View Full Version : WHere is the heart of the "War on Terror" anyway?

Rob Thornton
04-13-2008, 06:50 PM
I've heard repeated remarks from folks like the Speaker of the House (on today's Face the Nation) that "the "Real" War on Terror is in Afghanistan", and that it should be our focus.

I'm going to assume that going after Al Queda and its senior leadership is really - wherever they are at - is really what the Speaker and others mean when they say that; & that it could be those areas not only constricted to the recognized geographical boundaries of Afghanistan, but wherever AQ has established the conditions for safehaven. It could be in Areas of Pakistan, etc.?

I think there are some issues here that should be discussed - I started to put this into the existing thread "Afghan Surge not the Answer", but thought this was a broader since it concerns a conscious decision to redistribute means specifically from Iraq to Afghanistan, as well as emphasizing different political objectives and philosophies.

While I agree that killing UBL is of great value to us (and personal satisfaction), and helps realize certain political goals, I don't think that doing so is the panacea to the war and achieving our broader and enduring political objectives that some think it is. While UBL and the AQ brand name are the most infamous of the bunch - I think it may be a case of being the most visible physical manifestation of extremists using violence to achieve a political goal(s).

While AQ is guilty of planning and executing the most destructive attack on U.S. soil ever, they are not the only ones wishing us harm at home, or the only one wishing to see us withdraw from the world of Islam - not only physically, but in every way except those few which might best serve their political objective(s).

I think if we are going to look at Afghanistan's real value to U.S. Policy objectives - it must be seen in the context of where it sits physically in the world. We must consider it not only in terms important to us, but to its neighbors. Relatively poor in natural resources, land locked, sparse infrastructure, culturally diverse - it borders Pakistan, Tajikistan, China, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Iran. It has political value in that sense.

Iraq has both political value and clearly has resources value. It is not land locked, and has contiguous borders with other states from who we, some of our friends and our economic competitors draw the hydrocarbon resources from that fuel our economies and are relative to economic prosperity. Its northern borders join a NATO ally, its north-western border touches a state is that is of great historical significance & we believe overtly influences events in Lebanon, Israel, and Palestine. Its shares a south-western border border with a moderate state who we have gone to many times to broker political deals. Its Southern border is shared with a state with enormous resources and influence, and has a population with resources that can affect both the ME and the world economics in a big way. Iraq also shares a border with Kuwait, an ally we've gone to war to protect, has a government and state with resources and also has potential to affect world economics. Iraq shares an eastern border with Iran, who has means, and interests that extend into the Caspian Area, through the Persian Gulf, and all the way to Israel. Iran has a diverse cultural population which in its on way is resigned to a forced stability. Its production of hydrocarbons also interests other states, and it has vocalized its policy toward other states in the region in a manner that has been at times both counter to their interests, and counter to ours. It has visibly demonstrated its policy by funding and resourcing actions and activities that have put U.S. lives at risk, threatened the existence of other states, and shows no indication that it would do otherwise if appeased in any manner other then our absolute abandonment of our enduring policy goals - ones that do not change from Democratic administration to Republican administration or vice-versa. They are also arguably in the thick of producing the means to become a nuclear military power - they have stated it as a political goal.

Regardless of the war in Iraq, or a war in Afghanistan, the realization of our long term, enduring objectives must consider life after UBL and AQ. We must at least contemplate that while the problems facing military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan are in some ways different, they share many attributes - they are complex, challenging and offer just as much friction, chance and risk as elsewhere - that is the nature of inter-active war. They also both ultimately depend on political and economic development - those are long term undertakings - perhaps more so in Afghanistan given its physical and cultural characteristics, lack of existing infrastructure, historical political disunity, and the ability of intrastate movement by state and non-state actors who might wish to retard progress or prevent us from helping to move Afghanistan into something else besides a relatively weak and isolated piece of terrain that exports dangerous drugs primarily to western states where there is both an appetite for such things, and secular laws that don't emphasize death as a means to curb production and distribution.

