Interview: Rethinking Insurgency with Dr. Steven Metz

stevenmetzff2 Interview: Rethinking Insurgency with Dr. Steven Metz

Dr. Steven Metz is Chairman of the Regional Strategy Department, Co-Director of the Future of American Strategy Project, and research professor at the U.S. Army War College Strategic Studies Institute.

Dr. Metz has been at the Army War College since 1993, previously serving as Research Professor of National Security Affairs, the Henry L. Stimson Professor of Military Studies, and Director of Research. He has also been on the faculty of the Air War College, the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College, and several universities. Dr. Metz has served as an adviser to political organizations, campaigns, the intelligence community, and national security policy advisory panels, testified in both the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives, and spoken or undertaken research in thirty-one countries.

Dr. Metz is the author of more than a hundred publications on future war, the emerging security environment, military strategy, defense policy, international relations and world politics. You can follow him on Twitter @steven_metz.

John Little: In Rethinking Insurgency you stated that America has to recognize three distinct insurgency settings:

  • - A functioning government with at least some degree of legitimacy can be rescued by Foreign Internal Defense.
  • - There is no functioning and legitimate government but a broad international and regional consensus supports the creation of a neo-trusteeship until systemic reengineering is completed. In such instances, the United States should provide military, economic, and political support as part of a multinational force operating under the authority of the UN.
  • - There is no functioning and legitimate government and no international or regional consensus for the formation of a neo-trusteeship. In these cases, the United States should pursue containment of the conflict by support to regional states and, in conjunction with partners, help create humanitarian “safe zones” within the conflictive state.

Where would you place Afghanistan in this model? Is our current battlefield and political strategy (especially our relationship with regional players) in sync with this reality?

Dr. Steven Metz: The problem with the American conceptualization of insurgency and counterinsurgency is that it ignores the distinction between state strengthening and state or even nation building. Americans are pretty good at state strengthening, as demonstrated in El Salvador during the 1980s and 1990s. State building, though, is much harder.

Americans learned counterinsurgency largely from the French and British. But when those nations undertook state building, they did so as colonial powers. This gave them the ability and the motivation to pursue state or nation building even though it almost always takes decades of sustained effort.

Because the United States is not a colonial power and because the attention span of the American public and Congress is fairly limited, it has sought ways to speed up the state or nation building process. As Afghanistan shows today, this seldom works. I simply can’t conceive of the Afghan state, as currently configured, functioning and providing security without massive outside assistance for a very long time. And whether the United States and other Western nations will provide such assistance, particularly given the endemic corruption of the Afghan state and Pakistan’s unwillingness or inability to shut down the Taliban’s external sanctuary , is questionable. There’s also no chance of an effective multinational trusteeship for Afghanistan. That’s why I believe the only sustainable U.S. strategy is a low footprint one designed specifically to prevent an outright Taliban victory (which I think is very unlikely anyway) and to launch spoiling attacks should al Qaeda develop a power projection capability from within Afghanistan (which is also unlikely).

One other factor is important: while the United States and its allies seek the outright defeat of the Taliban and a democratic Afghanistan at peace, the vested interest of the Pakistani and Afghan governments is a sustained insurgency which is strong enough to keep outside aid flowing but not strong enough to overthrow them. Karzai and the Pakistani military and political elites must surely know that if the Taliban and al Qaeda were eradicated, the foreign aid flowing to them would diminish dramatically. This is a common dynamic in contemporary insurgencies: the state and the insurgents develop a sort of symbiotic relationship in which both benefit from the conflict.

Ultimately, then, ISAF is undertaking some very skilled operations in pursuit of a flawed national strategy. Early in the Iraq conflict General Petraeus was famously quoted as asking, “Tell me how this ends.” I think it is even more pressing to ask that for Afghanistan. Looking at all the factors, including economic and demographic ones, I simply cannot imagine a situation where the Karzai government defeats the Taliban, imposes stability over all of Afghanistan, and builds an economy capable of sustaining Afghanistan’s population growth (which is one of the highest on earth) and supporting a massive security force (or finding other employment for the hundreds of thousands of members of the police and army).

John Little: It feels like we’re bailing water in Afghanistan while ignoring the source of the leak – Pakistan. Is it really that difficult to recalibrate our relationship with Pakistan? Could we create a framework where Pakistan is held responsible for the taking the lead on ensuring something like stability in Afghanistan while tying US aid (and the size of our footprint in the region) to their performance? If that is deemed impossible, and we declare that Pakistan is an unfit partner in regional security efforts, wouldn’t that point to the futility of COIN in Afghanistan anyway?

Dr. Steven Metz: The Pakistani government and security forces have become absolute masters at manipulating the United States. I can’t blame them for it–statecraft is a rough and tumble game. But I blame Americans for allowing themselves to be manipulated.

This demonstrates one of the key dilemmas of American involvement in counterinsurgency support. This has two dimensions. First, the more committed Washington is to a partner or ally, the less leverage it has. Second, American policymakers have to play up the stakes in a conflict in order to gain and sustain support from the public and Congress, and that makes it politically difficult to extricate the United States from the conflict.

