Free Media Learning Opportunity: David Kilcullen ~ Counterterrorism versus Counterinsurgency

**Note: when first published, I made the error of referring to CT and COIN as different potential “strategies” in Afghanistan. I should have known better. As Kilcullen himself says, COIN is an “operational technique” that does not supplant the need for true, comprehensive strategy or policy. Often, COIN operational technique falls under the umbrella of stabilization, alongside foreign internal defense, conventional warfare, aid/development…etc. COIN is just one part that, sometimes, will be prime, and a lot of time, just one of the crowd of challenges.

When President Obama took office there was discussion about what the best strategy would be in Afghanistan. Some suggested that it was time to quit and go home, as the GDP of Afghanistan is roughly $14 billion and the US was spending about 5 times that much there annually (over 7 times today). Others suggested that the US needed to “Surge” as it had in Iraq, breaking the Taliban’s control of the population (about 30,000 fighters, 25% of which were full time), to say nothing of the extant Al Qaeda threat (100-200 total?). Most agreed that it was in the US interest to deny Afghanistan as a safe haven for future threats against the US.

So the question came up: Counterterrorism or Counterinsurgency? Most notably, a stripped down US presence, focused on killing and capturing terrrorists, was lauded by VP Biden. The opposing view desired greater in-country capabilities and ground forces, with a focus on population protection via counterinsurgency.

At the time I thought Counterterroism (CT) was preferable to Counterinsurgency (COIN), predominantly because I have never viewed our national commitment to Afghanistan as worth the strategic capital (blood, treasure, and prestige) we’ve spent there. I’ve argued that the US should use Osama Bin Laden’s death as a pivot to disentangle ourselves from Afghanistan and Iraq. That said, we were and are committed there, so the best methods/strategy to achieve our national policy goals (deny potential threats to US) must be applied…

My mind was recently changed, somewhat, by David Kilcullen on this point. I think he linked CT and COIN very effectively in a speech at Johns Hopkins SAIS on 18 November 2009 (can be found in iTunes for free), “Insurgents and the Future of War” ~

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Question: Isn’t the distinction we’re hearing in the press between counterterrorism and counterinsurgency operations a false one?

 

 

Kilcullen: Yeah. Let me explain this to you using numbers, and I agree with you. I used to do counterterrorism intelligence for a living. When you’re an intel officer looking at a terrorist, and thinking about how to strike that terrorist, you need to know where the terrorist is going to be, not now, but at preparation time, plus flight time, plus approval time for your strike asset.

 

 

So if you’re a terrorist and I’m looking at you know, my strike asset is a special forces troop that’s located 15 minutes away, and it takes 15 minutes to get ready, and it takes 2 minutes to get approval, because it’s local, then I need to know where you’re going to be in about a half an hour. That’s doable.

 

 

If my strike asset is on a ship in the Indian Ocean, and I have to go to Washington to get approval, and it’s a 2 hour flight time for the cruise missile to the target, then you’re looking at the same environment that we had in the 1990s in trying to track Osama Bin Laden in Afghanistan. One of the reasons why we never got him was because I don’t need to know where you’re going to be in half an hour, I need to know where you’re going to be having breakfast tomorrow morning. And that’s hard.

 

 

What you find is that if you try to do effective counterterrorism in this kind of environment, you need to have forward deployed strike assets. And those forward deployed strike assets need to live somewhere. And if they’re living somewhere you’ve got to get supplies to them, and you’ve got to engage with the local population, which means you’ve got to protect the local population, otherwise they’re not going to work with you. All of which means rapidly you find yourself getting into counterinsurgency. So the distinction is a false one.

 

 

You either do full blown counterinsurgency in the areas where you have to; or you get out of the business entirely. And trying to do sort of half in-half out tends to get people killed, but they’re often not the right people, and it makes the problem worse.

Author: ML Cavanaugh

Unequal parts strategist, assistant professor, wordsmith, runner, wine-o, reader, philosopher of firepower, and hopeless lover of three ladies named Rachel, Grace, and Georgie.

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