US Counterinsurgency and Terrorism Policy

Over the course of the last nine years the United States has attempted to implement a number of policies to combat terrorism, and to engage in a counter insurgency, the formal on a global scale, and the latter primarily in Iraq and Afghanistan. However, viewed in a broader historical context current policies represent a nearly 180 degree shift.

In the wake of 9/11 there was a potential for a passive jurisdictional fight: the FBI has jurisdiction in domestic terrorism cases, NYPD had jurisdiction under local murder statutes, the National Transportation Safety Board has jurisdiction in the event of an accident, and while the Department of Defense and intelligence apparatus formally have no jurisdiction any international response is within their purview. The myriad of government agencies with jurisdiction is broadly representative of US policy with respect to terrorism in the pre-9/11 world, with the typical result being other agencies acting as support to the FBI (as in the Oklahoma City bombing). Though this may seem disorganized, in practice there is one clear tend: any organization with statutory jurisdiction is a civilian organization. This is indicative of a fundamental view point that combating terrorism is fundamentally an operation for police. Indeed as a result of these jurisdiction the United States military is barred from performing any functions, with US borders, as it would constitute law enforcement functionality which is strictly prohibited under the Posse Comitatus Act (1878).

However, the last nine years have seen a radical shift in these policies. The most striking evidence for this is in the name given to these operations, “War on Terror”, designating these operations as a war is already a violent change in direction. The Central Intelligence Agency has largely been re-purposed to the point where it’s primary function is obtaining and processing evidence on terrorism. The greatest change, however, has been a deployment of US military personnel around the world, most notably in Iraq and Afghanistan. This is clear evidence of the change in US policy towards treating terrorism as a military conflict.

With US military deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan the principle question has become whether to handle local combatants as insurgents or terrorists (somewhat ironic given the characteristic aspect of the colonial strategy during the revolutionary war as to act as guerrillas). However, the the mere fact that the US is deploying troops answers this question, it’s to be treated as a counterinsurgency. This is, practically speaking an impossible strategy, short of killing (or converting) anyone who would oppose US rebuilding interests, local insurgents can always wait out a military, foreign occupiers are unlikely to maintain a local force indefinitely (US military presence in Japan and Germany following World War II notwithstanding). US counterinsurgency efforts have, however, largely been following a “clear-hold-build” strategy, in the hopes of building a foundation that can persevere in the face of the inevitable opposition once US forces cease holding.