Historically, U.S. has had leverage over a partner or ally only when the threat to disengage was credible. In a de facto “good cop/bad cop? way, the Reagan administration was able to express its commitment to El Salvador while making sure the Salvadoran elite and military understood that if it did not rein in the right wing death squads, undertake democracy, and improve its military, the U.S. Congress was likely to cut off aid. This message got through and the Salvadorans undertook the necessary reform.

At the present time , it appears that the Pakistani elite simply does not believe that the U.S. will disengage, at least not for some time. Therefore it is able to play both sides of the game by taking action against extremists that threaten it directly but casting a blind eye or, perhaps, even offering support to extremists who only target Americans or the Karzai government.

Every insurgency that succeeded over the past hundred years faced either an incompetent government (Cuba, China) or had external sanctuary. External sanctuary does not determine success on the part of insurgents, but it is a vital component of success. It is a necessary but not sufficient element of insurgent victory. Given this, I personally favor a much harder line toward Pakistan. The United States should ask the Pakistanis to explain their strategy for eradicating the extremist strongholds, including the time line and the amount of American support necessary. If this seems feasible, Washington should make clear that failure to execute the strategy will result in a diminution or cut off of assistance. The United States has to be willing to write off Pakistan.

Now, I realize that the Pakistani elite and public would scream about this. Their goal is assistance without conditions. Again, I can’t blame them for that, but I can blame America for playing along. The best that can be done is to keep the conditions quiet. And I know that the Pakistanis would claim that without U.S. support, extremists will take over their nation and gain control of its nuclear weapons. That is a tremendous risk but I don’t think that it justifies unconditional and escalating assistance. We simply must have ways to gain control of or neutralize the nuclear weapons should Pakistan descend into chaos.

The problem then becomes sustaining support for such a strategy from the American public and Congress. A policymaker who expressed unqualified support for Pakistan and then later withdrew the support would be excoriated by his or her political opponents. Yet the only alternative seems to be pouring endless money into Pakistan with little influence over how it is spent.

Clearly the United States and its allies would have a difficult time sustaining the current counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan without transit through Pakistan. So if America felt that it had no other option than to end support for Pakistan, it would have to revamp the counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan. But, I believe, it would still be possible to prevent an outright Taliban victory with a much smaller U.S. footprint in Afghanistan.

John Little: Is all the effort poured into COIN Afghanistan in vain if the Pakistan problem isn’t solved or if, as many observers feel, gets even worse? The security, military, and political challenges generated by a disintegrating Pakistan would seem to dwarf any threat posed by Afghanistan.

Dr. Steven Metz: I think the effort and resources poured into both Afghanistan and Pakistan are out of proportion to the strategic benefits–the added security–gained by it. The whole strategy is intended to counter al Qaeda. But there is no evidence that al Qaeda needs formal sanctuary in Afghanistan or Pakistan. If it needs sanctuary at all, that can be almost anywhere in the Islamic world. So even if the current strategy in Afghanistan succeeds, the costs will greatly outweigh the strategic benefits.

The question, then, is why is the United States expending so much effort, money, and blood to gain so little additional security? I think that during the Cold War and post-Cold War period, the U.S. was so dominant in military and economic terms, that it lost sight of the fact that strategy must consider efficiency as well as effectiveness. It was like a shopping spree with a rich sports figure or entertainer who based their purchases strictly on whether they wanted something with no regard for price. The U.S. wanted to weaken Islamic extremism so it pursued strategies designed to do that without considering whether the additional security gained was in proportion to the strategic costs. I’m afraid that mentality is about to crash on the rocks of Iraq and Afghanistan.

But on the issue of a disintegrating Pakistan. There is no question that would be a immense disaster in many ways. Yet Pakistan has been teetering on the precipice of disintegration for its entire history but has somehow held together. I really believe that it is more resilient than Americans give it credit for. A more likely problem is the emergence of an Islamist government in Pakistan, possibly through the democratic process. While that would certainly be damaging to U.S. policy, I don’t think it would automatically be disastrous. I find the assertion that any Islamist regime will provide nuclear weapons to terrorists absurd. The United States should have a stated policy that if terrorists use nuclear weapons and the source of them can be identified (which is likely), it will be treated exactly the same as a direct nuclear strike from the source country.

Of course an Islamist government would be more hospitable to a Taliban or al Qaeda presence. But I’m not sure that would be markedly different than the current state of affairs. The emergence of an Islamist government, though, could increase pressure on Karzai to bring the Taliban into his government. We don’t know whether a coalition government that included the Taliban would provide sanctuary for al Qaeda. I suspect not. I think the Taliban’s relationship with al Qaeda pre-September 11 was based on ignorance. It was simply not aware of the immense costs of harboring al Qaeda. Now it is. Hence I don’t think it would make that mistake again. The Taliban’s leaders are not stupid.

