Advancing a Free Society

Fighting Insurgencies without White Elephants

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Along with considering President Barack Obama’s recent budget submittal, Congress should look closely at the way funds are being spent in Afghanistan. The nation’s war expenditures should kick off a debate on how to fight insurgency-based terrorist threats.

The current strategy, which has been exemplified by the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, is far too expensive and encumbered with vastly expansive nation-creating projects. The United States is right to counter-assault terrorist networks in these countries and elsewhere. Not to strike them cedes the offense and relies on defensive measures alone to fend off bombers and assassins. A defensive posture on its own will fail at some point permitting the bomber to get through to his target. The problem, then, is not with offensive operations against terror-based insurgent states. It is with the disproportionate treasure expended on infrastructure construction, such as water treatment plants, hydroelectric dams, state-of-the art hospitals, highways and viaducts. Many are well beyond military utility and the capability of the locals to maintain and operate on their own.

To wage counterinsurgencies the United States will have to adopt financially cost-effective tactics or see failing states fall into the hands of terrorist movements aligned with al Qaeda.

Unchallenged terrorist havens would enable plotters to hatch, groom, and guide plots against the United States and its allies and friends. Terrorists based in the Philippines, Yemen, and Pakistan, and elsewhere have already schemed and launched attacks on Americans. It is beyond our capacity to intervene in these and other countries in a manner similar to the high-costs of the Iraq and Afghanistan invasions, occupations, and large-scale construction endeavors.

The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have costs the American taxpayer over a trillion dollars. And the financial meter in Afghanistan is still clicking at over $100 billion dollars a year. Not all those funds found their way into mortar-and-brick projects or quality-of-life amenities for the local populations. A very rough estimate places at a minimum over $100 billions for development-type efforts in both countries. Much of these expenditures were squandered, diverted to local pockets, or misspent on uncompleted or non-functioning solar plants, schoolhouses, prisons, medical clinics, slaughterhouses, orchards, and vineyards. Congressional Research Service accounts and General Accounting Office reports are replete with mismanaged but well-intentioned construction and civic services in both countries.

There are a confluence of factors pointing toward a re-assessment on how we combat terrorist staging areas in remote countries that pose a threat to us and our friends. America’s staggering deficit at over $14 trillion dollars constitutes a major worry. The budget-minded Republican control of the House of Representatives indicates the nation’s deep concerns about massive federal spending and deficit accumulation. Likewise, there is the less measurable sentiment that America’s own infrastructure is deteriorating or outdated. The country needs to spend tax dollars on its own roadways, bridges, airports, not on those of a distant oil-rich Persian Gulf nation or a mountainous Central Asian country. Finally, polls reflect disenchantment with carrying on the Afghan war. Some 60 percent of Americans no longer think the Afghanistan campaign is worth the cost in lives and money.

As the 2012 national campaign draws nearer, the war itself, wartime spending, and domestic priorities will converge leading to the airing of political stances about America’s future courses of action. We experienced an earlier debate on the course of action in Afghanistan during the months leading up to President Barack Obama’s West Point speech in early December 2009. In that speech the president laid out a course of action for the Afghan counterinsurgency. He partially embraced General Stanley McChrystal tactics and offered 30,000 additional troops for the war.

The debate itself was mainly waged over the strategy to follow in Afghanistan, not the number of troops. At that time, the Taliban were enjoying resurgence after their defeat and ouster from the mountain-laced country as a consequence of the American-led invasion in the wake of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Two differing approaches arose. One favored the present course of action. It was backed by the Pentagon civilian and military brass. Dubbed the people-centric counterinsurgency (COIN) approach, it advocates a wide-spectrum plan of democracy, good governance, infrastructure building, and social-welfare programs—all designed to refashion Afghanistan along Western lines.

It derived inspiration from the Marshall Plan of the immediate post-World War II era.

By re-building the economies of Western Europe, the Marshall Plan restored at-risk countries and halted communist penetration. But Afghanistan is not Europe. By defeating or reconciling the Taliban to an inclusive Afghan society, the counterinsurgency proponents argued that “swamp” would be drained, depriving al Qaeda of a hospitable base. The Afghan COIN recourse calls for over-abundant resources, lengthy commitment measured in decades, and enduring patience on the part of the United States and its NATO allies.

Another camp offered a different strategy. Fearful of bogging down into another unpopular and overly expensive Vietnam War, this school offered a much more limited campaign for Afghanistan. Labeled the “counterterrorism” (CT) policy, its advocates called for a focus on Osama bin Laden, al Qaeda, and allied-terrorist networks rather than conducting a three-cups-of-tea anti-insurgency against the Taliban. The counterterrorism plan envisioned many fewer boots on the ground than their opponents. Any additional troops would have their missions narrowed to intelligence gathering and training local police and soldiers. This CT option envisioned a reliance on Special Operations troops to conduct kill or capture raids.

This CT strategy needs to be reconsidered in light of the continuing burdens in Afghanistan and the prospect of other low-intensity conflicts elsewhere. Where necessary this option can be modified and adapted to local conditions. Modest scale projects friendly to locals—wells, small clinics, and basic schools—can be undertaken. The massive infrastructure and social re-engineering should be left out of the mission plan. The present model as being applied in Afghanistan cannot be applied elsewhere. We need to modify our strategy or face defeat brought on by insolvency.

(photo credit: The U.S. Army)