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US President Barack Obama has tough domestic challenges—the unemployment crisis, healthcare changes, education reform, and so on. But one global issue on his table—with implications for India—is Afghanistan. Pressure is mounting for a quick decision on General Stanley McChrystal’s (commander of the US forces in Afghanistan) recommendations.

While attention has been focused on McChrystal’s demand for increased US troops in Afghanistan, what is less well understood is the fundamental change being recommended in the US strategy in dealing with terrorists and insurgents in “asymmetric warfare" conditions: a shift from “counterterrorism" to “counter-insurgency".

David Kilcullen, an Australian ex-army officer, has emerged as one of counter-insurgency’s thoughtful proponents. In an outstanding book titled The Accidental Guerrilla, he writes of the distinction between these two strategies: “Counterterrorism focuses on the enemy: (and) seeks to destroy this network (of terrorists). In this sense, it is ‘enemy-centric’." “Classical counterinsurgency", he writes, “is ‘population-centric’. It focuses on the population, seeking to protect it from harm, competing with the insurgent for influence and control at the grassroots level."

Counter-insurgency isn’t a new idea, and in fact was discredited after the disaster in Vietnam. But the success of the counter-insurgency-inspired surge in Iraq—a brainchild of General David Petraeus (whose 1987 Princeton thesis was on the erosion of institutional memory of counterinsurgency after Vietnam) has changed everything.

There is now furious realignment taking place within US defence and civilian establishments to accommodate this new, complex approach to asymmetric warfare. Detailed military manuals and how-to guides are being prepared, and institutional arrangements are getting re-jigged.

What will it take for a counter-insurgency strategy to succeed? In the words of another counter-insurgency proponent, John Nagl, in his book Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife’—“counter-insurgency is 80% political, 20% military". There are many ingredients of success, but improved local services is a key element: the delivery of basic services to locals—schools, bazaars, garbage clearance, and so on.

One “how-to" manual is titled “28 Articles" (a hat-tip to the classic “27 Articles" penned by the famous T.E. Lawrence of Lawrence of Arabia fame); article 23 reads, “Counter-insurgency is armed social work; an attempt to redress basic social and political problems while being shot at. This makes civil affairs a central counter-insurgency activity, not an afterthought."

However, for all its celebration of local services, the counter-insurgency strategy doesn’t go far enough to realize the full potential of this approach. Specifically, two key aspects need to be added: first, having local governments be at the centre of civic service improvements; and second, well-defined participatory decision-making processes that empower citizens.

Let me elaborate. There are two ways to deliver better schools and markets, especially in conflict situations: one, with non-governmental organizations and development partners, emphasizing “ends" over “means"; or two, through better local governance systems of elected representatives and participatory processes.

The choice should be for the latter, because only then will a system of decision making that reinforce the methods of a modern state get built. In other words, counter-insurgency could be thought of as “bottom-up nation-building", not just asymmetric war strategy.

Why is this important? Because an exclusive top-down nation-building strategy (focused on an iterative process of establishing national-then-regional-then local governments) is fraught with challenges, as highlighted by the Afghan top-down experience itself: a) it’s very complex to establish; b) these institutions can be hijacked, making matters even worse than before; c) the benefits takes a long time to trickle down to the average citizen; d) it absorbs enormous resources, human and financial; and e) a top-down system, once established, has no incentive to share power with local tiers of government. This is further exacerbated in countries where the cultural experience of democracy is not well established.

With counter-insurgency modified as “bottom-up nation-building", top-down initiatives can be supplemented by local government mechanisms that deepen democratic processes, thereby having positive ripple effects. Clearly, local service improvements should also take place, preserving the central tenets of the counter-insurgency premise—of protecting the population, winning their trust and creating lighthouse zones of security. And it is far less expensive than weapons, costing less than 10% of the defence budget for Afghanistan.

Even as Obama makes his decision on Afghanistan, public attention will focus on troop levels, but the critical subtext will be the arrival of counter-insurgency as the strategy of choice in asymmetric warfare. With some embellishments, this strategy has the potential to also contribute to nation-building from the bottom up.

Ramesh Ramanathan is co-founder, Janaagraha. Mobius Strip, much like its mathematical origins, blurs boundaries. It is about the continuum between the state, market and our society. We welcome your comments at

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