Another Pakistan scenario, though, might be “semi-disintegration” where Islamabad loses even the pretense of control over some regions. That would not be much different than today where the central government has little or no influence in the tribal areas and even parts of Karachi. So long as the government controls Punjab, though, Pakistan can teeter along.

John Little: There’s no real indication that our political class is going to step up and deliver bold leadership and no sign that US military wants to do anything but charge full speed ahead with COIN. So where do you think this takes us in the next three to five years and what will be the impact on the US military?

Dr. Steven Metz: I don’t think that it’s accurate to say that the military is convinced that counterinsurgency will be its primary mission in coming years. The Navy and Air Force certainly don’t, and even with the Army there is debate and discussion. As a new Chief of Staff takes over the Army, I suspect there will be a re-evaluation of the notions of “the long war.”

I also believe that the American public and its elected leaders will revisit the notion of making counterinsurgency the central element of U.S. strategy. Certainly counterterrorism will remain important. But the important point is that counterinsurgency in unstable regions may be an effective method of counterterrorism, it is the most inefficient means conceivable. Given the U.S.’ lingering economic crisis and budget deficits, this is going to become a pressing concern.

There is no doubt that the United States, including the military, will remain involved in strengthening states facing internal conflict–what the military calls Foreign Internal Defense. The U.S. is actually pretty good at it, and it doesn’t require a massive American military presence.

I think it would also be useful if the United States had a “whole of government” surge capacity for stabilization. This would allow pre-empting insurgencies rather than allowing them to metastasize, then surging. Insurgency is like cancer–the earlier the treatment, the greater the chances of success and the less damage to the system. Imagine if the U.S. had been able to make the effort that it made in Iraq in 2007–to include both military and non-military actions–in the summer of 2003. There is a pretty good chance the insurgency there would have been stillborn.

The challenge, though, is that having the ability to rapidly surge stabilization efforts means that there has to be a lot of capacity sitting around unused when there is no crisis underway. That’s why I think such a whole of government stabilization surge capacity should also be multinational. It should be fully in place, supplied, trained and educated–ready to go in a matter of weeks. Creating this would be an immense challenge but, I think, the options are either protracted disasters like Iraq and Afghanistan, or simply avoiding involvement and allowing conflicts to burn themselves out at great human and strategic cost.

So what will the next three to five years bring for the U.S. military? Assuming that the U.S. involvement in Afghanistan diminishes significantly, I expect a shift away from a counterinsurgency-centric force and strategy back to a more balanced one. This is likely to entail returning the land forces to 2003 levels. Critics contend that would leave the United States unprepared for another Iraq and Afghanistan. Given that American involvement in both of those places began with massive strategic blunders, that might not be a bad thing.

John Little: There doesn’t appear to be much appetite, or bandwidth, for traditional multinational COIN efforts now or on the horizon. Aren’t future conflicts more likely to look like Yemen or Somalia than Iraq or Afghanistan? Models that reduce or eliminate our visible footprint, allow maximum flexibility, and facilitate third party humanitarian efforts would appear to be attainable and more efficient going forward.

Dr. Steve Metz: The model most often discussed for the United States is the Philippines: quiet, low footprint assistance to help a state improve its capabilities. Of course, this goes back to my point about the difference between state support and state assistance. This model works very well, but only when there a relatively effective state in existence. And even then it bumps against the problem that states may not desire the outright defeat of the insurgents, but rather keeping them at a controllable or tolerable level.

The notion of humanitarian assistance is different and vexing. One of the most depressing phenomena in recent conflict is that parties to them–insurgents or militias of various types–recognize that the civilized world is repulsed by humanitarian disasters and use that to extort resources. Food becomes a weapon.

Humanitarian intervention can work. While there is this image of the U.N. and American involvement in Somalia in the 1990s as a massive failure, the fact is that tens, perhaps hundreds of thousands of Somalis were saved from famine. The dilemma is that humanitarian assistance is much easier than rectifying the things that caused a humanitarian crisis in the first place. I suspect that the United States, Europe, and other nations will remain prepared for short term intervention in the face of genocide or humanitarian disaster, but it will be more of a “stem the crisis and leave” sort of thing, hoping that NGOs can deal with the deeper causes. The problem with that, of course, is that the ability of NGOs to resolve deep problems is limited in the face of violence.

Perhaps a new model to replace the current, Cold War conceptualization of counterinsurgency with its emphasis on the national government is for multinational military forces to simply provide security for NGOs, and NGOs to concentrate on local economies and governance rather than the national level ones.

Interview: Military Analyst Joshua Foust

joshuafoustff2 Interview: Military Analyst Joshua Foust

Joshua Foust is a fellow at the American Security Project, a columnist for PBS Need to Know, a contributing editor to Current Intelligence, and he blogs about Central Asia at He’s the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from You can follow him on Twitter @JoshuaFoust.

