Global Counterinsurgency

GLOBAL COUNTERINSURGENCY….William Arkin asks today, “Is the War on Terror a Global Counterinsurgency?” This is an analogy I’m fond of, and Arkin says it’s one that the military is starting to embrace. His own view of this development is a little murky, but he does say this:

[Military leaders] describe al Qaeda and the terrorist threat as a force to be isolated from “normal” society, thus suggesting a methodical way for the United States to defeat it. All aspects of national power — military and non-military — are needed to defeat the terrorists, and local partners are needed to isolate terrorists from the otherwise “good” population.

….It’s a fine game plan to eliminate insurgents — the terrorists — from the safe havens of battlefields in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Somalia, etc. But it is also an incomplete and faulty articulation: Our foreign partners, many of whom in the Middle East are particularly interested in preserving their own regimes, are not necessarily going to fight terrorists in the way we would. They are otherwise corrupt, autocratic, non-democratic, and major contributors to the internal anarchy and contradictions in society that breeds terror.

So counterinsurgency it is, for now — that is, until the terrorist hunters realize that the very people and governments we align ourselves with are part of the problem.

This is obviously a big problem, and not one with an easy solution. The counterinsurgency metaphor, I think, is a good one, since it gets across the key point that the only way for us to win is to somehow eliminate the support the hardcore jihadis get from local populations. This in turn provides a useful framework for thinking about tactics and strategy, a framework in which military action is only a modest component.

The scare quotes in Arkin’s first paragraph suggest that he may not agree that this is the right way to think about it. But in any case, his point is well taken: even if it is the right idea, how do you implement it if your foreign policy is dedicated to supporting some of the very governments that are responsible for driving local populations into the arms of violent extremists in the first place? Especially when withdrawing support for those governments could be hellishly dangerous in its own right? Perhaps Arkin will give us some thoughts on that in the future.