Intelligence Gathering Is Compatible with Counterterrorism

Q1: Proponents of counterinsurgency, or COIN, argue that intelligence gathering in support of operations against al Qaeda and Taliban militants will be irreparably damaged if the Obama administration pursues a counterterrorism strategy instead of COIN in Afghanistan. Is this necessarily true?

A1: No. Proponents of COIN tend to paint a counterterrorism approach in stark terms, suggesting that a complete U.S. withdrawal will result in the loss of key bases required for intelligence activities. But no serious counterterrorism option includes plans for a full American withdrawal, and such exaggerations do nothing but detract from a healthy debate about U.S. and NATO strategy in Afghanistan.

In attempting to further discredit the counterterrorism approach, COIN supporters insist that better intelligence will come about only if U.S. and NATO forces commit to a troop-intensive, “population-centric” strategy. Their argument goes like this: fear of retribution prevents Afghan citizens from informing coalition forces of Taliban movements and operations; once U.S. and NATO troops provide security to innocent locals, valuable information will flow freely and openly. This claim, however, is flawed on multiple levels. Consider:

  1. It fails to recognize that most key militant leaders operate from Pakistan’s western frontier and not Afghanistan. It makes little sense to assume that innocent Afghan civilians, especially those considerably west of the Durand Line, possess the information necessary to capture or kill key militant leaders living in Pakistan.
  2. It mistakenly assumes that Afghan citizens do not share information on Taliban and al Qaeda operations because they fear reprisals from militants. What if, instead, Afghans simply don’t know where militant leaders hide and how they plan to attack? This latter scenario is wholly plausible, especially since high-level intelligence about criminal enterprises usually requires insider knowledge—which innocent bystanders, by definition, lack.
  3. It places far too much emphasis on troop “numbers” and minimizes the importance of troop “type.” Most soldiers serving in Afghanistan are trained in basic combat skills, not sensitive operations. Such expertise is largely the realm of specialists in the military and intelligence communities. It is unreasonable to expect the average soldier, working through an interpreter (who may not speak the local language or dialect), to collect high-value intelligence on routine village patrols.

COIN supporters are likely to argue that soldiers do collect valuable intelligence while protecting the population. But this is true only to the extent that they gather information that serves the tactical aims of counterinsurgency—such as identifying local troublemakers. Absent are the kinds of leads on high-value terrorists that are likely to result in tangible reductions in extremist planning and leadership. So, in the end, population protection may have important humanitarian purposes, but its utility in dismantling extremist networks is overstated.

Q2: Does counterterrorism offer a better framework for successful intelligence collection?

A2: If executed well, yes. Good intelligence collection is about talking to the right people. In Afghanistan, this means reaching out to actors closest to Taliban leadership. Just as any law enforcement agency might target a large criminal network by registering the assistance of insiders or smaller rivals, so too should U.S., NATO, and Afghan forces identify Taliban most amenable to deal making. Such an approach could exploit the myriad tribal factions in Afghanistan, and even Pakistan, by creating internal divisions within the broader insurgency. It also might appeal to “moderate” militants, many of whom join extremist groups for purely financial considerations. The goal of these efforts would be to turn the Taliban against itself and draw certain elements into the Afghan government’s sphere—much like U.S. efforts at creating divisions between Iraq’s Sunni insurgents and foreign-born al Qaeda in Iraq.

Talking to the right people also means further enhancing U.S. cooperation with Pakistan’s military and Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) to identify and target al Qaeda operatives in the country’s northwest. COIN supporters might readily agree with this proposition, but their calls for additional forces would risk alienating the military and ISI, both of which have signaled deep reservations about a possible American escalation in Afghanistan. These two Pakistani institutions are critical partners in U.S. efforts to combat al Qaeda and ultimately will determine the intensity of any offensive against militants. But they also fear what they perceive as growing American and Indian influence in Afghanistan. The Obama administration must be careful, then, to ensure that troop increases do not discourage the military and ISI from aiding American efforts to confront al Qaeda extremists in northwest Pakistan.

Whatever the specifics of this strategy of negotiation and diplomacy, success will ultimately require coalition and Afghan forces to seek actionable intelligence from individuals who actually possess such information. And importantly, the approach does not necessitate thousands of additional troops, but small units of savvy intelligence operatives and negotiators.

When combined with a military strategy of fortifying a handful of vitally important “strong points” in Afghanistan—call it containment—this two-pronged approach emerges as a far better alternative to regional security than the prohibitively expensive, open-ended, nation-building exercise that COIN implies.

Rick “Ozzie” Nelson is a senior fellow in the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. He is a former Navy helicopter pilot with over twenty years operational and intelligence experience, including assignments at the National Security Council and the National Counterterrorism Center. He recently served in Afghanistan.

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