John Little: Let’s talk about The Unforgivable Horror of Village Razing. In that post, which details the destruction of a booby-trapped Afghan village with 49,200 lbs. of ordnance and what you feel is the unsympathetic response to the resulting suffering, you drop some pretty heavy ordnance of your own:

Look, war is hell. I have no illusions about that. But what is happening right now in Southern Afghanistan is inexcusable. There were rumors of this policy of collective punishment in the Arghandab before (see this overwrought Daily Mail story that stops right before the village actually was destroyed for an idea of what is going on), and I’m really struggling to see how such behavior does not violate Article 33 of the Fourth Geneva Convention—that is, how this behavior is not a war crime, especially given the explicit admission that such behavior is merely for the convenience of the soldier and not any grander strategy or purpose.

This sort of abhorrent behavior is not limited to the Arghandab, either. Broadwell explicitly states that it has the Petraeus stamp of approval, and Pahjwok has reported U.S. Marines in Helmand province explicitly warning local villagers of collective punishment if insurgents hide out in their settlements. It is probably a safe assumption to say that this is a widespread phenomenon.

A lot of people would say “Look, this may have been clumsy, inefficient, and lazy on our part but a Taliban outpost was cleared, civilian and friendly causalities were avoided, and we’re going to help the civilian owners rebuild. Relax Mr. Foust. This is war, not a war crime.”

So, with a few days to reflect, do you still think this event might point to an illegal policy of collective punishment? Can you see any merit at all in arguments of those who support the military’s casualty minimization strategy?

Joshua Foust: With some further reflection, I think I was right to struggle with whether destroying villages like this is a war crime. Some friends helped me wrap my head around what actually constitutes a violation of the Fourth Convention, and I don’t think this qualifies as such. However, the reason I feel comfortable with that struggle is this is the sort of thing we should question.

In that link to the Daily Mail story about another village facing this same fate, the soldiers seem to be threatening the villagers with the destruction of their homes if the villagers don’t turn in more IEDs. There are two ways to interpret that story (and the one here, about the Arghandab). Either the soldiers are punitively destroying entire settlements in punishment for not resisting the Taliban, or they’re communicating—incompletely—that if they can’t remove the Taliban from these areas, they have no way of removing the bombs and IEDs left over except by detonation.

From everything I’ve read about these incidents, and from speaking with people close to one of them, it’s probably bad communication being compounded by a false sense of urgency and action bias. These are not large villages—maybe a few dozen houses at the most. There’s no compelling, strategic reason for the U.S. military to literally burn a hole through them once the Taliban have run off. If the Taliban are gone, then we can ponder defusing and decontamination at a deliberate pace (the village razing incident is written in a way that suggests the decision to burn the village was made quickly, for the sake of battle momentum). There’s no need to rush in with B-1s dropping tons of explosives on them.

So I didn’t intend, and I still don’t intend, to accuse anyone of malice. I stand by my charge of laziness, however. Look at the aftermath: this is rural Afghanistan. No one has land deeds or property records. The soldiers are giving the local sub-governor a pot of money and the power to issue now-official land deeds. There is no way in hell people will be compensated appropriately for what they lost (which is required under Article 40 of the Afghan constitution). There will be winners and losers, and the U.S. is funding the picking of winners and losers—a dangerous situation, and one I frankly think is impossible to solve without massive corruption. This is not a hopeful result, in other words. And the callousness with which both the soldiers and that researcher writing about them discuss it—up to sniffing that the Afghans should thank us for rebuilding, as if destroying a family’s possessions is perfectly okay so long as you replace it later—led me to assume the worst. I don’t see how this is a better, more humane option that will create fewer headaches in the long run than attempting to defuse and decontaminate mined villages.

Either way, and whatever more details emerge as these people try to explain themselves, we should be up front in asking hard, probing questions about the deliberate erasure of entire communities. I’m frankly shocked at how many people reacted against that. Our conduct in Afghanistan should never be above question.

John Little: Paula Broadwell, the author of the piece that triggered all of this, has since offered some clarification. There’s nothing earth shattering there though. It is exactly along the lines of what one would expect:

The Taliban had laden the roads, compounds, everywhere with booby traps. In the commander’s assessment, the deserted village was not worth clearing. If you lost several KIA and you might feel the same… SOF had tried to clear the village and had several EKIA but also lost two guys. Afghan commandos had attempted to take the village and got hammered by the IEDs and HEMsas well…

[T]he villagers told all of these visitors {Petraeus, an ABC news crew] that Flynn was their hero and they wanted him to move into the village with them. They express great gratitude for helping them claim security in their river valley and push the Taliban out. Sure they are pissed about the loss of their mud huts (look at the picture again) but that is why the BUILD story is important here.

