Counter Narco-Terrorism Alliance

Trump's card a challenging shift from Counterterrorism to Counterinsurgency in Afghanistan.


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Since November 2015, America has been dealing with a noteworthy rise in terror attacks in Afghanistan, which brought about by Taliban, Al-Qaida and the Islamic State affiliates. Improving the security situation in Afghanistan requires Washington to overcome the challenges in shifting from its current counterterrorism (CT) efforts to a counterinsurgency (COIN) campaign that will be focused on the local population in Afghanistan. The Trump administration should take its first steps in this direction on the military, economic, social, and political levels. America must formulate a full-fledged, integrated, and effective COIN strategy. The international community, for its part, should have an interest in assisting Washington to successfully transition to this strategy by providing military aid in weapons and methods of warfare as well as targeted economic aid.

The precarious security situation in Afghanistan is likely to become an even greater threat as Afghanistan remains relevant following ISIS losses in Iraq and Syria. Donald Trump during his historic speech on 21 August 2017 while announcing his strategy for the war-torn country (Afghanistan) made it clear that his administration will do whatever it takes to eliminate terrorism. However, in order to triumph over terror, America will need to overcome challenges and transition from its current counterterrorism (CT) efforts to a full-fledged counterinsurgency (COIN) campaign.

CT and COIN in Afghanistan: From Theory to Practice

In many reports on the terror, the terms counterterrorism and counterinsurgency are used interchangeably and their meanings are blurred. Although both are used to fight terrorism and insurgency, they require different resources and draw on distinct theories.

CT strategies are used to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat organizations that employ terrorism by military and security means. These strategies include drone strikes, special-forces operations, and increased policing and intelligence operations.

Adopting COIN strategies is necessary when a state realizes that a military response alone will not constitute a workable solution to a violent conflict. COIN is an all-encompassing political, military, and civilian solution to challenge irregular insurgent warfare. CT strategies are not abandoned but are implemented within a COIN approach where the counterinsurgent (the government) also pursues support and legitimacy from the local population by promoting good governance and providing continued security after government forces have expelled the insurgent group. This population-centric strategy involves denying the insurgency its civilian-support networks, external support, and outside the sanctuary, while simultaneously improving political participation and economic opportunities for civilians. Some COIN strategies intentionally include the violation of human rights – they should not be allowed in Afghanistan since they will compromise the legitimation of the government as well as the stability in the country.

America’s current CT approach mostly resembles traditional CT doctrines. America should be prepared for offensive military measures by declaring a state of emergency in specific areas of Afghanistan. The CT measures used so far have been only semi-effective, and have fallen short of destroying the terrorist organizations or acquiring the Afghan population’s support for the government. Civilians have been caught in the crossfire during operations, straining state relations with the tribes, and offensive tactics alone have not deterred local youth from joining jihadist groups that offer better economic opportunities. Militant interpretations of Islam sometimes won "the battle for hearts and minds" and tempted the young local population to join jihadist groups. According to unofficial estimates, America has lost around 3000 security personnel since 2001 until this stage of the conflict, with many civilian casualties that are under-reported. These losses are unsustainable and hasten the transition towards a COIN campaign.

America should set the groundwork to move towards a COIN campaign on military, economic, and political fronts. The US should begin involving local tribes in fighting terrorism, by gathering intelligence and other military activities. In the non-military fronts, first, America should promote a moderate form of Islam among the youth of Afghanistan by using the Afghan state religious apparatuses and moderate international Islamic entities. America should take additional measures to stifle extremism by establishing American-Afghan Council to Confront Terrorism and Extremism. The council would help build a COIN policy through strategizing, mobilizing resources, amending existing legislation, and increasing economic opportunities in areas with high levels of extremism.

America should detail long-term plans for the development of Afghanistan with goals of increasing investments and focusing on population-centric projects. A first step would be to provide compensation for damages from military operations. The military should also aim to win greater support and legitimacy by sending reconstruction missions to the conflict-ridden areas.

Consequently, Counter Narco-Terrorism Alliance Germany advocates that America should head in the right direction towards a COIN campaign, by overcoming various challenges to solidify its strategies. Washington must better formulate a COIN doctrine that will enable a transition from CT to a full-fledged, integrated, and effective COIN operation. America should lead a determined and powerful fight against terrorist strongholds; while at the same time avoid harming uninvolved civilians. If the latter is not prioritized, the military may alienate the local population and damage Trump’s administration image in the international arena. To this end, the adoption of appropriate methods of combat that minimize collateral damages—including the use of accurate weapons that will target only the terrorists—is required. In addition, while integrating local tribes in fighting terrorists, America must pay close attention not to hurt the Afghan sovereignty and governance.

On the economic level, America should carefully plan its investments to ensure that improving the welfare of the Afghan population. Additionally, America must balance its efforts between addressing short-term economic distress and the promotion of long-term economic goals.

On the political level, America should adopt a "carrots and sticks" policy towards the civil-population of Afghanistan. The use of authoritarian practices, such as emergency laws, must be well measured in order to avoid alienating local tribes from the Kabul regime.

Finally, the international community should have a vital interest in supporting the Trump administration in shifting from CT to COIN, by providing military assistance and targeted economic aid, while encouraging good governance and political participation of the Afghan population. The eradication of the insurgency in Afghanistan will be a desirable achievement not only for the 33 million inhabitants of Afghanistan but also for the global war on terror.

This article is a commentary based on analytical work.