The USA’s CT strategy: lessons for Pakistan

Originally published in Daily Times on Monday July 4, 2011 as my weekly column BAAGHI

The White House announced its new National Strategy for Counter-Terrorism (NSCT) on Wednesday, June 29, outlining broad features of the US policy in fighting the war on terror. The Counter-Terrorism (CT) king in the Obama administration, John Brennan, while spelling out the contours of the NSCT, made the transformation of US policy from Counter-Insurgency (COIN) to CT quite clear. The distinction between the two approaches, however vague and difficult to define, is widely understood among the CT experts and forces engaged in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Most simplistically put, a COIN in Afghanistan and Pakistan’s tribal areas (identified as safe havens of al Qaeda and their affiliates) would seek to secure local populations, assisting the governments deliver basic services to people and fighting the ideological battle with well thought-out de-radicalisation campaigning and reforms. In a smart COIN strategy, CT would be intelligently intertwined in order to combat the direct threats to the population from the insurgents. COIN, owing to its extra large scope and size, entails very high cost in terms of finances and human resources. CT, on the other hand, would get the results (if defined in terms of targeting individuals and specific terrorist/insurgent groups) speedily and with minimum resources.

The CT-COIN debate among the coalition forces and in the White House’s team is a few years old now. A recent war assessment report by the Burke Chair in Strategy in the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) details the approaches being discussed and carried out by the forces on the ground in Afghanistan. The report claims that some elements from the Special Forces in Afghanistan, who have been directly involved in the fighting, made it clear to their visiting team that they felt a CT strategy could not work or be sustained without success in the ongoing COIN strategy. Interestingly, the report came up hours before the drawdown announcement by Obama and a week before the Brennan announcement of the NSCT.

The CSIS war assessment report alludes to the limited resources and troops allocated to the war in Afghanistan prior to 2009 and thus, the report says, we err when we say the war is nine-years-old. The war, it says, is really two-years-old that really began in 2009 when General McChrystal and President Obama provided necessary resources and strategic coherence to fight the war. The report expresses hopes that “now that the coalition’s human, financial, and military resources have increased, victory is at least possible”.

It becomes however, debatable how a war would be won following a strategy not supported by a majority of the on-ground forces. Those in the know of the strategy debates regarding the Global War on Terror (GWoT) within the White House are of the view that the expensive but more sustainable COIN, with comparatively longer term outcomes, had been supported by not only President Obama initially, but also many among his team including David Petraeus who is known to be the primary author of the COIN doctrine.

Now that the US has made it clear that the course of the war has ‘graduated’ from COIN to CT, the content of this document needs to be examined rather carefully, and if possible, thoughtfully, by those in charge of counterinsurgency and counter-terrorism in Pakistan. That is to say, if Pakistani policy makers have ever made that distinction in planning their strategy. That is, in turn, to say, if such a strategy has ever been on the table in Pakistan or at least in the pipeline.

The NSCT not only defines the overarching goals of the strategy, but also emphasises a few points that should persuade Pakistan to revise its policy (even if undocumented) of dealing with a threat that is closer to the Pakistani people than any other nation of the world. The NSCT puts the security of the American people as the first and foremost goal, while including disruption, dismantling and defeating al Qaeda and its affiliates and adherents; preventing acquisition and use of weapons of mass destruction, eliminating safe havens available to the terrorists, building CT partnerships and capabilities, degrading links between al Qaeda and its affiliates, countering al Qaeda ideology and depriving them of enabling means.

While detailing the areas of focus, the NSCT puts South Asia at the top of the list after the homeland. While describing threats emanating from South Asia, Pakistan is mentioned before Afghanistan, with clearly spelled out target as: “From its base of operations in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), al Qaeda continues to pose a persistent and evolving threat to the US Homeland and interests as well as to Pakistan, Afghanistan, India, Europe, and other targets of opportunity.” With a firm resolve to carry out targeted operations against al Qaeda and its ‘affiliates’ and ‘adherents’, what the US is going to pursue in the next at least one year should be quite predictable for people in boots here.

While it is important for the US to understand that a war cannot be won by offending the people of the host nation and humiliating the country and its institutions, it is equally important for Pakistan’s terror policy Tsars to realise, as Brennan says, that we are in a war. By committing ourselves too tight with persons and groups of choice that wage war on the west and in particular, the US, we would be signing on the death certificate of our country’s integrity, which is already on a life-support machine. A smart nation would, at such a juncture, come out of the hollow populism and rhetoric and would think seriously about the future of its generations, and much misused ‘interest of the country’. But we are complex. We draw inspiration from distorted religious considerations used by the terrorists to their utmost advantage. In the absence of a counter-narrative, the al Qaeda ideology is most likely to win.

When a young university student in a big urban centre of Pakistan regurgitates the ‘anti-imperialist’ rhetoric — a drama directed and produced by the jihadi media directly or indirectly linked to the al Qaeda’s organisation or its ideology, someone in Rawalpindi/Islamabad and in Washington DC need to think. What Rawalpindi has to revise is its double-speak and use of the media to hype up public sentiment as a card to be later used to its advantage on the negotiating table. This media-surge used since decades by the establishment has done nothing except winning them a few more million dollars, maybe a few more years of US support on our terms and an ever-increasing societal degradation at the hands of the radicalisation of the masses.

In Washington too there is a lot to think about, one guesses. Growing concerns of liberals in Pakistan about recent US moves towards dialogue leading to compromise with the Taliban would result in either their return to power, or a continual civil war in Afghanistan on ethnic and ideological lines, the spillover of which is more than certain to come to Pakistan, further radicalising our people. It might seem far-fetched at this moment to suggest a policy of disengagement for the US, especially in Muslim countries. But the idea has to be given some weight in order to tackle anti-Americanism — a sentiment massively used by the terrorist networks throughout the world.

In a nutshell, the new focused CT approach announced by the US is likely to bring surgical operations on Pakistani soil if safe havens here are not dismantled with utmost commitment. A further surge in drone attacks, targeted attacks — aerial or ground (like the Navy SEALs operation in Abbottabad) — or more pressure on Pakistan using military, political or financial means, would mean the failure of Pakistan’s armed forces in steering the goals of fighting terrorism. The goals for Pakistan might slightly differ from those of the US or coalition forces. They nevertheless entail dismantling al Qaeda and affiliated groups that commit terror attacks on Pakistanis. It, thus, needs to be fought like a war and that too, our war.