Your counter-argument, if I can attempt a summary, is that even if we accept the military’s version of the story it still seems to indicate poor execution of our counterinsurgency strategy. You point to a naivete that, if systemic, is quite troubling:

The gullibility of Americans is also something I thought we would have moved beyond in 2011, but it still remains. In civil wars, locals—that is, non-combattants—are always friendly to the guys with guns. In the passage above Paula expresses dismay, and toys with feeling little sympathy for, villagers who accepted money rather than violence to leave their village. That is worse than calloused, and it’s the kind of glib attitude that comes, depressingly commonly enough, from the zombies living in the military’s COIN bubble. I’ve seen elders in Afghanistan smile warmly at me, talk about how much they hate the Taliban, and so on… only to, mere days later, be caught passing information along to a local insurgent commander because they were scared witless by a night letter tacked to their door. Christian Bleuer explored this years ago—in Kapisa, of all places—and it really is a universal phenomenon. Displaced villagers will warmly greet armed groups… especially if those groups are handing out money as well. It means nothing beyond that, however. We should not be this gullible still. But we are, and that’s really sad to see.

Do you think that this is a broader issue? If so, can it be addressed with better training or do you think that inherent flaws in strategy are coming to light in stories like this?

Johsua Foust: I think it’s absolutely is the broader issue. The military still is, by and large, operating in total ignorance of not just local issues, but a basic acceptance of the humanity of Afghans. I shy away from complaining they misunderstand culture—and I say this having made my income for several years through coaching the Army on cultural issues in Afghanistan—because it doesn’t require specialized knowledge to see that poor people have bad housing, and that they are exceedingly vulnerable to displacement during conflict (to keep it confined to this one issue). So in this case, I’m baffled at the complete lack of empathy toward the villagers who were given a choice: resist the Taliban and suffer, or take some cash and flee.

As for addressing it, I lose my way a bit. I’ve seen what counts as “cultural training” within TRADOC, and at CGSC under General Caldwell. It’s a mixed bag, like most training is. You will always have good students and bad students, guys for whom this sort of mindset comes naturally and guys who either struggle with it or reject it outright. I am not knowledgeable enough about the Army’s training system to say how that can be remedied, or if it even can be.

But here’s part of the problem in discussing all of this: none of us were there. Frankly, Paula Broadwell wasn’t there when they burned this village to the ground. So already we’re working on filtered experiences, and that introduces a lot of bias that’s difficult to sift through when trying to figure out what happened. I’ve also never worn the uniform (at least, as a soldier), nor have I led men into combat—so I get really uncomfortable complaining about a bad decision made in defense of soldiers’ lives. And most people are—understandably, and appropriately, I think—hesitant to second-guess the decisions of a commander leading his men in combat.

However, there are some things that are worth questioning, even if it’s painful, and even if it ends up going nowhere. The decision to raze a town should be one of them. You don’t call in almost 50,000 pounds of bombs on a single target without a lot of signatures up the line of command. So this wasn’t a rogue decision, and it wasn’t done in the spur of the moment—this was a deliberate, considered, approved decision. And so far, from all the tiny amounts of data we have on it, it is an appalling decision. So in that sense, I think we really do need to keep pressing on the issue to try to figure out what really happened.

John Little: Based on your experience do you believe that there is willingness, at the command level, to look at events like this and identify opportunities to enhance the approach or is there just overwhelming pressure to execute, to maintain momentum?

Joshua Foust: I’m sure there is willingness somewhere in the chain of command. The problem is, General Petraeus knows this is going on—he hosted an ABC camera crew viewing the rubble—and we have no data to suggest he thinks the approach is flawed or could be improved. I do know there is pressure—implicit pressure, in a lot of ways, but pressure nevertheless—to “execute a counterinsurgency strategy” in the south. And that can easily lead to bizarre or inexplicable behavior getting sold as COIN.

John Little: Given the challenges (many of which originate in powerful neighboring states) do you think it’s possible that the current state of affairs is about as close to success as we’ll get? Is Afghanistan doomed to remain a problem to be managed rather than an emerging modern state that can be nurtured or incubated? Could it even be said that in the end our footprint there is less about Afghanistan and more about countering a long list of troublesome regional forces?

Joshua Foust: I think there can definitely be some improvement to the current state of affairs. I’d love to see us go back to cooperating with Iran in tracking down Taliban figures, as we were in 2001-2 (there are rumors the Iranians coordinate some counter-drug operations with the U.S., but no one wants to talk about that). I really do think that we can lessen the problem emanating from Pakistan by exploring a way to guarantee their interests in a post-America Afghanistan, and that one way we can do that is with beginning political reconciliation with the Taliban.

None of those developments means militancy will go away or the war will end. And in that sense, I don’t think management means “doom” in the sense of it being a negative thing. A reduced American footprint, combined with increased regional engagement, has the potential to be a net improvement for the country. It could also blow up in our face—which is the challenge with any course of action.

John Little: So is COIN only useful in the sense that it buys time until we negotiate a political solution with Pakistan and other regional players? If and when that agreement comes do you think that it will publicly acknowledge Pakistan as the guarantor of Afghanistan’s stability? Does it require that commitment and acknowledgment to succeed?

