Counterinsurgency Is Not About Total Annihilation

There seems to be a focus in much reporting on the situation in Afghanistan, along with the debates in Washington and other NATO countries, at least up until serious peace talks were considered, that the Taliban and al Qaeda must be “destroyed” for success to be achieved.

The fact of the matter is, and the majority of counterinsurgency doctrine teaches, and indeed experience demonstrates, that successful counterinsurgency, after a time begins to resemble a civilian policing effort. The threat from the insurgents has diminished to a stage where it is comparable to the collective threat that common criminals pose to the state as a whole.

I emphasize to the state as a whole here in anticipation of a response along the lines of: “common criminals still pose a threat to such and such a community.” But, on the whole, murderers, rapists, bank robbers, and the like are not a threat to national security or stability, so long as there is a functioning police force.

The very purpose of an insurgency is to destabilize the nation state, to keep the government “off balance” is a commonly used phrase. Robert Taber’s metaphor for guerrilla warfare The War Of The Flea is great because it perfectly encapsulates the purpose of an insurgency. That is, to be an annoyance no matter how small they might get. Therefore, in an insurgency situation, it is important not to match one’s capabilities to the enemy, as you would in conventional war (World War II), but to establish and develop one’s capabilities as a reflection of the enemy’s ability to threaten the population.

The notion of destroying the Taliban or al Qaeda is a two-fold notion, in itself, for, while the former funds the latter, they differ in their overall goals and their raisons d’être. The Taliban seeks, from its widely acknowledged new base in Pakistan, to destabilize the Afghan state and reinstate the dominance it assumed there in 1994. It was defeated in 2001 by a vastly superiorly-equipped enemy, and responded in the only reasonable way, by resorting to insurgency tactics of ambushes and raiding.

The Taliban’s insurgency is local. Al Qaeda however, have their focus on a global Islamic caliphate, their intension is to spread Islam across the entire world. This makes theirs a global insurgency. While it is based in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border area, al Qaeda is also active in other nations, Yemen and Iraq for example.

So completely destroying al Qaeda, whose intensions are wholly unreasonable, and whose methods are questionable—although perhaps consistent with their overall endgame—is probably a necessary aim. This however is not, indeed cannot be, a job for the military. It is a far more subtle task than that, requiring infiltration of networks, something that can only be done with troops on the ground. Even America’s massive firepower is not capable of destroying al Qaeda, which is essentially an idea. And as V For Vendetta teaches “Ideas, Mr McCready, are bulletproof.”

Ideas are not however, “ideaproof.” Whatever the US military/civilian hierarchy’s refusal to learn from commanders and soldiers on the ground might suggest contrary to this view, it is possible to achieve some degree of compromise in most situations, were individuals’, or groups’, ideas are at stake.

This is the reason that al Qaeda cannot be defeated militarily. It is also the reason, I think, why al Qaeda is not invincible. I will remain an optimist about this.

(Afghan Outsider is an Amazon affiliate. If you click on the book links and go on to buy the book, we receive a small commission. Thanks for your support.)


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