Right now our enemies see Afghanistan in the context of Iraq, when they no longer do - for whatever reason(s) the context changes - pursuant to the outcome, they will either become more or less involved - they will not remain idle - it is not in their interest to do so. Questions such as "how does a strong strong Iraq vs. a weak Iraq influence Iranian actions with regard to Afghanistan, or the ME?; or how does the perception of U.S. resolve, commitment, and ability change, based on the outcome in Iraq; or how do regional outcomes change based on how Iraq turns out must be considered. BPC in Afghanistan is and will remain no picnic -its a long term project - perhaps more so then Iraq. Its outcome can't be seen in isolation from other U.S. activities or policy objectives - the various enemies in the ME see them all as related - so should we.

This is what concerns me when I hear a politician (any) use the argument that withdrawal from Iraq should be based upon the need to pour more resources into Afghanistan. In my opinion it shows both a flawed understanding of the conditions with regard to the enemy, time, terrain, civilian, etc., and it does not recognize the consequences beyond the immediate with regard to the absence and credibility of U.S. military force in the Persian Gulf. It does not see the Iraq, Afghanistan or the enemy as being related to broader policy goals - ours, the enemies' or partners and allies - rather it sees it as through a soda straw, perhaps because it just easier for them to do so. It also does not recognize that the danger associated with the rationale for invading Iraq, has changed over time - its not a binary question - our interests are broader then that.

While I can think of some reasonable arguments for withdrawal from Iraq that articulate risk - such as the strain on the force, and the inability to be have credible land power elsewhere, or that the price tag is just too high, the idea that somehow our security is assured by the killing or capture of UBL and top AQ leadership in the ungoverned area of Afghanistan is fallacious. It ignores the way Islamic Extremist terror groups have networked to extend the threat beyond the constraints imposed upon them by our efforts, and it ignores the fear, honor and interests of those in the region.

The nature of this war is unlikely to end with the killing or capture of one man, or even one group. I think its unlikely to have ended even if we'd done so immediately - we'd have felt better, but it would not be over. However, the removal of the Saddam regime politically changed things in the ME - he may have had to be removed eventually anyway, but removing him altered things for almost everyone in the ME - and by extension those involved in the ME.

It has provided the conditions by which other enemies - state and non-state perceive they can achieve their goals. Those goals are contrary to ours by the nature of who we are and what we believe. If you remove our military presence from Iraq the opportunities for some will increase, for others decrease, and the number of possible bad outcomes multiplies with regard to our long term interests. Until Iraq is strong enough politically and militarily to exercise sovereignty in a meaningful way - then not only is Iraq at risk, the broader ME, and our alliances within the region are.

I do believe Afghanistan is important, for a number of reasons, but that does not make Iraq any less important then it is. I'd say that politicians need to get beyond their cyclic biases and consider the nature of the war, our enduring interests and how our enemies are very adept at strategic adaptation - the nature of their governments and ideology facilitates that - but its not the nature of politicians who grow up in our system to do likewise, and while there is an enduring bureaucracy and infinite number of think tanks inside the beltway, any advice they might offer is subject to electoral politics.

Best, Rob

04-13-2008, 09:14 PM

Whilst I appreciate the world view many on SWC have is American I strongly feel the heart of the matter is at home. I do not mean internal / homeland security, but a national decision to oppose AQ and its allies - along with its ideology and take action.

The USA / Canada may currently have a secure homeland, elsewhere it is non-existent (Afghanistan), fragile (Iraq & Pakistan) and vulnerable to a tiny home-grown minority (parts of Western Europe). The sixth point below for the later group gains in importance.

Taken from another thread, courtesy of Wilf and an ex-IDF general; six points:

1) A political decision to defeat terrorism, stated explicitly and clearly to the security forces, and the willingness to bear the political cost of an offensive.
2) Acquiring control of the territory in and from which the terrorists operate.
3) Relevant intelligence.
4) Isolating the territory within which the counterterrorist fighting takes place.
5) Multi-dimensional cooperation between intelligence and operations.
6) Separating the civilian population from the terrorists.