Joshua Foust: I don’t get the sense that COIN is a delaying tactic. A lot of people at the top—including General Petraeus and his fan club—genuinely believe COIN is the best thing, ever, for all things in Afghanistan. I obviously don’t share that assumption, but I do think they believe that honestly and aren’t playing a shell game. I also don’t have any indication that the top leadership has any real interest in political solutions with Pakistan and other regional players (which would, by design, have to include Iran, only Iran is excluded from NATO summits on the topic).

Now, I happen to think that we must publicly acknowledge and at least make a good-faith effort to secure Pakistan’s interests in post-America Afghanistan. I also am not aware of any push within the U.S. policy community to do that. Everything remains focused on “breaking” the Taliban, of severing Pakistan’s relationship to it, and so on. I’m not at all hopeful those counterproductive ideas will be reversed by the 2014 “withdrawal” date.

John Little: Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that something resembling a withdrawal occurs in 2014. We’ll also assume (and this is probably the safer assumption of the two) that the current military and diplomatic approaches will continue on their current tracks with little or no change. Where does that leave Afghanistan and where does that leave the region? What does 2015 look like?

Joshua Foust: I don’t see any evidence that we’re actually going to withdraw in 2014. Even Joe Biden, who had been consistently and vocally supporting “drop-dead” withdrawal dates, just told Hamid Karzai that we’ll be sticking around past 2014. So from where I sit, that leaves Afghanistan largely unchanged—there might be some withdrawal, but probably not to the extent that even people like CNAS advocate (which would be down to near-2005 levels, or around 25,000-30,000 troops). There will also be an increasingly shrill wing of the commentariat that will cry bloody murder at the thought of reducing our presence without catastrophic victory, regardless of ground conditions—which is exactly what’s happened with the July, 2011 date.

So, 2015? It will probably look much more like 2008 than anything else. And that ain’t good.

Interview: Counterterrorism Expert Daveed Gartenstein-Ross

dgrff Interview: Counterterrorism Expert Daveed Gartenstein Ross

Described as “a rising star in the counterterrorism community” by the International Herald Tribune, Daveed Gartenstein-Ross is the Director of the Center for the Study of Terrorist Radicalization at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Gartenstein-Ross’s writings have appeared in Foreign Policy, The Atlantic, Reader’s Digest, The Wall Street Journal Europe, The Review of Faith and International Affairs, and The Journal of International Security Affairs, among others. He has also written or edited seven books and monographs. The accolades that Gartenstein-Ross has earned for his policy work include being named a 2010 Senior Fellow at George Washington University’s Homeland Security Policy Institute, and being selected for the Claremont Institute’s Lincoln Fellowship. You can follow him on Twitter @DaveedGR.

John Little: Let’s start with recent events – specifically the situation in Egypt where a Coptic Christian church was bombed and Christians there responded with quite a bit of understandable anger. Attacks on minority Christian communities seem to be on the rise. This is certainly not a completely new phenomenon but it does feel like there is additional momentum and purpose behind recent attacks and threats. Are we seeing a shift here? Is fueling inter-religious violence increasingly a priority for al-Qaeda?

Daveed Gartenstein-Ross: Yes, the targeting of Christians is increasingly a priority for al Qaeda affiliates and for the group’s sympathizers. As you mentioned, this is not a new phenomenon — which I emphasize because some commentators take an ahistorical perspective on these matters. Egypt’s Copts were frequent targets of Islamist attacks during the 1990s. Indonesian Christians have been periodically targeted for violent assault by Islamists. And sometimes the targeting of Christians has ranged into the West. For example, in January 2005 I exposed a radical Islamist web site called This site was devoted to systematically tracking Christians who were active in debating Muslims on the Internet chat service PalTalk. One representative page from Barsomyat featured photographs of a Syrian Christian who then lived in Canada. Barsomyat’s users posted personal information about him and made clear that they were trying to track down his current address. Subscribers also posted explicit warnings, such as: “Laugh, oh Christian, and soon you will see a big hit.” To be clear, the targeting of Christians in the West has not been comparable to what Christians in Egypt, Indonesia, and elsewhere have been through; I raise the issue of Barsomyat primarily because it is some precedent, from six years ago, for the Shumukh al-Islam threats that I’ll discuss momentarily.

But though we have previously seen the targeting of Christians, it is in fact increasing. You will recall that on Halloween 2010, al Qaeda-linked militants seized a Baghdad church, an event which resulted in 58 deaths — one of a number of attacks on Christians in Iraq last year. The many attacks prompted Juan Cole to bluntly declare: “The attacks on Christians in Iraq are serious, and hold the danger of ethnically cleansing that community.” Not only did al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) threaten Christians in that country with more of the same carnage that we saw in the Halloween attack — saying “we will open upon them the doors of destruction and rivers of blood” — but it also threatened the Coptic Church in Egypt. Its threats against Egypt’s Copts were based on scurrilous rumors that the Coptic Church was holding Muslim women as captives. Thus, a statement from AQI declared that “all Christian centers, organizations and institutions, leaders and followers, are legitimate targets for the mujahidin wherever they can reach them.”

