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Comparative Counterterrorism Lessons for Afghanistan

This blog looks at the U.S. approach to counterterrorism (CT) and security in Afghanistan with an international lens. While recognising there are features of the Afghanistan approach and context which are unique, it asks what lessons can be drawn from this experience for understanding constructive CT approaches elsewhere. It also consider how US-led CT and security experiences in other countries might inform the next era of CT in Afghanistan, particularly in light of the expected announcement of a new target date of September 11 for US troop withdrawal.

Published: 15 April 2021

Authors: Andrew Watkins

Photo: North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) meet to discuss Afghanistan, counterterrorism and NATO operations. BY CC 00 - Chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff

Counter-terrorism has been at the forefront of Western aims in Afghanistan since the U.S.’ initial intervention in late 2001. Compared to numerous other Western efforts around the world, the military counterterrorism mission in Afghanistan stands as one of only a few historical cases where CT grew intertwined with a massive statebuilding project and support for an increasingly existential counterinsurgency struggle. In contrast, most U.S.-led counterterrorism missions are small enough to largely escape popular awareness.

Applying ‘lessons learned’ from other CT campaigns is therefore difficult; few instances elsewhere involve a similar size or scale of foreign intervention. Of those that have, such as the U.S. occupation of Iraq, any tactical ‘successes’ pale in the broader view: the Iraq intervention was a strategic disaster for global counterterrorism. Most operational innovations in the U.S.’ “global war on terror” were transferred over to Afghanistan a decade ago (and applied to equally questionable effect). Moreover, as Florian Weigand notes in the first post of this series, the primacy of counterterrorism has dominated political attention and overall expenditure in Afghanistan, to the detriment of the statebuilding project. Even in comparison to the intervention in Iraq, the counterterrorism approach in Afghanistan entailed channelling huge sums of loosely-controlled funding to non-state power-brokers, entrenching predatory interests that compete with and undermine the state. This also de-legitimised the foreign support upon which the state is dependent – tainting counterterrorism efforts among many Afghans themselves.

It is still premature to predict how the conflict will evolve over the next several years, and how the ecosystem of jihadism in Afghanistan will adapt. It is likely that the security environment will remain extremely challenging in the near future; as long as the conflict remains at its current state of intensity, it will prohibit a substantive shift to “softer” CT measures such as deradicalization, education, livelihoods development, etc. Such programming would also require comprehensive investment, planning and assistance from Western states, which appears unlikely given the general trend of disengagement among donors. Even scenarios in which a peace agreement is reached between the government and the Taliban would likely see a continued dedication to a ‘military-first’ approach to counterterrorism. Any future integration of the Taliban into the state would permit the U.S. and NATO to focus military efforts more squarely on Al Qaeda, the Islamic State and others. In almost any case, the West’s military approach to counterterrorism in Afghanistan is likely to remain dominant.

The most likely scenarios, according to analysts of the conflict, suggest a continuation of the government’s struggle with the Taliban – at least in the near to medium term. In this context, the U.S. interest in and likelihood of military withdrawal will pose a critical challenge to the counterterrorism mission in Afghanistan in terms of its partnership with local actors, which appears set to suffer a severe trust deficit. On this point, there are fruitful, quite specific lessons for the future of CT in Afghanistan based on efforts elsewhere. The U.S. military happens to have recently salvaged an eroded counterterrorism partnership, in northeast Syria – an experience that should inform individual and institutional U.S.-Afghan relationships.

The U.S. military happens to have recently salvaged an eroded counterterrorism partnership, in northeast Syria – an experience that should inform individual and institutional U.S.-Afghan relationships.

Keeping Counterterrorism Distinct from Statebuilding?

Perhaps the most significant lesson on CT is not one that can be applied to Afghanistan, but one that Afghanistan’s intervention seems to have offered Western states: large-scale military counterterrorism operations have not only undermined statebuilding and development goals, but are not worth their cost. U.S./NATO military consensus has grown around the notion that agile, light-footprint counterterrorism missions are able to pursue many of the same objectives at a fraction of the cost of interventions such as in Afghanistan or Iraq. According to this paradigm, CT missions should be kept distinct from statebuilding, peacekeeping or ambitious political objectives. Whatever its merits, it must be noted that this military perspective fails to grapple with drivers of terrorism that often stem from political crisis or statebuilding failures.

