Leah Farrell: To Split The Insurgency, Put Withdrawal On The Table

What is it with Australia and military experts? First Dave Kilcullen and now Leah Farrell. OK, whatever, two people from the same country don’t indicate a trend, but whatever, I’m an ignorant American.

Leah Farrell is the former al-Qaeda specialist for Australia’s federal police. Her blog, All Things Counterterrorism, is attracting ever-more attention in U.S. defense circles, since she focuses on al-Qaeda and then zooms out to military strategy, counterinsurgency considerations, etc. It’s what I’ve been taking to call supply-side security analysis (“What is this network/organization/movement doing? What are its goals?”) at a time when many in the community, after seeing a half-assed supply-side security analysis go awry during the Bush years, are performing demand-side security analysis (“Why is a population cohort providing active/passive support for this extremist organization? What would it take to reverse that trend?”). In all things, a balance is required, and so Farrell’s new Australian op-ed is worth reading, precisely for the way her focus on al-Qaeda allows her to cut through some of the taboos of the American debate. Specifically: withdrawal from Afghanistan.

I’ll just summarize a bit, since you should read it yourself — one of the points of this post is to introduce you guys to an analyst worth reading consistently — but Farrell warns that al-Qaeda’s whole bag since 9/11 was to enmesh the U.S. in Afghanistan, and so escalation risks playing into its hands, precisely at a moment when al-Qaeda and Taliban goals are diverging. Farrell:

Al-Qa’ida also has another reason for attacking the US in order to keep it engaged in Afghanistan. The Afghan Taliban is moving away from al-Qa’ida and redefining itself as a national liberation movement. For al-Qa’ida, Taliban statements condemning colonialism and inviting good relations with its neighbours put a question mark over their relationship. The solution is the same: to attack the US, forcing a surge in American troop numbers.

This would tie the Afghan Taliban’s hands. Taliban leader Mullah Omar’s legitimacy would be jeopardised were he to publicly disassociate from al-Qa’ida and guarantee he would not again provide it sanctuary. His refusal to do so would then feed the justification for a counterinsurgency campaign against the Taliban in Afghanistan, ensuring the US remains engaged in the conflict.

I’m dubious about the al-Qaeda/Taliban divergence precisely because I want to believe it. This great Josh Partlow piece (analyzed here) suggests that there’s some intelligence basis for it, but who knows.

It’s worth remembering Farrell’s points, as there is no constituency within the Obama administration’s internal debate for drawing down or withdrawing from Afghanistan. This TNR charticle, for instance, reflects an intellectually lazy way of conceiving the debate, as it presumes a continuum between counterinsurgency-skepticism and withdrawal. To do so is to misunderstand what’s going on. Even the Joe Bidens of the debate — its “minimalist” cohort — favor the largest U.S. military force presence ever in Afghanistan. For better or for worse — and Farrell think it’s for worse — there is absolutely no one in the administration even talking about troop reductions.

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Spencer Ackerman

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