This is How We’ll Defeat Al-Qaeda


Over the weekend, American special operations forces conducted two operations aimed at removing key terrorist leaders from the battlefield.  In Tripoli, Libya, U.S. forces tracked down and detained Abu Anas al-Libi, wanted for his role in the 1998 bombing of the American embassy in Nairobi.  In Somalia, Navy SEALs stormed a compound in the coastal enclave of Barawe.  The raid targeted an al-Shabaab commander of foreign fighters known as Ikrima.  He is believed to have escaped, and the SEALs withdrew after a firefight that reportedly killed two al-Shabaab fighters.

For those who missed SEALs’ May 2011 raid on a compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, or the January 2012 rescue of American and Danish hostages and killing of their captors in central Somalia, this is something at which our special operations forces are quite effective.  Whether executing operations unilaterally in denied territory, as they did in Abbottabad in 2011 and again in Somalia over the weekend, or conducting combined operations with local forces, as they appear to have done in Libya (al-Libi’s son claims that Libyans were among his father’s captors), American SOF excel at bringing the fight to the enemy.  And they offer the best chance to defeat al-Qaeda.

For years, a debate has raged among strategists as to whether to emphasize the principles of counterinsurgency doctrine or direct action in the effort to counter the threat posed by jihadists.  COINdinistas argue that a comprehensive political-military approach is necessary to fully defeat al-Qaeda and likeminded groups.  Adherents of a more direct combat strategy respond that counterterrorism is not COIN, and that CT requires kinetic action to kill or capture dangerous terrorists that pose severe and immediate threats to global security.

Several years ago, when I was a newly commissioned U.S. Army lieutenant, a retired lieutenant colonel named Ralph Peters visited Fort Huachuca to speak to my Military Intelligence Officer Basic Course class.  His comments carried an air of both authenticity and honest assessment that was lacking in many of the “professional development” sessions to which junior officers had become accustomed.  It was refreshing to hear, even as a young officer that had yet to become as jaded as many of my peers in the generation that commissioned post-9/11 and served as company-grade officers on multiple deployments would.  This, I assume, was why our course instructors, evidently eager to toe the company line, had warned us that because Peters’ views were not always “appreciated” by senior officers and DoD officials in Washington, we should listen respectfully but remain cognizant of the potential problems of associating too closely with such dissident views.  To be sure, Peters certainly enjoys playing the role of embattled contrarian speaking truth to power.  But one of his comments in particular struck me as the best conceptualization of counterinsurgency that I had yet heard: COIN is about killing those who need to be killed, helping those who need to be helped, and having the wisdom to know the difference.

Since 2006, however, when the lessons learned in the early years of the war in Iraq were crystallized and put down in writing in the form of FM 3-24—a sacred new guide and the Army’s first updated counterinsurgency manual in twenty years—the distinction between COIN imperatives and operational CT have become blurred.  To some extent, this is even justified.  In The Accidental Guerrilla: Fighting Small Wars in the Midst of a Big One, Australian insurgency expert David Kilcullen argued that transnational terrorism should (take a deep breath before starting this one),

…be best understood as a form of globalized insurgency, with a vanguard of hypermodern, internationally oriented terrorists (al Qa’ida and its affiliates), making use of all the tools of globalization and applying a strategy of transnational guerrilla warfare, while seeking to organize, aggregate, and exploit the local, particular, long-standing grievances of diverse – but usually tribal or traditional – Muslim social groups.

Or more concisely, we should view al-Qaeda and other jihadist groups as a global insurgency.  Accepting this premise, then, leads naturally to the application of the COIN principles that were on the ascendant, particularly after the militarily successful surge of forces in Iraq, to the challenge of countering the threat of terrorist/guerrillas on a global scale.

In retrospect, such an outcome appears almost inevitable.  By the beginning of the troop surge in 2007, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the broader objectives of the War on Terror (I know, I know, we don’t say that anymore) had become, if not fully conflated, certainly part of the same strategic narrative.  And by then, COIN was the new black.  The new doctrine, in all its population-centric, civilian/military-integrated, local partnering glory, was riding ever higher on the back of its rapidly rising patron, General David Petraeus—who Kilcullen served as a civilian advisor.

