Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

September 30, 2009

Afghanistan: How to resolve ambivalence

Filed under: Strategy,Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Philip J. Palin on September 30, 2009

The choice in Afghanistan — we are told — is between a counter-terrorism strategy and a counter-insurgency strategy.

A counter-terrorism strategy would focus mostly on al-Qaeda and the Afpak border. By narrowly defining our problem, and not being distracted by the broader Afghan context, we could move to substantially reduce the NATO footprint. Counter-terrorism would depend mostly on “surgical” special operations, predators, and other air-borne strikes.

Vice President Biden is often said to be a principal advocate for an intently focused counter-terrorism strategy.  This morning’s Washington Post has a front page story that makes the case for how it would work.

In his leaked strategic review, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, makes the case for a broader counter-insurgency strategy.  Saturday McChrystal was in Brussels where he asked NATO, including the United States, for 100,000 additional troops to implement this strategy.  The NATO Secretary-General is now in Washington.

According to McChrystal, effective counter-terrorism requires a successful counter-insurgency strategy.  At the top of his August 30 assessment is, “Stability in Afghanistan is an imperative; if the Afghan government falls to the Taliban — or has insufficient capability to counter transnational terrorists — Afghanistan could again become a base for terrorism…”

But McChrystal’s strategy also notes the crucial role of internal governance (along with economic development and security) in an Afghan counter-insurgency strategy.  Some argue McChrystal’s counter-insurgency plan is  fated-to-fail due to the corruption and fractiousness of anti-Taliban leadership in Afghanistan. 

It is widely assumed by all sides that without NATO support the current Afghan government will fall.  Across the Pashtun South and Southeast this would result in de facto — even de jure — Taliban rule.  While there is good evidence most Afghans, and even most Pashtuns, do not support the Taliban, there is no credibly organized opposition to the reassertion of the Taliban. In many rural regions a Taliban shadow government is already fully in place.

We must accept this reality — the counter-terrorists insist — and deal with it as best we can.  Accommodate the Taliban, but take-out the terrorists.

Is this deduction as realistic as claimed? Even now — with much more self-interested and assertive Pakistani interventions (and increasingly our own) — the Taliban and al-Qaeda continue operations in Quetta, Peshawar, and all along the border regions.  Inside Pakistan, with a legitimate and competent (if troubled) government, it is barely possible to contain the Taliban and its allies.  Would it be different in a Taliban-triumphant Afghanistan?

The counter-terrorists argue that our only real concern is the bad guys who have targeted us. Take out AQ, they say, and we need not be concerned about what happens in Afghanistan.  Take out AQ, they say, and the Taliban will reset around Pashtun parochialism.

Two weeks ago, Mullah Omar, leader of the Afghan Taliban and self-styled Amir ul Momineen, distributed a mostly nationalist and comparatively restrained message marking the end of Ramadan.  But it is not hard to discern echos of his broader goal,

I urge the Islamic Ummah, particularly the Islamic and Jihadic organizations to remain aware of the conspiracies of the enemy; abandon their internal differences and begin a concerted and comprehensive struggle for the defense and freedom of the oppressed and occupied Ummah.

Further, the title which Omar has taken for himself, Amir ul Momineen or Commander of the Faithful, is that associated with the first four Caliphs of Islam, implying a vision and ambition to reunify the whole of the Islamic world under his austere rule.

There is significant ambiguity regarding prospects for our Afpak strategy and its implications for domestic homeland security.  But ambiguity is always an aspect of the future. The future is innately indistinct, indefinite, uncertain, and equivocal. 

There is an important difference between ambiguity and ambivalence. Ambivalence is to be divided between two or more equally strong alternatives.  In Afpak we are faced with ambiguity and ambivalence.

Ambiguity is resolved — eventually — by making a choice and carrying-through as best we can.  Action over time resolves ambiguity. 

Ambivalence is mostly a matter of our own attitude and is usually more resistant to resolution.  When struggling with ambivalence, it is my personal experience that the best long-term solution almost always engages the more difficult and selfless choice.

Is it appropriate — even possible — for a nation to make a “selfless” choice?  Just the question is more evidence for the depth of  current ambivalence.

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Comment by William R. Cumming

September 30, 2009 @ 10:17 am

Great post PL! And as you point out the importance of semantics should never be underestimated.

I would like to know how much the Afghan Taliban and even the Pakistan Taliban get in secret support by elements of the ISI?

Comment by William R. Cumming

September 30, 2009 @ 10:18 am

Soory Phil but a great post. Follower of former US Senator from CA?

Comment by Philip J. Palin

October 1, 2009 @ 6:12 am

According to the New York Times,the Taliban get quite a bit of ISI support.Please see:


But the ISI strongly denies the accusations in the New York Times, please see:


Ambiguity abounds.

What former California Senator did you have in mind?

Comment by William R. Cumming

October 1, 2009 @ 7:13 am

Sessue Hayakawa [sic]?

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