Monday, May 23, 2016

The Taliban Forest and Terrorist Trees

It is nearly pointless to go after al Qaeda and ISIL in Afghanistan while largely leaving the Taliban to the Afghan government as if it is a separate war of no interest to us.

Yes, General Petraeus and Michael O'Hanlon are right:

In any counterinsurgency campaign, foreign forces helping another country must strike a balance. They must wean local forces off their dependency on outside help as rapidly as possible. But they also must not rush the job and lose what has been gained along the way—especially when a part of their core mission is to build up the indigenous police and military forces to which they seek to pass the baton. ...

The immediate issue is how we are using American and broader NATO air power. There is a great deal of it—many dozens of combat aircraft at bases from Helmand and Kandahar provinces in the south to the cities of Khost and Jalalabad in the east to the capital region of Kabul and points north. But we continue to handcuff those deploying these jets, helicopters and unmanned aerial vehicles. Existing U.S. and NATO policy generally allows them to strike targets on the ground only when hostile forces can be identified as al Qaeda or ISIS loyalists, when they pose an imminent threat to NATO personnel, or, reportedly, when a strategic collapse is imminent.

The rules of engagement mean that the indigenous Afghan and Pakistani Taliban generally get a pass.

Not that we don't think the Taliban are a problem. Otherwise we wouldn't have whacked their top dog:

The United States has killed the leader of the Afghan Taliban in an air strike in a remote border area just inside Pakistan, Afghanistan said on Sunday, in an attack likely to dash any immediate prospect for peace talks.

Yet there seems to be stubborn thinking in our government that counter-terrorism is a job separate from counter-insurgency, so we can wage war with special forces and drones against terrorists who target us without paying attention to a wider war.

This is a mistake because counter-terrorism relies on counter-insurgency if we want more than a strategy of drive-by dronings, even though the special forces may kill disproportionately despite their small size compared to total forces involved:

You could not have planted those 5% and plopped them into Iraq or Afghanistan and gotten those results without the other 95% there fighting; atomizing the enemy; providing information, surveillance, and security; and otherwise fighting toward the same end.

All those things don't get done without the vast network provided by the 95% that provides the environment for the 5% to do their deadly work in.

So kudos to special forces. They are badass, no doubt.

But let's have a little deeper perspective. Don't contribute to the myth that all we need in this modern age are special forces charging into a hostile zone and killing all the bad guys and drones if we want to be more discreet about boots on the ground.

Does anybody really believe that our counter-terrorism in Afghanistan could continue without the continued success of Afghan forces engaged in counter-insurgency?

If the Afghan government fell, counter-terrorism as we practice it as an intelligence driven process from lots of sources would wither and be reliant completely on remote sensing and high-flying drone strikes.

So yes, we need to help the Afghan government in their counter-insurgency fight against the Taliban who are terrorists but who do not pose a direct threat to us, and stop pretending that it is a fight that has nothing to do with our interests or our war against international terrorists.

As General Petraeus and Michael O'Hanlon argue in that first link, it should be a no-brainer to use the air power we have in Afghanistan to support the government forces in their fight against the Taliban (who shielded al Qaeda which carried out the 9/11 attacks, remember) rather than reserve it only for al Qaeda or ISIL targets.

We are at war. Wage war.