabilities of the U.S. Army.  The Marines have no such division of labor.  But aside from this objection, the idea that we can garrison small units of SOF in Afghanistan while the ANSF protects the countryside and ensures logistics is worse than mythical.  It’s dangerous and likely to be deadly for our SOF troopers.

Within a few months of withdrawal of forces, the Taliban (who are now said to have a permanent presence in 80% of Afghanistan) will have beheaded the Afghans who cooperated with the U.S.  The line of logistics will have been completely shut down, and there will be no CAS because there will be no airfields.  The idea that we can do this from offshore is preposterous.  It will require SOF operations in order to extricate the SOF from Afghanistan once the Taliban have killed the ANP and routed the ANA.

Kerry is living in a dreamland, a mythical world where the right words read from a teleprompter makes everything alright.  But this world doesn’t obtain.  We must re-enter the real world, and in the real world we need more troops in Afghanistan.



  • amarriott

    A bit off topic but I just saw a report that 70 heavily armed ANP surrendered to approx 10 Taliban, handing over their weapons and vehicles, all because said Taliban let it be known they would accept their surrender, in other words, they tried it on and it worked! Theres video, I just saw it on UK Channel 4 News (pretty reliable), cant find any further info and not sure of area.

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

    But not off topic for the featured article on the ANP / ANA. Let me know if you can find a report.

    Thx for the input.

  • amarriott

    Seemingly happened in Baghlan Province. See 03.30 minutes into section called ‘Thu 24 Sep Pt 4: BNP Councillor report’, short piece just before credits: http://link.brightcove.com/services/player/bcpid1529573111

    Hope link works from outside of UK. Unbelievable.

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You are currently reading "Counterinsurgency Versus Counterterrorism", entry #3895 on The Captain's Journal.

This article is filed under the category(s) Afghanistan,Center For a New American Security,John Nagl and was published September 23rd, 2009 by Herschel Smith.

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