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Ask The Man Who Knows

Should the U.S. pursue a counter-terrorism or counter-insurgency strategy in Afghanistan?

12:00 AM, Sep 8, 2009 • By FREDERICK W. KAGAN
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If you were going to pick a general to command a counter-terrorism operation relying on the precise use of Special Forces teams, Rangers, SEALs, AC-130 gunships, and all the other paraphernalia of high-end counter-terrorism missions, that man would be General Stan McChrystal.

So if we are going to have a debate about whether to use that approach or a counter-insurgency approach to pursuing our interests in Afghanistan, he is the man to ask. And we appear to have his answer.

Despite conducting a fresh review for an administration that most certainly was not pressuring him to ask for more troops or reject an offshore approach to the problem, General McChrystal has opted for counter-insurgency. It is difficult to think of someone better qualified than he to make this recommendation.

General McChrystal has served in the Army for 33 years. He has commanded the Ranger Regiment, Special Forces detachments, and both airborne and mechanized infantry forces.

He became the commander of the Joint Special Operations Command in September 2003. He then took command of the counter-terrorism task force working in Iraq and Afghanistan, a position he held for more than four years. He directed all manner of highly classified forces in operations against al Qaeda in Iraq, Shi'a militant groups in Iraq, and enemies in Afghanistan, including the successful operation in June 2006 that killed Al Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Musaab al Zarqawi. He also directed the CENTCOM-wide counter-terrorist effort and expanded it into a true interagency effort. General McChrystal knows better than anyone alive what Special Operations and other classified forces can and cannot do. If there were a way to succeed in Afghanistan without conventional forces by relying on an offshore strategy, we can be certain that General McChrystal would have found it.

He is recommending, instead, a counter-insurgency approach to the problem in Afghanistan in unequivocal terms. In his counter-insurgency guidance, issued on August 26, he wrote:

"There is clearly a role for precise operations that keep the insurgents off balance, take the fight to their sanctuaries, and prevent them from affecting the population. These operations are important, but, in and of themselves, are not necessarily decisive. They can be effective when the insurgents have become so isolated from the population that they are no longer welcome, have been kicked out of their communities, and are reduced to hiding in remote areas and raiding from there. Setting these conditions throughout the year will enable kinetic operations to have an enduring rather than fleeting impact."

Depending only on "precise" kinetic operations is what a counter-terrorism strategy would entail. General McChrystal thinks that would be insufficient to decisively deal with the enemy. And no one has plausibly argued--as opposed to asserting or wishing--otherwise.

Frederick W. Kagan is a contributing editor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD and a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.