Driving down Western costs and resources in global CT activity has been achieved in part via a significant degree of burden-shifting to partner forces. The mantra of “by, with, through,” emphasizing the prominent role of local partners, has been streamlined into U.S. military jargon and doctrine. This new modality clearly stems from military and political considerations rooted in the costs, setbacks and strategic complications of U.S. CT-statebuilding endeavours in Afghanistan and Iraq; officials highlight the limited resource expenditure of a model that rejects large-scale deployments or entanglement in statebuilding.

CT lessons from Afghanistan (as national security professionals understand them) have already been ingrained and applied to U.S. military interventions over the past decade, perhaps most visibly in response to the emergence of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and its global branches. An emphasis on local partners’ roles is one aspect, but these lessons have also been reflected in variations of “over the horizon” CT activity, an approach that minimizes military advisory presence on the ground or eliminates it altogether. This arm’s-length approach is less rooted in resource expenditure concerns, and more of a reflection of operational constraints and/or limited political will to intervene – such as in the expansion of the drone war in Pakistan, in Libya, and in the first several years of the Syrian and Yemen conflicts.

Western efforts globally, in recent years as well as decades past, have demonstrated that light-footprint CT models can prove problematic, like ‘heavier’ forms of military intervention. In particular, an attempt to combine the two above approaches – to work primarily through local partner forces but as remotely as possible (which is what future U.S./ NATO counterterrorism in Afghanistan may look like) poses distinct risks. In part to combat principle-agent issues, a growing number of specialists now argue that partnerships with local proxies should remain transactional and narrow in scope.

Yet in Afghanistan, where transnational terrorism is intertwined with a strong insurgency, weak governance and a host of local grievances, the ability of Western nations to keep counterterrorism distinct from counterinsurgency may be practically impossible. Any future ‘light footprint’ CT mission in Afghanistan must grapple with this dilemma, as long as the Taliban remain insurgents.

Lessons from a Turbulent Partnership

Given that the future of Western engagement in Afghanistan is likely to transform considerably over the next year, there will be a pressing need to manage the partnership with Afghan forces amid reduced levels of support, turbulent political developments, and likely less leverage. Afghan feelings of abandonment, expressed by junior officers and senior officials for some time, have only grown sharper in recent months. A shift to “over the horizon” CT support is likely to further exacerbate Afghan frustrations, which appears set to complicate the working relationship at an operational and individual level. Indeed, the experience of remote advising over the past year, due to COVID-19 concerns, has already presented a range of difficulties to liaison officers.

There are several historical instances of U.S. military withdrawals that might inform the next era of counterterrorism in Afghanistan. The drawdown and departure from Iraq in 2011 looms large among them. A close look at the durability of the U.S. partnership with the elite Iraqi Counterterrorism Service after withdrawal, and whether Afghan special operations forces could follow a comparable path, is certainly warranted – but such an investigation lies outside of the scope of this post.

When it comes to explicit lessons that might be applied to future CT efforts in Afghanistan, the issue of perceived abandonment is particularly relevant given the length and depth of Western investment in the country since 2001. On this point, there are clear lessons to be learned from the U.S.’ experience with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in northeast Syria.

In 2018 and 2019, the relationship weathered a prolonged period of uncertainty in which U.S. President Trump repeatedly threatened a sudden withdrawal of U.S. forces, while the counterterrorism mission continued, but without offering any long-term assurances to the SDF. In October 2019 a withdrawal order was finally issued to disastrous effect, precipitating a Turkish military incursion into SDF territory along the Syrian border – only for Trump to be convinced in the days that followed of the strategic value of a continued nominal U.S. presence in Syria, entailing continued partnership with the SDF.

At the time, a collective sense of shock, betrayal and bitterness was palpable to observers – not only among Syrian Kurdish populations but among U.S. military personnel as well. Feedback from military, stabilisation and humanitarian figures throughout 2018-20 portrayed an increasingly tense and transactional relationship, with mistrust and friction building even before the withdrawal and spiking thereafter.

