James Danly is an Iraq War veteran, managing director at the Institute for the Study of War, and international affairs fellow with the Council on Foreign Relations.
Counterterrorism certainly has its role in Afghanistan, but it must be viewed as but one tool in our toolbox. In order to declare victory, we need to aid the Afghans in establishing a legitimate government whose population does not effectively support terrorist networks. Although it may be attractive to envision an operation that puts fewer men's lives at risk and costs less money, simply put, a pure counterterrorism approach does not go far enough. The only viable course is to commit the resources necessary to conduct a full-spectrum counterinsurgency of the kind employed to such great effect during the surge in Iraq.
Though both counterterrorism and counterinsurgency strategies seek to impair the enemy's capacity to harm us, only counterinsurgency has the ability to offer long-term solutions in Afghanistan. Counterterrorism is akin to getting rid of an ant infestation one ant at a time, while a properly resourced counterinsurgency strategy is closer to digging up the entire ant hill. Counterterrorism strategies focus on terrorist networks, employing the military's most elite assets to kill or capture key leaders.
Counterinsurgency, on the other hand, focuses on eliminating the medium in which insurgents live and conduct their operations, the safe haven provided by civilian populations among which they hide.
We know for a fact that the counterterrorism approach of solely targeting terrorist leaders is, by itself, insufficient to degrade insurgent networks. In the summer of 2006, our counterterrorist elements in Iraq succeeded in killing Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq. An operation of this kind is the best a proponent of a counterterrorism strategy could hope for. And yet it had no measurable effect on the overall course of the war—Zarqawi was immediately replaced by a subordinate and as the year wore on, Iraq plunged further into chaos.
Insurgent networks are, by their structure, largely immune to disruption through the elimination of individual leaders. There will always be lower-level terrorist leaders prepared to assume their boss's role as long as the population provides a hospitable environment. Consequently, the process of targeting and eliminating newly promoted terrorist leaders becomes a never-ending cycle.
Compounding its incapacity to eliminate the insurgency, a pure counterterrorism strategy in Afghanistan would actually prove counterproductive by further alienating the population and driving them into the insurgents' arms. Much of the enemy's ability to recruit and hold sway over the population of Afghanistan has come from an effective propaganda campaign that portrays the United States as a malign actor and foreign occupier.
Much of the raw material for this propaganda comes from counterterrorism operations, particularly targeted raids and drone strikes, with their attendant collateral damage and civilian casualties. Imagine the view you would have of the United States if the only evidence you saw of it was the occasional lethal nighttime raid or building destroyed without warning by a Predator drone. Unless the effects of this admittedly necessary aspect of our campaign are mitigated by daily interactions with the population, a counterterrorism campaign cannot help but aid the enemy's propaganda efforts.
Ultimately, counterterrorism fails because it does not present a comprehensive solution to eliminating the continued threat of Afghanistan's terrorist networks. Counterinsurgency, by comparison, destroys the insurgents' capacity to conduct operations by degrading their most important asset: local support. Counterinsurgency campaigns drive a wedge between insurgents and the population by affording the people protection, securing them from coercion, and providing proper governance and services. In effect, they provide a better alternative to the ersatz governments offered by insurgent and terrorist leaders in failing states.