And now we’ve seen the Alexandria bombing, along with threats against Christians in the West. More than 100 Arab Christians living in the West (including in Canada, Germany, Austria and elsewhere) have ended up targeted by al Qaeda-affiliated web site Shumukh al Islam because they are allegedly attempting to convert Muslims. Officials are taking these threats seriously. One tragic irony I should point out is how Christians, living in the predominantly Christian West, are being targeted for death because of their efforts to convert Muslims — when Islam is also an openly evangelistic faith that targets Christians for conversion worldwide.

The question of why we are seeing this shift toward more attacks on Christians is harder to answer. Is it based primarily on anti-Christian animus, and religious intolerance more generally? Or is it serving another strategic goal? The answers are not crystal clear.

John Little: Even if there wasn’t a greater strategic goal driving the recent attack on the Coptic church in Egypt it would seem possible that the cycle of retribution kicked off by that event would lead Islamists to re-focus their efforts in this area. Isn’t this cycle of violence an ideal outcome for them? If one relatively small attack contributes to the destabilization of the state, burdening it with expensive and impossible security challenges, and creates an engine for radicalization/recruitment you have to think we’re in for more of the same.

Daveed Gartenstein-Ross: First, to be clear: at this point we still do not know that the Coptic attack was perpetrated or inspired by al Qaeda (though there has been some suggestive evidence in this regard). Second, I disagree with the premise of this question that the attack has led to a “cycle of violence.” There were days of protests and riots, including some relatively minor violence between Christians and Muslims and Coptic vandalism of a mosque. (There has also been more positive news about Christian-Muslim relations in Egypt since.) Though that unrest could return, this isn’t like Iraq where some devious — but strategically useful — al Qaeda in Iraq attacks managed to set off waves of reprisal attacks between Sunnis and Shias. Christians represent only about 10% of Egypt’s population. To put it bluntly, if you had actual waves of reprisals as you did in Iraq, the Copts would get slaughtered.

Nor was I implying that there was no strategic purpose to this attack. One relatively small attack has indeed contributed to the destabilization of Egypt; to the perception that the state cannot protect its minority populations; to unrest by the Christian population; to deteriorating Muslim-Christian relations; and to increasing security expenditures. This may have been the precise strategic goal of the attack. The reason for my caution in saying that the strategic goal was not clear is that sometimes we assume the intention behind a terrorist attack before we have sufficient evidence to really determine that intention. I am well aware that, in this case, I have insufficient information.

John Little: I do think there is a tendency to assume strategic intent, or see signs of grand strategy, where there may be none. There are troubling signs here but, as you point out, evidence is lacking. Do you think there are parallels here to the fears about Mumbai style attacks? I know that I wrote about my concern that a simple swarming attack model would gain favor even before events in Mumbai. Analysts and pundits have written volumes on the subject since, warnings have been issued (as recently as this week for Europe), and security forces around the globe have trained and prepared for just that scenario. But while there’s no doubt that we’ll see the model employed with devastating results again in the future I think most analysts would have expected to see more examples of this over the past few years. Counterterrorism efforts deserve a lot of credit here but the bottom line is that any moderately competent individual or small cell could evade detection with this model so why aren’t we seeing more of this?

Daveed Gartenstein-Ross: To be frank, we would be far better off had we done more over the past decade to figure out what al Qaeda’s strategy is. Many of the U.S.’s policies designed to defeat al Qaeda have in fact played into the group’s hands, as I addressed in an article I wrote for Foreign Policy in November, precisely because we have not asked the right questions about the group’s strategy. So I’m not offering a generalized argument against looking for our opponents’ strategy. Instead, I’m being cautious about what I know with certainty, and what I don’t. For the record, if I were betting on this one, my money is on there being a strategic purpose to the Alexandria attacks.

As to Mumbai-style urban warfare attacks, I think you’re drastically overestimating the ease with which they can be executed (i.e. “any moderately competent individual or small cell could evade detection with this model”). First of all, the actual Mumbai attackers received training and gamed out the attack using models of the relevant geographic space. They did advance scouting, and put together a decent command-and-control capability. They weren’t just moderately competent, but rather were well prepared and well coordinated. Second, a number of attackers who appear to have been competent were thwarted late last year while planning to execute urban warfare attacks across Europe. In October, I wrote a lengthy analysis of how the Europe urban warfare plots indeed represented a real threat. The example of these European plots demonstrates that avoiding detection is more difficult than you’re giving credit, and also that there has been not just a clear terrorist intention to execute further Mumbai-style attacks, but actual efforts to do so as well.

John Little: I do not want to go too far down the road of publicly discussing how terrorists can do their job better but forget Mumbai specifically. With that event I thought we were witnessing a progression towards attacks that are simple, more immediate, and more likely to avoid sophisticated counter-terrorism measures. Mumbai, for the reasons you mentioned, seemed like a transitional event. I’m referring to attacks that do not require training in foreign locations, the assistance of subject matter experts (bomb making for example), exotic weapons, the transfer of significant funds, or sophisticated planning. Just killing people is, unfortunately, quite easy. Is the relative lack of effort in this area indicative of other priorities?

