Arnon Grunberg



On Biden’s speech and counter-terrorism versus counter-insurgency – Juan Cole on Informed Comment:

‘President Joe Biden came out swinging on Monday in defense of his decision to get out of Afghanistan. The rapidity of the collapse of the Ashraf Ghani government in Kabul before the Taliban advance in the past week raised questions about the wisdom of the move among critics of the administration. Everyone knew, however, that there was a good chance that with a U.S. withdrawal, the government would likely eventually fall. I personally would have given it three weeks to two months. I am not sure why it makes so much difference that it happened in August rather than in October or November. Admittedly, Biden himself thought there was a chance that the Afghanistan National Army could survive. He was, however, only hopeful that it would.’


‘Biden’s fire and anger came out when he talked about the issue of counter-terrorism versus counter-insurgency. That inside-the-beltway debate probably went over a lot of people’s heads, and I’d like to unpack it here because I think it tells us a great deal about Biden’s foreign policy in the coming three and a half years (and maybe nearly eight).’


‘In the Bush era, America acquired an empire without perhaps initially wanting one. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld wanted to use special forces more instead of the conventional land army, and to get in and out of places like Afghanistan and Iraq relatively quickly. In contrast, the State Department under Colin Powell and then Condaleeza Rice understood that you couldn’t just decapitate the government of a place and walk away. That way lay global chaos. Even State, however, typically thought that they’d have to be out there in the newly conquered territories for only two or three years before standing up a new government to which they could turn the country over.
It turned out that neither Rumsfeld’s coitus interruptus method of imperialism nor the State Department’s theory of temporary adoption of an orphan child was practical. Once you overthrew the Taliban in Afghanistan there was always the possibility that they would regroup and regain power if you just up and left. If, like Bush, you built your campaign strategy on “fighting them over there so we don’t have to fight them over here,” you would look like a fool or traitor if you stopped fighting them over there and let them come back.’


‘The exception to the military not wanting to be there was a group of ambitious officers, among them David Petraeus and Stanley McChrystal, who developed a Big Think approach to the new American imperialism.
They called it counter-insurgency. In my view, all modern counter-insurgency theories are based on the British experience in colonial Malaya, where the Empire successfully repressed a Communist movement in the 1950s shortly before anyway being forced to relinquish the colony to independent Malaysia.
I wrote in 2005 about the misapplication of this analogy to Iraq, “Steve Gilliard drives a silver stake through the persistent hope of some that Iraq’s “insurgency” can be defeated as the communists were defeated by the British in colonial Malaya (Malaysia). This comparison always neglects to note that the British had been the colonial power in Malaya since the nineteenth century, with a brief interregnum. They hadn’t just shown up suddenly in 1952. They had enormous logistical and intelligence advantages deriving from this long presence. Moreover, the defeat of the mostly Chinese communists in a largely Malay country came just before the British were forced to give the country independence. I was on a radio show with John Mearsheimer and Max Boot one time, and Boot (inevitably and tritely) brought up the British success in counter-insurgency in Malaya. Mearsheimer witheringly pointed out “The British aren’t in Malaysia anymore.”’


‘Joe Biden opposed this counter-insurgency drive because, as conceived, it involved large-scale state-building. The mantra of Petraeus and of his colleague Stanley McChrystal was “take, clear, hold, and build.” That is, the US military would take a Taliban stronghold, would clear out the Taliban, and would hold it for several months, making sure that locals understood that they would not allow the Taliban to came right back in when they left. During these months of “holding” the area, they would work with local leaders to give the the tools to govern and to wean the population off the services and security provided by the Taliban.
In 2010-2011, the army fought some significant campaigns in Afghanistan on this theory. The “build” part was a heavy lift, though, because it assumed functioning Western-style institutions. Gen. McChrystal once spoke of bringing down to a region he took away from the Taliban a “government in a box” from Kabul. He was unaware that Kabul could barely govern itself, much less provide governance to some distant Pushtun villages. The central government under then President Hamid Karzai farmed out governing of much of the country to regional warlords like Ismail Khan of Herat, more known for arbitrary and personalistic rule than for efficient government kept in neat boxes.’


‘Biden’s alternative to counter-insurgency (with its nation-building component) was counter-terrorism. Biden thought you could get out of Afghanistan. If a terrorist cell grew up in Logar province, you tracked it with intelligence and then sent in a special operations team or a drone to destroy it. Counter-terrorism is small-scale and lean and quick. Counter-insurgency is big, perhaps country-sized, and would take years, maybe decades.
Biden lost the fight inside the White House, and the counter-insurgency generals won. They ultimately failed. They would argue that they weren’t given enough troops or enough time.’


‘President Biden has finally shut down the state-builders and counter-insurgency theorists. He is out of Afghanistan. He maintains that if he needs to take out a terrorist threat there, he can do it surgically and at a fraction of the cost in blood and treasure.
Ironically, the collapse of the Afghanistan government is a powerful argument that the state-builders and counter-insurgency advocates failed miserably, but Biden took the blame for it.
And that is the story of why he was so angry.’

Read the article here.

Again, this is a reasonable argument. I’m not sure where we had successful counterinsurgencies, yes temporary successes, even in Iraq (we pay you to not lay IEDs along the road, that helps, but it’s not a sustainable business model nor a sustainable counter insurgency.) Maybe the West Bank, but can you imagine American settlers in Afghanistan in order quell the resistance? No, the people came to the US because the US was the promised land, kind of, not Afghanistan. So, the West Bank cannot be compared to Iraq or Afghanistan.
Anhsel Pfeffer wrote in Haaretz that Russia bombing hospitals (among other targets) in Syria did help Assad immensely. And Pfeffer has a point. If you are willing to put all morality aside and use the method of mass killings you can have a rather successful counter insurgency. Let’s not forget that Machiavelli advised to kill the children of the enemy as well, in these cases, because they might rise up against you one day.

(Read Pfeffer here.)

We don’t want to do it, even the ugliest imperialists in the West don’t have the desire to lower themselves to that tactic. The ugliest face of the West are all those politicians and citizens who want to close the borders. The desire to live in a gated community, without any risk of contamination is immense. Immoral, yes, but also not sustainable. The outside world will sooner or later come through the fences.

Remember Pegasus?

See here.

The need to have boots on the ground is diminished.
Biden is right. And I’m not saying that because I’m the biggest fan of Biden.

When the peace talks were under way in Doha without the Afghan government at the table we all should have known that the Afghan government led by Ghani was merely symbolic.

See here.

And see here.

Also take note of the comeback of Karzai. As intermediator? As the moderate face of the Taliban? As a comeback guy? Now close your eyes and try to remember the Bonn conference.

A last note: political and religious strategies, violent strategies, go in and out of fashion.
Plane kidnappings? Fashionable in the seventies. Not anymore.
I believe that the huge terrorist attacks are going out of fashion, they are already out of fashion.

They did deliver something to the rightwing politicians in the US and Europe, lots of votes, but what did they do for Bin Laden and his followers? Also, the Taliban are no internationalists, they want Afghanistan and sell some forbidden goods to the rest of the world, without too many problems, they hope.

Their misogyny and their totalitarian reflexes are still real. But that was never a casus belli, despite all the talk about nation building.

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