In politics, catchy phrases often become sound bites. Sound bites become slogans that are transformed into partisan rallying points irrespective of logic or veracity. In this process, highly complex issues are invariably defined in terms of simplistic and misleading false choices.


Well before the “axis of evil” was born and shortly after Sept. 11, 2001, President George W. Bush pronounced that “you are either with us or against us.” That was brave talk indeed responding to American outrage over the al Qaeda attacks that killed more of us than at Pearl Harbor 68 years ago. Unfortunately, that was a false choice. Allies are needed in war, and the choice translated into a form of American unilateralism. And the notion of “consultation” with allies became one of merely informing them of American decisions — a practice that apparently has carried over into the Obama administration.

Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright was among the first to declare Operation Iraqi Freedom a “war of choice.” The implication was that the war in Afghanistan to root out al-Qaida and topple the Taliban was a war of “necessity,” and hence was the “good war” unlike Iraq, which was a huge blunder. But the fact is that states go to war based on interests and judgments. Hence, it is highly simplistic to declare one war of necessity and another of choice.

Eight years of frustration, violence and carnage in Afghanistan have given rise to another slogan that is also a colossally false choice. The choice is determining whether to focus on a “counter-terror” or “counterinsurgency” campaign. The first, according to the many texts on the subject, emphasizes law enforcement and intelligence. The British-IRA battle in Northern Ireland was largely counter-terrorism in which the army played a key but supporting role.

Counterinsurgencies are wars in which the “enemy” chooses not to wage conventional battles. Instead, terror and guerrilla tactics are the tools of choice. But the reality is that counterinsurgencies are largely civil wars or revolutions in which one group intends to overthrow another.

In Afghanistan, it is impossible to succeed without using the full set of capabilities needed to defeat both terror and the insurgents. While the Taliban represent a wide cross-section of many different factions — from determined jihadist to part-time mercenary — the intent of the insurgency is to seize power. As Lenin reminds us, the purpose of terror is to terrorize. Hence, insurgents and terror are inseparable in fact and in solution.

As the Obama administration grapples with a range of unpalatable selections of what to do in Afghanistan, it must reject the notion of an “either/or” choice between counter-terror and counterinsurgency strategies. The first step is determining what outcomes can be achieved and at what costs or price with or without the assistance of the Afghan government. That government is in the midst of a profound electoral crisis.

To some, Karzai’s truculence — which from his perspective of regime survival is understandable if unacceptable — offers the basis for an exit strategy. How can NATO and others commit 100,000 troops or more to a state that has neither a legitimate nor even fully cooperative government in this existential fight against the Taliban? Others argue that irrespective of who sits in Kabul, Western interests demand following the recommendations of the military leaders in the field and the deployment of tens of thousands more troops to achieve a measure of security deemed vital for Afghanistan to survive.

Whether we like it or not, we are in the midst of a tragedy. The resources likely needed to eliminate the insurgency and turn Afghanistan into a self-sustaining state almost certainly exceed the capacity of the outside world to commit them. Yet, a withdrawal could have catastrophic consequences in the region and the world at large even if the Taliban chose to focus inwards, as jihadists would claim this as another victory over the Western superpowers in the form of NATO and the United States.

This column has recommended various courses of actions to sail between the Afghan version of Scylla and Charybdis by focusing on population centers as the major points of leverage for improving governance and development under the umbrella of better protective security. But whatever strategic choice is made, it should not be between one of counter-terror and counterinsurgency.

That distinction is a false choice and will lead to failure because it overly simplifies a hugely complex set of challenges, dangers and realities. And that false choice has another fatal flaw. It says nothing about Pakistan, which, after all, is the strategic issue that will ultimately determine success or failure in the region.

Harlan Ullman is senior adviser at the Atlantic Council in Washington and chairman of the Killowen Group that advises leaders of government and business. This essay was syndicated by UPI as “Beware False Choices.”