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Counterterrorism vs counterinsurgency: understanding Obama’s Afghanistan decision | Medill | Washington
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Counterterrorism vs counterinsurgency: understanding Obama’s Afghanistan decision

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U.S. Army Capt. Brandon Anderson, commander of Headquarters Company, 4th Battalion, 23rd Infantry Regiment, conducts a mission brief on Oct. 31 at Forward Operating Base Wolverine in Zabul province, Afghanistan. The soldiers are conducting counterinsurgency operations, one of the options on the table for the president. (DoD photo by Tech. Sgt. Efren Lopez, U.S. Air Force.)

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama’s decision to send more troops to Afghanistan hinges on whether he chooses to adopt a resource-intensive counterinsurgency strategy or a less costly counterterrorism strategy.

The differences between the two strategies are key to understanding the effects of his final decision.

What is Counterinsurgency Strategy?

In order to understand counterinsurgency strategy, one must first understand what constitutes an insurgency. According to the counterinsurgency manual developed by Gen. David Petraeus in 2006, an insurgency is an “organized movement aimed at the overthrow of a constituted government through the use of subversion and armed conflict.” The target of an insurgency is the government, not the people.

Counterinsurgency is the effort by a government to defeat an insurgency. Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal’s report to Obama suggested a counterinsurgency approach to achieving the mission that he had been given.

In Afghanistan the insurgency is led by the Taliban and other groups attempting to undermine and overthrow the Afghan government and the NATO forces supporting it, mainly U.S. forces.

Implementing a counterinsurgency strategy includes deploying forces to ensure the safety of the population, and establishing confidence that government will provide justice and security, things that had been provided by insurgents.

A successful effort would result in the elimination of an organized Taliban and the creation of a stable, trusted Afghan government.

What is Counterterrorism Strategy?

Terrorism, according to the Defense Department, is the purposeful use of illegal violence or the threat to instill fear, generally against civilians, usually by nongovernmental actors, in order to coerce governments in the pursuit of ideological, religious or political goals.

Counterterrorism is action taken by a government to stop terrorist activity. It is the strategy generally understood to be Vice President Joe Biden’s preference for Afghanistan.

In Afghanistan, the terrorists are members of al-Qaida and its supporters who are allied with the Taliban. Their efforts are aimed at helping the Taliban undermine the Afghan government and U.S. efforts in the country, and at continuing its attacks against the West.

A counterterrorism effort would be implemented through the use of increased intelligence-gathering and small units, including Special Operations forces, to locate and eliminate terrorist enclaves.

Success against al-Qaida would be preventing a future base of operations for the group in Afghanistan.

What Are the Differences Between Counterterrorism and Counterinsurgency?

The main differences between the two strategies are the scope of the mission and the resources required to fulfill the mission.

A counterterrorism effort would focus strictly on preventing al-Qaida or other terrorist groups from planning an attack against the West from within Afghanistan. This strategy doesn’t require the removal of the Taliban due to the assumption that the Taliban do not pose a physical threat to the American homeland.

To implement a successful counterterrorism strategy, an increase of intelligence and police operations would be required, reducing the necessity of U.S. military presence.

A counterinsurgency strategy would require the removal of the Taliban and an established Afghan government which provides security, justice and jobs. To accomplish this, a significant increase in soldiers and support troops will be required.

Similarities between the two strategies
The end goal of both strategies is to ensure the safety and security of the American people and to prevent an attack against the West.

To be successful, both strategies require preventing an al-Qaida haven in Afghanistan.

Arguments for counterinsurgency

  • A counterinsurgency effort is necessary to prevent the Taliban taking over because even though the Taliban itself may not pose a threat to the West, it will provide a haven for al-Qaida. Plus, the Afghans themselves want to remove the Taliban and want the NATO forces to be there. – Michael O’Hanlon, Senior Fellow and Director of Research Foreign Policy, The Brookings Institution
  • “Much of our relative success against Al-Qaida leadership, particularly across the border in Pakistan, [we owe]to our intelligence and military platform we have inside Afghanistan.” Removing or reducing the number of troops would diminish the success. – Robert Grenier, former CIA counterterrorism official

Arguments for counterterrorism

  • “Vigilance through electronic monitoring, spatial surveillance, a networks of informants in contested territory, combined with the nearby stationing of a small force dedicated to physically eradicate any visible al Qaeda presence in Afghanistan will prevent the return of al Qaeda in Afghanistan.” Marc Sageman, terrorism expert at the Foreign Policy Research Institute
  • Even if we were able to establish a secure and legitimate Afghan government, which prevented an al-Qaida haven, benefit to the U.S. would be minimal because there are other countries such as Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia where it can establish itself. The financial and human cost of a counterinsurgency strategy will be far outweighed by any benefit that may be derived. Also, our forces are already seen as an occupying force, alienating. – Paul Pillar, retired intelligence officer with 28 years experience in the Near East and South Asia

Other considerations before the decision can be made

  • The American public is growing weary of the Afghanistan war. According to a USA Today / Gallup Poll, 42% of Americans now think the Afghan war was a mistake. An increase of troops sent to Afghanistan could make the war even less popular and hurt Obama’s poll numbers, too.
  • The recent election results in Afghanistan were widely considered to be fraudulent, causing the Hamid Karzai administration to lose credibility. A scheduled runoff was canceled when Karzai’s main opponent, Abdullah Abdullah, withdrew from the race, saying his demands to ensure a fair runoff election were not met.

According to White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs, Obama will decide a course of action for Afghanistan in the next few weeks.

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