The Situation in Afghanistan: Counter-terrorism vs. Counter-insurgency Efforts

As the United States approaches 15 years of military involvement in Afghanistan in the wake of the September 11th terrorist attacks, there has been increased frustration and questioning from the public regarding the effectiveness of the counter-insurgency methods and the issues regarding the high number of civilian casualties that has resulted from the classic difficulty in distinguishing combatants from non-combatants on the part of the United States. In this situation, an interesting ethical conundrum arises: 

Given the difficulties confronted by the US with counter-insurgency in Afghanistan and avoiding civilian casualties, should the United States adopt a narrower counter-terrorism solution and focus its efforts on eliminating Al-Qaeda? Do the possible future costs of abandoning counter-insurgency methods against the Taliban outweigh the benefits of reducing civilian casualties and focusing on anti-terrorism efforts? Costs of the abandonment of counter-insurgency methods include the scenario in which, if the Taliban is left in place, Al Qaeda will eventually return. Historically, the Taliban has shown itself to be repressive, hard line, and dangerously extreme.  Treatment of women specifically is of concern in this case, as is access to education for them and other underrepresented groups in Afghanistan and, more generally, the Middle East. However, the current situation in Afghanistan is becoming less effective, and the mission to “win the hearts and minds of the people” becomes more difficult with every accidental civilian casualty the United States is responsible for, and a counter-terrorism effort might be more manageable and successful. Would it be strategically and ethically prudent for the United States to take a different approach to the situation in Afghanistan by narrowing its scope to focus on counter-terrorism?

I am currently working on this issue as part of a case study for my senior undergraduate capstone course.  The nature of this forum is a perfect environment to receive critiques, advice and suggestions regarding how to proceed in working with this question, and I would really appreciate any input! 


Tags: Ethics&IRcasestudy, MiddleEast, ethics

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Have you seen Jeremy Scahill's "Dirty Wars"? It raises a lot of the questions you do, and it discusses how the War on Terror may have become a self-fulfilling prophecy. We are waging war in Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia, and so on, because that is where our "enemies" are. But civilian casualties in the War on Terror may be the main driver in recruitment to the enemy's ranks in those regions.

If we just left, would anti-Western resentment start to decline? Is our presence in the region driving recruitment for radical Islam as an alternative to Western imperialism?

I know this doesn't get at the dilemma you pose with regard to women (which I agree should be a key part of the discussion).

I think the questions you raise are important ones that I will be sure to include in the case study; it seems to follow logical train of thought that when the US inadvertently kills civilians it contributes to anti-Western sentiment.  I think the main problem with counter-insurgency efforts is the trouble in distinguishing combatants from non-combatants, and I'm operating under the idea that dealing with the Taliban is a broader effort than focusing on Al-Qeada and anti-terrorism.  

This question, as Andreas alludes to, begs the question: what would happen if the United States completely removed its troops from Afghanistan? The answer is not simple, but it could be said that this would resemble some form of counter-terrorism focused upon the use of drone strikes to eliminate the Al-Qaeda targets, in an attempt to inflict less civilian casualties. It appears however, as portrayed in the film Dirty Wars, that the use of drone strikes is also highly unpopular among the populations which they would effect, and therefore it is difficult to say that this would have a lasting influence on anti-Western opinions.

To get to the point, the system that is being implemented currently is not functioning, and the only way that we will be able to enact a change in opinion will be through the establishment of a different method of achieving our goals in Afghanistan.  Therefore, it would appear that a shift from counter-insurgency, to a more removed counter-terrorism approach, could be beneficial to our cause.

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