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by Haviland Smith

A retired CIA official and frequent contributor to this journal, gives us some advice on how not to conduct counter-insurgency operations. –Ed.

The old saw tells us “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter”. But that really isn’t true. A terrorist is a terrorist and an insurgent, or freedom fighter, is an insurgent. If we are able to stick to labeling them on the basis of what they actually do, rather than what we think they represent, we will be able to keep them straight and stand a much better chance of dealing effectively with terrorism.

Insurgencies are movements designed to overthrow existing governments. Some are popular and have pretty good prospects for success. Some are not. Generally they spring from within populations. If they are successful, it is because they generally represent the population’s views and thus have their support. That makes them very difficult to defeat, particularly by a foreign government.

It is extremely difficult to define “terrorism” largely because it is such an emotional subject. The United Nations has been unable to do so. Having said that, there are certain characteristics that are helpful in identifying terrorists. They use violence and asymmetrical warfare as their primary tools. They are not typically organized like insurgencies, but rather resemble politically oriented covert action groups. They use their terror psychologically for maximum impact to intimidate populations rather than simply kill individuals. Finally, they are non-state groups.

Historically, governments have been far more successful against terrorist groups than they have been against insurgencies, primarily because insurgencies tend to enjoy more support from local populations

Today’s American foreign and domestic counterterrorism policies have been built on the “Global War on Terror” or (GWOT). The Bush Administration labeled everyone it didn’t like a “terrorist”, never taking the time to differentiate between terrorism and insurgency. That was our first mistake. The Taliban, despite the fact that it commits terrorist acts, is essentially an insurgent organization. Yet, until recently, they were constantly referred to as terrorists, perhaps because we needed terrorists for our GWOT in an Afghanistan where there were hardly any Al Qaeda members left. Even though Afghans generally hate Taliban policies, and with good reason, they will often chose them over us if they are forced to do so. We are, after all, the foreigners in the fracas.

Our second mistake was in deciding to “solve” our terrorism problems with the military might. In employing a military response, we were using an asset that had been designed in the Second World War to sweep across northern Europe in an attack on Germany and then further fine-tuned during the Cold War to sweep across Germany and Poland to defeat the USSR. How we figured that was an appropriate tool for dealing with the new terrorism is hard to understand. The answer probably lies in the fact that the military establishment wanted a piece of the action, and all it had to offer was its sword.

Until the brilliant, early May operation that dispatched Osama bin Laden, the only example we had that argued that massive military response might not be the best approach, was the initial invasion of Afghanistan on October 7, 2001. In that operation, a handful of special operations troops accompanied by a small number of intelligence officers, kicked off a blitzkrieg that ended in very short order with the literal destruction of Al Qaida in Afghanistan and, coincidentally, the defeat of the Taliban. Remember, this was the “GWOT”. Afghanistan initially had nothing to do with insurgencies, only with 9/11 and the terrorists. Even though it all went south with the subsequent invasion of Iraq, the lesson was there to be studied, absorbed and implemented.

In 2010, the Rand Corporation reviewed the findings of its own 2008 study of 648 terrorist groups that existed around the world between 1968 and 2006. It concluded that of those groups, 43% were absorbed quietly back into the environments in which they had been active, 40% were defeated by police and intelligence operations and 7% by military confrontation.

In Islam, as elsewhere, true terrorist groups most often are involved in activities that are dangerous to the general population. Such groups, as in the case of Al Qaeda, often include members who are foreigners, who have goals inimical to the local population’s goals, or serve non-local causes. In the case of Al Qaeda, they often kill Muslims, a sin under the Koran. In short, they do not necessarily spring from and represent the ideas and desires of the local population.

Terrorists normally operate clandestinely in their local environments, trying to avoid identification by local populations. In fact, they often conduct operations designed to pit one portion of the population against another, simply for the purpose of creating chaos. That was part of Al Qaeda in Iraq’s (AQI) operational approach under Abu Musab al Zarqawi. AQI provocations were designed specifically to goad Shia into attacking Sunnis or vice versa, simply to keep the pot boiling.

When terrorists are the object of an essentially clandestine response like the one we conducted in Afghanistan in early October 2001, it is they alone, not the local population that are being targeted. That fact gives operational advantages to the special ops personnel and non-military police and/or intelligence officers working against them and permits local resident neutrality or even support for the local authorities.

When terrorist operations become known to local populations and are recognized as threatening or opposed to their interests, those populations often turn against them, as was the case with AQI at the beginning of the 2007 “surge” in Iraq, when the Sunni “Awakening” began to methodically wipe them out.