04-13-2008, 09:33 PM
Excellent post, much of which I completely agree with. My sense is that domestic political considerations are almost wholly driving this election's rhetoric on Iraq and Afghanistan. What I mean is that the policy perscriptions are largely based on appeasing certain electoral demographics within the US as opposed to being based on genuine US regional interests. This thesis is reinforced, I think, by the paucity of detailed information on what candidates would actually do and the clever use of language in their rhetoric which will give them a wide latitude of action once they achieve office. I therefore don't believe either of the Democratic candidates will "end the war" in Iraq nor do I believe that McCain will ultimately pursue "victory" as it is currently defined.

As George Friedman of STRATFOR recently wrote (http://www.stratfor.com/weekly/foreign_policy_and_presidents_irrelevance):

The consensus on foreign policy is the most interesting feature of the election, especially regarding Iraq. We don’t mean the posturing or the shouting or the attempt to position one candidate against the others. We mean two things: first, what the candidates are saying after the passion is boiled away, and second, what they are likely to do if they become president.

There is, of course, a great deal of discussion about who supported or opposed what and when. That is not a trivial discussion, but it doesn’t really point to what anyone will do. On a second level, there is the discussion about whether the United States should withdraw from Iraq. Even here, there is actually little that divides the candidates. The real question is when that withdrawal should take place, over what period of time and whether the timeline should be announced.


It has long been said that presidential candidates make promises but do what they want if elected. In foreign policy, presidential candidates make promises and, if elected, do what they must to get re-elected. Assume that the situation in Iraq does not deteriorate dramatically, which is always a possibility, and assume a president is elected who would simply withdraw troops from Iraq. The withdrawal from Iraq obviously would increase Iranian power and presence in Iraq. That, in turn, would precipitate a crisis between Iran and Saudi Arabia, two powers with substantial differences dividing them. The United States would then face the question of whether to support the Saudis against Iran. Placing forces in Saudi Arabia is the last thing the Americans or the Saudis want. But there is one thing that the Americans want less: Iranian dominance of the Arabian Peninsula.

Any president who simply withdrew forces from Iraq without a political settlement would find himself or herself in an enormously difficult position. Indeed, such a president would find himself or herself in a politically untenable position. The consequences of a withdrawal are as substantial as the consequences of remaining. The decline in violence and the emergence of some semblance of a political process tilts the politics of decision-making toward a phased withdrawal based on improvements on the ground and away from a phased withdrawal based on the premise that the situation on the ground will not improve. Therefore, even assuming Obama wins the nomination and the presidency, the likelihood of a rapid, unilateral withdrawal is minimal. The political cost of the consequences would be too high, and he wouldn’t be able to afford it.

Though Obama is the one outrider from the general consensus on Iraq, we would argue that the relative rhetorical consensus among the candidates extends to a practical consensus. It is not that presidents simply lie. It is that presidents frequently find themselves in situations where the things they want to do and the things they can do — and must do — diverge. We have written previously about situations in which policymakers are not really free to make policy. The consequences of policy choices constrain the policymaker. A president could choose a range of policies. But most have unacceptable outcomes, so geopolitical realities herd presidents in certain directions.

And in another article on Afghanistan Friedman concludes (http://www.stratfor.com/weekly/al_qaeda_afghanistan_and_good_war):

As the situation in Iraq settles down - and it appears to be doing so - more focus will be drawn to Afghanistan, the war that even opponents of Iraq have acknowledged as appropriate and important. But it is important to understand what this war consists of: It is a holding action against an enemy that cannot be defeated (absent greater force than is available) with open lines of supply into a country allied with the United States. It is a holding action waiting for certain knowledge of the status of al Qaeda, knowledge that likely will not come. Afghanistan is a war without exit and a war without victory. The politics are impenetrable, and it is even difficult to figure out whether allies like Pakistan are intending to help or are capable of helping.

Even if one doesn't agree with Friedman's assessment of the situation, the lack of coherent policy prescriptions from the candidates and, indeed, much of our political class is deeply disturbing to me. Lives literally are on the line and yet there is very little debate about what US interests are or should be much less discussion on how the political policy choices serve those interests. On top of all this it's clear, particularly with regard to Afghanistan, that many policymakers don't have even a decent layman's understanding of the history and complexities of these conflicts. It's all very frustrating....