And yet, less than a month after this withdrawal, the U.S. sent troops back into northeast Syria to continue operating alongside the SDF. U.S. officials announced a crudely realpolitik rationale for their return: to secure Syrian oil fields. Officials later admitted this was a political smokescreen, and that a range of interests drove the U.S.’ desire to resuscitate its cooperation with the Syrian Democratic Forces. In late 2020, the U.S. deployed more heavily armoured forces into Syria while continuing to fund the SDF’s critical maintenance of camps holding ISIS detainees. The U.S. even managed to facilitate an internal power-sharing dialogue among different Kurdish parties and factions, and encouraged efforts to reduce inequalities between the SDF’s Kurdish leadership and Arab populations residing in their territory.

How did U.S. military advisors and their civilian counterparts re-engage with the SDF and its governance wing at the individual level? How was a collective sense of abandonment overcome? And how was the U.S. able to register some political gains, in spite of its reduced leverage? In part, the preservation of institutional relationships seems to have been bolstered by a deep affinity between many individual U.S. soldiers/ civilians and their liaisons. More pragmatically, the SDF had little choice but to accept whatever degree of support the United States offered, even after its feinted withdrawal cost the group in lost territory and political leverage. While Syrian and Russian forces quickly filled the vacuum along Syria’s northern border left by U.S. troops, the SDF remains squeezed between powers it remains suspicious of, and sees no prospects for a settlement with Damascus that would grant the area a degree of decentralized rule. Finally, the U.S. has proved willing to use its reduced support, and the absence of guaranteed and indefinite protection to pressure the SDF to adapt and compromise in a number of ways it had been strongly reluctant to in years prior.

There are vast differences between the U.S.’ partnership in northeast Syria and that of the U.S./NATO Afghanistan mission. In Syria, the U.S. partnered with a non-state proxy actor at a much smaller scale than the full scope of intervention in Afghanistan, a partnership undertaken from the start with a clear understanding of how limited the U.S.’ political patronage would be. But the circumstances of the looming threat of withdrawal and accompanying sense of abandonment, along with the existential degree of dependency on U.S. presence in both cases, are quite comparable. Moreover, regardless of the desire among U.S. and NATO national security circles to continue CT cooperation, the Afghan government could see military assistance downgraded to a scale and an operational relationship more akin to that of non-state proxy forces such as the SDF. What sort of cognitive shift that would entail among international military advisors, how Afghan security partners might react, and to what degree this transition could be rejected outright all remain unknown. But careful review of the operational experience of practitioners in northeast Syria may reap valuable insights.

Careful review of the operational experience of practitioners in northeast Syria may reap valuable insights.

Emerging Lessons and Next Steps

The future of Western counterterrorism efforts in Afghanistan could benefit from structured research that collects, collates and presents the experiences of military officers, civilian stabilisation officials and humanitarians as they returned to a potentially toxic partnership on northeast Syria in late 2019. Some institutions have conducted investigations into this period, but these are largely non-public, and in any event highly sector-specific. An interview-based compendium and assessment – one rooted in an examination of perceptions of abandonment, and how that was overcome – could be adapted both to an Afghanistan-specific context as well as a broader, more global perspective. Such a multi-sector study would prove immediately useful for foreign troops, development practitioners and aid workers in Afghanistan, regardless of the different circumstances in each context.

A multi-sector study would prove immediately useful for foreign troops, development practitioners and aid workers in Afghanistan, regardless of the different circumstances in each context.

The U.S. mission in northeast Syria should also be instructive for future Western military efforts intended to focus exclusively on counterterrorism, especially in multiparty conflicts. Even lighter-footprint missions with narrower scope can be complicated by principle-agent problems, conflicting interests of neighbouring actors, and broader regional U.S. national security concerns.

Importantly, and somewhat counterintuitively, the U.S. and Western partners may retain a great deal of constructive leverage with the Afghan government and security forces even after a hypothetical troop withdrawal. Though the relationship will be tested and potentially damaged, a major shift in the dynamic between international counterterrorism partners and Afghan forces will also spur a rapid re-evaluation of options. A great deal of adaptation and reform could finally prove feasible (perhaps including reform along the lines as Jonathan Schroden proposed in the second post of this series), at least as long as assistance continues at a scale that Kabul deems instrumental.

This final point about securing continued cooperation of local partner forces is critical, but will come with complications of its own. As long as the Taliban insurgency continues, there may be no greater issue for future CT efforts in Afghanistan than their entanglement with the fight against it.