SA: For the opinion press, sure. I would rather think that the non-opinion press’s role is to take the lines of what the administration has laid out, even if they’re not specific benchmarks or metrics, and just go deep in the weeds and chase their efficacy. I think that there’s a responsibility of the press to think through and investigate the ways that the current counterinsurgency approach in Afghanistan—and I’m someone who’s written a tremendous amount about counterinsurgency, from a rather sympathetic perspective in some cases—really does relate to the national interest, really does relate to the strategy that Obama laid out in his March speech, which was entirely a counterterrorism focus. In the beginning, you heard from Michele Flournoy, who’s the undersecretary for foreign policy at the Pentagon, talk about how this is a counterinsurgency strategy for a counterterrorism goal, and that needs to be thoroughly investigated. It’s the sort of thing that works well in the abstract, or is an understandable and coherent concept, and in practice a tremendous amount can slip between cup and lip. That’s something that needs to be constantly investigated.
And the press ought to be constantly questioning lawmakers and officials to say, if you don’t provide benchmarks, isn’t that itself an admission that you don’t know how to measure the path that you’re on, and therefore its own index of strategic drift? And you know, this is a war. This is not something that can be treated lightly at all, or can be treated, with so many lives at stake, as something that can just work itself out well even if drift occurs.
GM: What are some of the particular areas for slippage that you worry about now?
SA: The degree to which there’s a conflation of al Qaeda and the variety of insurgent groups in Afghanistan, and the goals for which they fight, and the strategies for approaching them. I mean, the Taliban is itself not a coherent entity. And there has to be a question at a certain point about whether the United States interests demand a war of such intensity and such resources to go after people like Jalaluddin Haqqani, who’s a vicious individual, and a warlord, and an extremist, whom also the United States worked with against the Soviet Union. And the degrees to which relationships between these terrorist groups and insurgents are transactional. There’s been a lot of really great work in counterinsurgency theory about disaggregating those enemies. Kilcullen wrote what’s increasingly the seminal work here. How’s that actually working in practice? What strategy, politically, is resulting to just focus on a discreet enemy?
And, increasingly, this is the big question. You know, Petraeus testified that al Qaeda isn’t really in Afghanistan anymore. This is not a war that’s been sold to the American people, as John Brennan said [Thursday], as a war to prevent al Qaeda from coming into Afghanistan. It’s a war that has been presented to the American people as one to get rid of al Qaeda from Afghanistan. And basically, to be less euphemistic, from the face of the earth. Would the American people really support a war that’s being sold basically as a prophylactic measure? Those are not questions that the administration, in my opinion, journalistically, has really had to confront.
GM: You mentioned the tension between counterinsurgency and counterterrorism. For a reader who doesn’t read Small Wars Journal on a daily basis, can you talk about that a little bit?
SA: Sure. Basically, there are some competing notions of what approaches ought to be taken for terrorism as a discreet national security problem. One school of thought, which is more the counterterrorism thought, is the idea that there’s a particular enemy who fights for particular reasons, and combating that enemy is a matter of identifying that person, collecting intelligence about him from the areas in which he takes succor, tracing his movements, identifying what his patterns are, capturing his communications, freezing his finances, targeting very specifically on groups and on his network, and then taking him down one way or another.