Counterinsurgency was not the practical answer to an international terrorist movement sheltered and sponsored by rogue regimes
By Julian Lewis
Telegraph Online – 30 August 2021 & Daily Telegraph – 31 August 2021
After two decades of casualties, costs and campaigning "down among the people", the US President is abandoning Afghanistan regardless of the outcome. The Taliban are largely in control, and Western strategy is in ruins. Not only will they probably harbour terrorist groups again, other Islamist states may well decide to follow suit. So, how should we have handled a country, like Afghanistan, when it served as a base and a launch-pad for al-Qaeda, and how should we deal with such situations in future?
For many years, I have argued that a form of containment, rather than counterinsurgency, is the only practical answer to international terrorist movements sheltered and sponsored by rogue regimes. Containment was the policy which held the Soviet Union in check throughout the Cold War until its empire imploded and its ideology was discredited. Islamist extremism has a subversive reach similar to that of revolutionary communism: indeed, one of its leading ideologues consciously adopted Marxist methods. Neither of those totalitarian doctrines is compatible with our system of constitutional democracy. Our task, therefore, is to keep them at bay until they collapse completely or evolve into tolerant, or at least tolerable, alternatives.
In Afghanistan, the task of overthrowing the Taliban and driving al-Qaeda into exile was quickly accomplished in 2001. At that point, NATO arrived at a fork in the road. The option selected was an open-ended commitment to impose a Western version of democracy, and protect it indefinitely in a country which had a strong sense of its own political and social culture, and which was known to be politically allergic to foreign intervention.
Making that choice sowed the seeds of ultimate failure: as former US Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara, learned from his communist counterpart after the Vietnam war, North Vietnamese fighters were motivated less by Marxist ideology than by a strong sense of nationalism and anti-colonialism – just as Stalin had used similar sentiments to rally resistance to the Nazis' 1941 invasion of the USSR.
Yet, there was another option available to Western strategists in response to the 9/11 attacks. Having achieved our immediate objectives of putting al-Qaeda to flight and punishing the Taliban, we should have announced that we were removing our forces, but would promptly return – by land and air – to repeat the process if international terrorist groups were again detected within Afghanistan. Ignoring this option was the first in a series of mistakes that led to the current situation, which satisfies no-one except the Taliban who can boast of defeating both of the world’s military superpowers: first the Soviet Union and now NATO.
Containment works mainly because totalitarian ideologies are at odds with human nature. Such intrusive repression consequently leads, in the very long term, to internal disintegration over issues of principles, power and quality of life.
Once the Taliban regain full territorial control, they will lose their shield of invisibility: as in 2001, they will be vulnerable to orthodox military initiatives. If they then pose or facilitate a renewed terrorist threat to Western security, they should expect both their leadership and their military capability to be hit hard by our mobile land and air forces. That cycle would be repeated until the threat was removed; but we should not, and would not, allow our forces to be sucked in again.
A so-called "active containment" policy of this sort could track and match the terrorists' flexibility in moving from country to country, as circumstances dictated, without undertaking all that is involved in permanent regime change and long-term occupation.
'Boots with wings'
It has been described by the academic strategist, Dr Afzal Ashraf, as "boots with wings" (rather than just "boots on the ground") and, more colloquially, as "swoop in – swoop out". It would depend upon the maintenance of integrated and highly mobile land forces, pre-positioned in regional "Strategic Base and Bridgehead Areas" – SBBAs – ready to strike, withdraw and strike again, whenever and wherever needed.
If Afghanistan, or any other susceptible state, became what both the Prime Minister and the Defence Secretary have described as a "breeding ground" for al-Qaeda or similar international terrorist groups, proportionate military initiatives would be taken and interventions mounted from such SBBAs, without undue logistical complexity and without getting sucked in to full-scale, very long-term counterinsurgency campaigning.
Active containment is the hard-headed solution to an otherwise intractable dilemma: whether to allow terrorists to attack us with impunity or to shoulder the unending burden of occupying every reckless rogue state which shelters and supports them.
Nevertheless, by following a strategy of nation-building in Afghanistan, we created obligations to protect those Afghans who put themselves at risk by accepting our values and acting accordingly. We must save them from the consequences of our error at that fork in the road, twenty years ago.
Julian Lewis was Chairman of the Defence Committee, 2015–19