Daveed Gartenstein-Ross: I actually think we have seen a move in that precise direction. This is not just propelled by the example of the Mumbai attacks but also another factor: the September 2008 collapse of the American economy. The economic collapse fundamentally changed the jihadi war against the West, in my judgment, because it made the U.S. seem mortal. It created the appearance of a country teetering on the edge of a precipice, such that a smaller attack could finally push it over the edge. The rhetoric of jihadi spokesmen makes clear that they are in fact trying to encourage other Muslims to carry out smaller, more frequent attacks. For example, in a March 2010 video Adam Gadahn praised Fort Hood shooter Nidal Hasan, and encouraged other Muslims to follow his example. “The mujahid brother Nidal Hasan, by the grace of Allah and with a single thirty-minute battle, singlehandedly brought the morale of the American military and public to its lowest point in years,” Gadahn said. “The mujahid brother Nidal Hasan, lightly armed but with a big heart, a strong will and a confident step, again brought into sharp focus the weaknesses and vulnerabilities of America.” Gadahn also put his finger on a point that many figures within the jihadi movement have noticed: even failed attacks can help the jihadis by “bring[ing] major cities to a halt, cost[ing] the enemy billions and send[ing] his corporations into bankruptcy.”

Since September 2008, we have in fact seen two successful jihadi attacks that employ the exact model you’re speaking of: the Fort Hood shooting, and Abdulhakim Mujahid Muhammad’s fatal shooting at the National Guard recruiting station in Little Rock, Arkansas. (If you expand this to non-jihadi terrorist attacks, there have been even more, including Joseph Stack’s suicide plane attack on an IRS building in Austin, Texas; the June 2009 shooting at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum; and now the reprehensible shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and several bystanders at her “Congress on Your Corner” event in the Tucson, Arizona area.) So I think we have moved in that direction. But for a variety of reasons — including the relatively low pull al Qaeda has for American Muslims — this doesn’t mean that you’ll see someone get gunned down by Islamic militants every week.

John Little: So if American Muslims are overwhelmingly moderate, overwhelmingly good citizens, then aren’t we heading into dangerous territory with things like congressional hearings on Muslim radicalization and preemptive strikes on Shariah? Are we pushing American Muslims away when we should be more engaged than ever? Homeland security and counter-terrorism efforts obviously still need to proceed at a furious pace but should elected officials and concerned citizens be searching for more opportunities for positive engagement? Is the current landscape contributing to radicalization rather than preventing it?

Daveed Gartenstein-Ross: First, I don’t think we have proof that American Muslims are “overwhelmingly moderate.” I said previously that al Qaeda has a relatively low pull for American Muslims, but that’s a different conclusion. A couple of studies made the claim last year of overwhelming moderation. One of them, Anti-Terror Lessons of Muslim-Americans, is one of the worst studies that I read all of last year, sloppily researched and either incompetently or else dishonestly argued. I did not have the same objections to the other study, Brian Michael Jenkins’s Would-Be Warriors, but it did overreach on this point, claiming: “There are more than 3 million Muslims in the United States, and few more than 100 have joined jihad — one out of every 30,000 — suggesting an American Muslim population that remains hostile to jihadist ideology and its exhortations to violence.” On this point, I agree with a thoughtful critique that Drew Conway provided when Jenkins’s study came out:

We know … that this final assertion is not true; specifically, with regard to the numbers. The numbers, at best, only support the claim that domestic radicalization is very rarely observed. It does not suggest anything about the internal disposition of American Muslims. While this may actually be the case, simply … not observing a phenomenon cannot support this claim. The cliché, “The absence of evidence is not evidence of absence,” is particularly applicable to small N problems.

So I think my initial claim that al Qaeda has a relatively low pull for American Muslims is accurate, but we don’t know that the community is “overwhelmingly moderate.”

I do think that American Muslims are currently facing an elevated level of societal discrimination, and this isn’t helpful to our counterterrorism efforts. With respect to preemptive strikes on sharia, I assume you’re referring to the legislation that passed in Oklahoma. That legislation is almost certainly unconstitutional, on both free exercise and equal protection grounds, as it prohibits Muslims from doing what adherents to other faiths are free to do: enter into marriage or other consensual contracts stating that the relationship should be governed by religious law. Of course, there are aspects of dominant interpretations of sharia — such as its non-recognition that there is such thing as marital rape — that would be disturbing to allow people to contract into. However, the court system would almost certainly find such contractual interpretations void as against public policy.

As to Rep. King’s proposed hearings, there is a right way and wrong way to investigate radicalization within the American Muslim community. To give a plug to my recent Bloggingheads appearance, Matt Duss and I just discussed this issue. I haven’t been fond of the optics surrounding this hearing thus far, but that doesn’t mean the subject should be off limits. I hope the hearing is sufficiently nuanced, and that it’s successful, because it’s likely to do a lot to set our nation’s CT priorities for the next couple of years.