Thus, we had arrived at our strategic approach of applying COIN principles in our battle to defeat al-Qaeda.  As Peters had noted before my class of bright-eyed lieutenants, this meant killing some and helping many others.  But it didn’t take long before it was clear that we often struggle to earn the popular support that is the fundamental objective of counterinsurgents and the chief purpose of “helping those who need to be helped.”  The AfPak region offers an illustrative case in point.  Our overarching purpose in the region, especially as we approach looming withdrawal dates, is to limit the degree to which jihadists can use it as a safe haven from which to launch future attacks.  To meet this CT objective, we sought to bolster stability by applying COIN principles.  We moved small units off of large bases in Afghanistan and out to small outposts in an effort to engage with and provide security for Afghans.  We pushed aid money down to the lowest levels possible, empowering commanders and their civilian counterparts on the ground to approve micro-grants for local businesses.  We reoriented troops away from military objectives and toward political ones.  We opened the door to reconciliation with the bulk of low-level Taliban fighters and many of their senior leaders, bestowing on them a sense of legitimacy as political actors.

But in order to “kill those who needed to be killed,” we also increased drone strikes targeting safe havens of al-Qaeda and its associated groups across the border in Pakistan.  And we brought our sharpest tool to the fight, sending our most skilled warriors to directly target irreconcilable militants on a heretofore-unimaginable OPTEMPO.

But herein lies the problem.  Drone strikes and SOF night raids have had a more erosive impact on our campaign to generate popular support both for U.S. forces and, more importantly, for the Afghan government, than any other feature of our strategy.  So although Peters’ concise conceptualization of counterinsurgency remains the best I’ve heard, the model simply hasn’t worked when extended beyond the strict confines of a single insurgency to counter the regional and global threat of jihadist terrorism.

While these two strands of COIN strategy have contradicted each other when applied within a CT framework, it is also clear that our national security apparatus is measurably more effective at one of them than the other.  Building political consensus, restoring civil capacity, and the many other tasks that we’ve asked of our military were always going to be a short-term reorientation.  And our soldiers, particularly at the battalion level and below, have done a yeoman’s job under exceptionally difficult conditions.  But our military is much better at fulfilling its core functions—the “shoot, move, and communicate” tasks that are designed solely to enable them to close with, engage, and defeat the enemy.  Nowhere is this capability more clearly on display than in SOF operations like those in Libya and Somalia this past weekend.

On Sunday, Secretary of State John Kerry commented on the operations:

We hope that this makes clear that the United States of America will never stop in the effort to hold those accountable who conduct acts of terror.  Members of al-Qaeda and other terrorist organisations literally can run but they can’t hide.

The statement was exactly the one that U.S. officials would be expected to make.  But the seeming implication of the “we’ll-never-give-up” message, that these actions might dissuade other terrorists from sowing violence that threatens regional stability or international security, is false.  The raids, like drone strikes, are effective not because they might have such an effect.  They won’t.  Rather, they are effective simply because they take senior leaders off of the battlefield.  COIN is about undermining militant groups’ recruitment, and ultimately, their cause.  CT is about defeating the enemy.  Under ideal circumstances, we could do both.  But recent experience suggests that endeavoring to do so in our confrontation with al-Qaeda is a difficult task at best, and quite likely an impossible one.

This is not to say that U.S. policy toward the jihadist threat should adopt the Caligulan precept of oderint dum metuant—let them hate, so long as they fear.  Engaging vulnerable populations in order to degrade popular support for al-Qaeda remains a strategic necessity.  But even an extremely generous accounting of our efforts along these lines over more than a decade would deem them a middling success.  Compared to this, our ability to employ SOF’s kinetic capabilities in a discerning, targeted fashion has been remarkably effective, and remains the best tool available to defeat al-Qaeda and the global network of jihadist groups atop which it symbolically sits.


John Amble is the Managing Editor of War on the Rocks.  A former United States Army intelligence officer, he has been featured in print and broadcast media in the U.S. and Canada.  Follow him on Twitter @johnamble.