Thursday, September 24, 2009

Counter-Terrorism versus Counter-Insurgency

Today's Long War Journal has an interesting article about counter-terrorism versus counter-insurgency in Afghanistan. The key decision in Afghanistan is whether to target al-Qaeda or to target the Taliban, which provides funding and a safe haven to al-Qaeda. In Israel, the situation is a bit different but the distinction between the two strategies bears reiterating.

Counter-terrorism is a set of policies and procedures which prevent attacks from sub-state actors on civilians. Counter-terrorism is one of Israel's greatest strengths. Israel's ability to stop a suicide bomber intending to blow up a bus is better than pretty much any other country in the world. Counter-terrorism theory relies on an idea of concentric rings of security. Between surveillance, checkpoints, walls, security guards, psychological screening, and citizen vigilance, Israel's counter-terrorism infrastructure is extremely strong, human rights issues aside.

Counter-insurgency (COIN) on the other hand is a military strategy which coerces a population to support a state actor over a paramilitary sub-state actor which targets either military or civilian targets, or both. COIN and counter-terrorism are similar in that they both are strategies against sub-state actors who endanger governments and civilians. However, they are different in that they attack different types of sub-state actors. Just as it would be foolish to treat E. Coli, a bacteria, with Tamiflu, and antiviral, it is similarly short-sighted to fight an insurgency with counter-terrorism.

However, Israel's tactics and strategic thinking reflect the mentality of counter-terrorism. For example, in Gaza, Israel's policy was essentially to kill or capture as many Hamas militants as possible, with regard for civilian casualties as a moral and PR liability. This would be fine if Hamas were a terrorist group, but its paramilitary tactics and military-like chain of command suggest that it is more of an insurgency. In a counter-insurgency, winning hearts and minds is a key strategic objective, necessary to victory over the insurgent group. But winning hearts and minds is difficult to do in Gaza, and especially when Israel's use of white phosphorous and flanchettes are widely considered to have been used with questionable respect to civilian impact.

Israel's defense of human rights in Gaza is that despite its best efforts, counter-terrorism carries intrinsic risks of civilian casualties. This, Israel's conceptualization of civilian casualties, is the conceptualization of the intrinsic tension between human rights and security which we find in debates about terrorism policy. But ultimately, as sincere as Israel's moral or philosophical concern is about civilian casualties, such conceptions are irrelevant to a successful military policy. Israel's interest in reducing civilian casualties isn't because killing people is mean, it's because killing people harms Israel's ability to successfully conduct counterinsurgency.

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