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Balancing Counter Terrorism and Counter Insurgency

Updated on July 11, 2010
A U.S. Special Forces soldier instructs Malian troops in counterterrorism tactics on the outskirts of Timbuktu. Photographs by Justin Bishop (2007).
A U.S. Special Forces soldier instructs Malian troops in counterterrorism tactics on the outskirts of Timbuktu. Photographs by Justin Bishop (2007).

Joint Publication (JP) 3.0 discusses the Range of Military Operations US Armed Forces may face. According to JP 3.0 "Military operations vary in size, purpose, and combat intensity within a range that extends from military engagement, security cooperation, and deterrence activities to crisis response and limited contingency operations and, if necessary, major operations and campaigns. I will discuss how US forces can face operations across the spectrum from one moment to the next without time for transition.

The phrase “across the spectrum from one moment to the next without time for transition” reminds me of the concept of the “three block war”. A term coined by former Marine Corps Commandant, General Krulak; the concept was that Marines would have to transition from mode of conflict to another seamlessly while making effective and appropriate tactical decisions with strategic and political ramifications (Krulak, 1999). Recently in Afghanistan, under the leadership of General McChrystal we have shifted away from a direct action counter-terrorism mission to a counterinsurgency mission (Chandrasekaran, 2009). Not that we are ignoring terrorism all together, but we are fighting it through a strategic level counterinsurgency. What this means is that while we have the right to protect ourselves and an obligation to protect US government assets, we essentially have the primary role of armed diplomats and public relations. We are charged with seeking out and destroying the enemy and in the process, minimizing collateral damage to the civilians who are all potential insurgents and passive supporters.

Between these two dichotomous objectives we find that we accomplish both though we pursue them at separate times and they may be separated by only moments. Let’s take a field trip: En route to a village, we are hit with an IED and a small arms ambush. Terrain prevents us from pursuing the attackers, but they are seen retreating over the hill in the direction the very same village that we are on our way to. There are no confirmed kills or injuries on either side.


Press Pause

Now the logical conclusion is that they are in fact going to the village and likely live there. Wanting to get those !@#$%s even if it means killing everyone in the village just to be sure may be a natural emotional reaction, though not the best one to act on. While the concept of killing or capturing them at all costs may be our first inclination, charging into the village with guns blazing or doing a full blown shakedown of every man woman and child would likely not be the way to go. For one thing we don’t have enough females on the convoy to deal with the women and children. Having aggressive men still amped from their recent TIC (Troops in Contact [with the enemy]) try to handle children is a tenuous at best and having men deal with the women in any fashion will not be received well by the locals and could even escalate to violence since everyone has an AK-47 over there and is obligated to defend their family’s honor.

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Little JohnnyYour Neighbor
Little Johnny
Little Johnny
Your Neighbor
Your Neighbor

Time Out: Reality Check

Let’s take a second to step back from the problem and put it in perspective. Your new neighbor of about 8 months had his house vandalized last night. You personally witnessed little Johnny (the one from all the jokes) throwing eggs and rocks at your neighbor’s house resulting in some broken windows and damage to the paint. So when this next-door-neighbor comes over and asks if you saw anything, what do you say?

Before you answer, I should point out that this neighbor, in only 8 months has made his presence very well known. He plays loud music with offensive lyrics on weeknights keeping you awake till it’s very late. His dogs seems to think that your lawn is their bathroom even though you’ve talked to him about it, it keeps happening. There are skid marks up and down your street from him peeling out every time he leaves even though kids live and play in the streets when they’re not in school. Oh and he seems to always be eyeballing your lady, he even asked what her bra size was once, among other things too inappropriate to be written here. So did you see anything last night?

Marines hold a Jirga with local leaders in Helmand Afghanistan
Marines hold a Jirga with local leaders in Helmand Afghanistan

OK, Press Play

OK, back to the scenario. So what should we do? Well, the first idea doesn’t include a happy ending so let’s start at Plan B. While we do need to maintain a tactical presence and awareness of our surroundings, we don’t need to be aggressive in our dealings with non-combatants. If we’re lucky, when we ask the village elder about what happened, he’ll lie and say he doesn’t know anything about it. It’s no fun being lied to, but if he really hated America and wanted us to get out of his village immediately, he’d say so. After all, wouldn’t you tell your neighbor to get the heck off your property if you felt that strongly about it? If the village elder is lying, it probably means that whatever’s going on, his heart isn’t really in it. He could just be a passive supporter that’s well aware of what the Taliban are doing, but he’s not talking for whatever reason. Or it could be that he’s also afraid of what could happen to his village or his family when the Americans leave if he talks or otherwise cooperates with us. What would you be thinking if little Johnny had a history of being more malicious that mischievous?

Perhaps an insurgent has taken advantage of Pashtunwali (a Pashtun code of ethics) (Sindh Development Institute, 2008) and claimed asylum under the principle of Nanawateh (asylum) or malemastia (hospitality) requiring that the unwilling host give their lives if necessary to protect this uninvited guest.

There are various forms of Taliban propaganda floating around and the village people could view us as occupiers or even be afraid of us depending on what they’ve heard before they’ve actually met us.

The thing in any of the above cases is that we need to develop relationships with the people have them come to see us as people rather than their enemies before any progress can be made.

So what is the “right” answer? Well, one must be careful of trying to apply a cookie-cutter approach to different situations but I put Big Stock in Small Talk. Generally speaking, one will have to see a Pashtun on at least three separate occasions before they even begin to trust you enough to consider opening up to you and providing useful intelligence that will help keep us out of their hair and in the Taliban’s face. We need the cooperation of the people if we are going to succeed. To put things in perspective, what would your neighbor have to do for you to tell him what you saw the next time something happens?



Chandrasekaran, Rajiv. McChrystal's Afghanistan plan stays mainly intact. December 07, 2009. (accessed January 05, 2010).

JCS. Joint Operations. March 22, 2010. (accessed June 29, 2010).

Krulak, General Charles C. "The Strategic Corporal: Leadership in the Three Block War." Marines Magazine, January 1999.

Sindh Development Institute. Pashtunwali code of conduct of Pashtuns. February 13, 2008. (accessed January 05, 2010).

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    • Kevin Fenning profile image

      Kevin Fenning 7 years ago from Philadelphia PA


      Good stuff!


    • Lance Crowe profile image

      Lance Crowe 7 years ago

      Hey Joni,

      Thanks for taking the time to read and post a comment. It can be very complicated over there. While Iraq had the piramary ethnic groups of Sunni vs. Shia both of which were Arabic, Afghanistan being the crossroads of Asia has Pashtuns, Hazaras, Tajiks just to name a few as well as influences from the surrounding countries, Pakistan and Iran both being nuclear powers and states of the former Soviet Union and China to the north. Note worthy because both China and Russia are in competition with the US.

    • Joni Douglas profile image

      Joni Douglas 7 years ago

      It sure sounds complicated, so thank you for spelling it out for us. Understanding what is really going over there is important and you have helped clear up some misconceptions.