October 22, 2009 8:25 pm

Obama must shift the debate about a troop surge

General Stanley McChrystal asserts that a counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan is the best way to carry out Barack Obama’s vision. There is a debate in the White House and around the world about US national security tied to counterinsurgency and counter-terrorism. This debate has unfortunately conflated both as if the only way to eradicate terrorism is to carry out counterinsurgency. This is wrong and counter-productive.

Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda attacked America in 2001. If Mr Obama’s goal is to defeat them, he must alter his strategy and the debate over a troop surge in Afghanistan.

The year is 2009, not 1996, 1998 or 2001. The world and al-Qaeda are different. Al-Qaeda is a transnational terrorist movement that inspires individuals in a decentralised fashion. It is not solely located in Afghanistan. If the goal is to destroy it, then Mr Obama must create a strategy geared to head-hunting individuals in multiple countries. America cannot militarily occupy all the countries where al-Qaeda cells may be hiding.

If Mr Obama does not focus on this strategy, he must articulate a different rationale for why the US is so interested in Afghanistan. He will find it difficult to make a sound argument.

First, the debate over troop increases in Afghanistan misunderstands the national security threat of bin Laden and al-Qaeda. Mr Obama’s decision whether to increase troops in the country is irrelevant to it.

Gen McChrystal is asking for more troops to carry out an effective counterinsurgency strategy, which he claims will focus on protecting civilians. This argument presupposes that the Afghans need to be protected, that the US should prop up the Karzai regime and that the insurgency is a direct threat to US interests.

Yet why should the US prop up Hamid Karzai? Some argue that if the US does not defeat the Taliban, they will take over the country as they did in the 1990s and provide a safe haven to terrorists. There is no clear evidence the Taliban have enough support to do so. Even if they could control large parts of Afghanistan, the US could conduct drone-strikes and special forces raids against training camps and leaders. This is not comparable to the 1990s counter-terrorism strategy when the CIA and US military had a minimal presence. Moreover, counterinsurgency in Afghanistan is a rallying call for global jihadists, just as the Soviet occupation engendered a new generation of anti-occupation fighters. In this regard, counterinsurgency is counter-productive to US security interests.

Humanitarians may counter that the US should not allow even parts of Afghanistan to fall to the Taliban for the sake of women, education and religious pluralism. The fact is that the US cannot eradicate the entrenched world view of the Taliban in a short-term campaign. It is unrealistic that even with 60,000 more US soldiers America will be able to prop up an Afghan government. Stability requires political negotiations with the Taliban and sustained humanitarian development. The Afghan elections were replete with corruption and America cannot wage a successful counterinsurgency campaign with a corrupt government. Even if Mr Karzai is elected, his regime is viewed as illegitimate by many Afghans.

Finally, there is Pakistan. If Mr Obama is concerned about radical Islamist movements and their potential to capture a nuclear weapon, or use territory to plan terrorist activities, why focus on Afghanistan? If the true security concern is Pakistan then we should focus on Kashmir, tensions with India, nuclear weapons, development aid and cultivating civil society. Moreover, if Pakistan is able to control its borders and radical Islamist movements within its territory, there would be no need to fear a Taliban take-over of Afghanistan because they could not bleed into Pakistan.

The debate about troops lacks a focused rationale and is fuelled by myths associated with counterinsurgency as the best tool to protect our national security interests as if it is the cure for our problems. This view is unfortunately engrained in the highest echelons of the US military and national security community. It is time America developed a new strategy for dealing with those who represent a true threat to its national security: bin Laden and al-Qaeda.

The writer is the acting executive director of Harvard Kennedy School’s Carr Center for Human Rights Policy and has advised the US military on counterinsurgency doctrine

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