In direct contrast, when terrorists are confronted with military power, particularly foreign military power, the entire equation changes.

Let’s start here by stipulating that what America seeks from local Muslims in the struggle with radical Muslim terrorism, is optimally their support or, failing that, their neutrality.

As we know from our own experiences in the Middle East, American military confrontation tends to force the local non-combatant population to make a decision about whom to support, particularly if the local population believes that our “terrorist” is his “insurgent”. Will it be the foreigner or the local? This is the main reason that accurate labeling is so critically important and that a non-military approach is preferable in cases of terrorism. Is he a terrorist who is not seeking the same goals as the population and can be justly opposed? Or is he an insurgent who is on the same page with the population and must be supported? If he is a terrorist he is less likely to be accepted or protected by the locals. If he is really an insurgent, he will be one of them and they will back him against the foreigner.

If we misidentify out of carelessness, stupidity or even willfulness, as may very well have been the case in the past, we will likely employ the wrong techniques against the troublemaker, whatever he really is.

As if all this terrorism/insurgency discussion is not enough, our problems in the Middle East are made especially difficult by the facts that exist both there and here in America. The historical, political and cultural differences between us are numerous and important.

The Middle East is rife with ongoing conflicts. Sometimes they are absolutely overt, sometimes they are less obvious, but they are always there and have been for millennia. The Shia/Sunni split, the Persian/Arab competition for hegemony in the Gulf, the anomalous position of the Kurds. The hangovers of the Crusaders, Western imperialism and US Regime change operations in Syria and Iran have all added up to a region in which, today, the notion of liberal democracy is quite foreign and its bearer is viewed with extreme suspicion. There is little history of democracy. The peoples of the region, particularly given their tribalism, ethnic and sectarian differences have no experience that would prepare them for the freedoms and responsibilities that must come with self-rule and liberal democracy. What they do have is a Koran which gives any believing Muslim an exhaustive blueprint for life.

On the other side of the ledger, we have a United States that is ruled by its own American exceptionalism and eager to save the world by exporting its model. Yet, we are a wildly impatient, ADHD nation, short on planning, and married to short-term political timetables. In foreign affairs, we tend to evolve policies for American domestic political reasons, eschewing the realities that exist abroad. We talk democracy and support the most repressive rulers in Islam. For over sixty years we have failed miserably to bring peace to Israel and Palestine. We are so bereft of influence there that the sides are preceding in their own respective directions without reference to America. Yet, our goal seems to be a desire to install “democracy” in a world that has little reason to want to accept it. As a result, we are seen as opportunistic, narcissistic and hypocritical.

Many, if not most of these problems have solutions that would help us. The “Arab Spring” will change the Middle East forever, as the rebellions against existing authority have completely stolen the show from Al Qaeda, rendering their dreams of a medieval caliphate virtually obsolete. The rebellions have brought some sort of self-determination to those people who outlast the tyrants that have recently ruled them. If we can bring ourselves to accept self-determination in place of democratization as a viable goal for them, active nation-state hostility to us will subside.

What we can do completely on our own is change our counterterrorism policy. When we attack terrorism with our military establishment, as we have done in Iraq and Afghanistan after 2003, terrorism morphs into insurgency. That insurgency then demands our involvement in the export of democracy and nation building, all of which are matters at which we are demonstrable failures.

We are proposing to do all of this in the face of popular American disinterest in and lagging support of our adventures in the Middle East. Reality is additionally determined by a burgeoning national debt, ongoing national economic problems, a wildly expensive military establishment built for wars we do not face and acute national taxophobia.

We need to acknowledge that our current use of military might against terrorism in acutely counterproductive. In the absence of that constant military presence, local governments will find it politically more acceptable to share Al Qaeda as an enemy. We need to concentrate on our liaison relationships with friendly countries, our production of intelligence on all terrorism activities and our training and deployment of the kind of special operations teams that we have recently seen operating so successfully.End.

Haviland Smith
Haviland Smith

Haviland Smith is a retired CIA station chief. A graduate of Dartmouth, he served in the Army Security Agency, undertook Russian regional studies at London University, and then joined the CIA. He served in Prague, Berlin, Langley, Beirut, Tehran, and Washington. During those 25 years, he worked primarily in Soviet and East European operations. He was also chief of the counterterrorism staff and executive assistant to Deputy Director of Central Intelligence Frank Carlucci. Since his retirement in 1980, he has lived in Vermont.


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