Ken White
04-13-2008, 09:48 PM
You quoted George as saying:
"It has long been said that presidential candidates make promises but do what they want if elected. In foreign policy, presidential candidates make promises and, if elected, do what they must to get re-elected...

...Any president who simply withdrew forces from Iraq without a political settlement would find himself or herself in an enormously difficult position. Indeed, such a president would find himself or herself in a politically untenable position."Just so. The Politicians are NOT talking policy, they're talking politics and the bulk of it can be safely ignored. As you say, they "don't have even a decent layman's understanding of the history and complexities of these conflicts."

Yep. Nothing much new in that... :(

Rob Thornton
04-13-2008, 10:28 PM
David, I think its a fair answer & all 6 are good points. The name and the ref. to terrorism seem to have gotten mingled with other important FP concerns - which is I think important. Some of this has to do with how the various threats are inter-acting I think - however, with regard to U.S. FP I don't think we should focus on AQ as an organization to the detriment of the other players, or their objectives.

While AQ is the current threat which creates Will among most of the populations of western nations, and as such plays in tune with domestic policy as being a threat which has visibly and physically demonstrated a will to attack us at home, it also represents a broader category of terrorist groups in relation to the acts it carries out in West and an insurgency with regards to its political ambitions for the ME - although it has used terrorism inside the ME as well - both against westerners and against people from the ME. If,as was said during last weeks testimony by General Petraeus and AMB Crocker that AQ considers Iraq its central battleground - I think its important to consider why? What could AQ do with a state that has resources or that is politically and geographically positioned such as Iraq, that they can't do with Afghanistan? What are the opportunities present in Iraq that are not present elsewhere? How do other states in the region see those possibilities?

That is what bothers me when I hear people try an boil things into either / or equations, then draw straight lines to one vice the other. It reduces the interactive nature of regional and global politics to a linear, deterministic, bilateral event that is supposed to have a clear beginning and a clear end. Its the same type of thinking that causes CDRs to miss decision points because they only see what they anticipate or prefer to see.

When a state becomes so focused on the political objective that it originally went to war for, that it sees only the threat that was, vs. the way the conditions have created new strategic possibilities for others with means, it disadvantages itself. Clausewitz, while acknowledging the primacy of policy, and the need for the objective to guide rationality, acknowledges that a state cannot enslave itself to the original objective - the nature of interaction creates new possibilities which must be weighed and considered against the original. If you don't you concede the strategic initiative.

Clearly I'm U.S. centric:D, however the events that occur in the ME are of great importance to all.

On a side note that might interest you - with some relation to this topic, I was at a RoL workshop on Africa last week where the term "poly-organizational" threat came up in ref. to how organized crime (of various flavors), terrorist organizations with intercontinental reach and influence, and certain states were finding new and better ways to work with each other where their interests coincided and where it was more economical, efficient and less risky for them to do so. Even so, they still retain their primary interests - and as such each must be considered both in terms of its own objectives, and of how they enable the objectives of others. - I'll send you the take aways if you like.

Best, Rob

Rob Thornton
04-13-2008, 10:59 PM
Entropy - thanks for the link. Best, Rob

04-14-2008, 08:55 AM
The article on SWC Blog should be here: http://smallwarsjournal.com/mag/2008/04/winning-the-ideological-battle.php

The author puts another perspective and yes, from an American viewpoint and someone who being in SF knows what happens on the ground, as distinct from inside the beltway.

It is a fine balance in a democracy between telling the public comfort and agony (a point Ken has made elsewhere months ago, thanks again). In a democracy who should tell us? Who should decide?


Rob Thornton
04-14-2008, 11:13 AM
Hi David,
You raise a good question. My point is that there are more then one concern, and we need to understand the implications of valuing one over another. Risk is always present, but we need to understand what the risks are, and we need to place them in the proper context.
Best, Rob