No Place to Hide

No Place to Hide - Andrew Exum, The New Republic

When the Obama administration announced the results of its review of Afghanistan and Pakistan policies on Friday, reporters quizzing the review's authors seemed confused. They wondered whether the recommendations announced by the president amounted to an abandonment or endorsement of the kind of population-centric counter-insurgency strategy employed in Iraq in 2007. Were we embracing a more limited counter-terror mission? Or were we committing ourselves more fully to nation-building?

The aims of the strategy are quite modest: to deny transnational terror groups the ability to use physical space to plan and prepare for attacks on the United States in the way that al-Qaeda used Afghanistan in the years before the 9/11 attacks. And the central problem of the post-Cold War era is that these staging grounds are often in ungoverned spaces like the Pashtun belt straddling the Afghanistan-Pakistan border...

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As I commented on AM's blog, he's right to highlight that terrorist and insurgent sanctuaries need not only be physical in form (although, it must be said, physical sanctuaries are especially valuable to such groups). I think where the article falls a bit short is in its exclusive emphasis on virtual or digital havens as the alternative. To quote what I said there:

There are two issues here. The first is the importance of the net for propagandizing and recruitment, which I don't doubt. The second, however, is the extent to which havens may be socially constructed rather than (or as well as being) spatially determined.

Case in point, Northern Ireland. There was nowhere in Belfast or Londonderry that the RUC and British Army couldn't go if they wanted to, even at the height of The Troubles. However, even if they physically patrolled in Republican or Loyalist areas, paramilitaries continued to be shielded and protected by a dense web of family and political loyalties. The same CT intelligence collection problem exists in tightly-knit, suspicious immigrant communities in the West.

The Sinjar records, while misleading as an indicator of all jihadist recruitment everywhere, are perhaps a little telling in suggesting how important these social networks are: 34% of foreign fighters in Iraq were introduced to their AQI travel coordinator through a local contact in their home country, 36% through family or friends, 12% by a neighbour, work, or school... and 4% through the internet.

Again, this isn't to say that the internet isn't important for distributing a message, ideological self-reinforcement, and even the dissemination of technical knowledge. However, there is much more at work here--and these social processes don't become any easier to access, comprehend, or respond to simply because you're a "digital native."

Heck, experience as a "community organizer" might even be of equal or greater importance.

The implication, of course, is that CT policy needs to be not only net-savvy, but also fully informed about the social fabric and political economy of diaspora communities, of labour and educational migration, and of all the other non-virtual components of contemporary transnational globalization. This is hardly a revelation--it has been a key theme within the domestic law enforcement and CT community for years, and not just with regard to CT issues but also concerning organized crime networks. It is, however, a little less sexy than a focus on jihadist chatrooms.

This is a solid essay by Exum. I especially appreciated his acceptance of limits of American military power and the potential for nation-building, mission-creep beyond Afghanistan and Pakistan that could potentially tie down American resources in a never ending process. I am glad Exum is in positions to have an effect on policy and strategy.

A couple of comments though, in the spirit of criticism and debate. What would have added more weight to the piece would have been an exploration by Exum on the very issue of strategy for Astan. That is to say if the objective in Astan as expressed by the Administration is to deny trans-national terror groups certain physical spaces where they can prepare and execute attacks on the United States then why necessarily is nation-building--or its code word, "population centric counterinsurgency"--the best military approach to take? Strategy is about setting priorities and making choices, and aligning means with ends. In short, do we need to build a new Afghani nation to accomplish that overall political purpose as set out by the militarys civilian masters? Exum accepts as de-jour knowledge that nation building, based on as he says recent American experience, is the best way to get there.

As a minor point, I think Exum in the piece makes a bit too much about generational differences in the Defense Community. The idea that there is a group of young turks out there who get coin, get the digital age, etc versus an older group of fogies who dont is sometimes a bit over-used. Admittedly, though, that observation might be just me in my relative old age being cranky.

Still, I appreciated Ranger Exums article, or as he is also known by the Small Wars Community as Dave Dilegges "Rogue Cousin."

Andrew's literal bottom line:

"If momentum has not demonstrably shifted 12 months from now, then, it will be time to question again our position in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

That was a valid question seven and a half years ago. It apparently was not asked then and has not been addressed since. I'm not convinced the new policy addresses the issue. If the new policy is truly 'different' then there will be many changes other than those announced.

We'll see. Thus far the current 'AfPak policy' seems to be little more than a revamping of the old one; simply a cosmetic refutation of some prior policies.

The US should not have told the world and the Afghans we would stay until all was well. Unfortunately, we did say we would thus we now have an obligation to do so.

It should be noted, however, that we get to determine the level at which that is done to assist the Afghans in sorting themselves. We cannot do the job for them. We cannot -- should not -- insist on things being done our way as we are too prone to do...

I sense naive NeoCon certainty being replaced by naive 'Realist'/Idealist certainty.