This Week at War: War Is Hell – COIN Is Worse

Posted on Sun 08/22/2010 by


By Robert Haddick

What will the war on terror look like after Afghanistan?

Here is the latest edition of my column at Foreign Policy:

Topics include:

1) How to be a good covert warrior,

2) Karzai orders his guests to leave.

How to be a good covert warrior

An Aug. 14 New York Times article explains the U.S. government’s latest attempt to develop a sustainable long term global strategy against insurgent and terror groups. In the wake of the Iraq and Afghanistan campaigns, John Brennan, President Barack Obama‘s counter-terrorism adviser, now vows to use a discrete “scalpel” instead of a brazen “hammer.” But the counterterrorism scalpel U.S. officials now hope to employ comes with its own set of problems and new challenges for policymakers.

In an essay for Small Wars Journal, Robert Bunker, a consultant to law enforcement and an adjunct professor in security studies at California State University, reminds us why democracies, especially self-conscious ones like the United States, are so unsuited for the dirty work of dealing with modern insurgencies. After a providing a brief history of brutality in recent insurgencies, Bunker sums up the consequences for democracies like the United States who have intervened:

Within this broader context, the ugly truth that insurgencies are brutal must never be forgotten. Democracies have little stomach for them because too many gray areas exist-the just causes are quickly tarnished, allegations of war crimes and actual war crimes take place on all sides, and, as in all conflict and war, the indigenous populations caught in the middle suffer the most.

For a determined insurgent, brutality is a weapon that intimidates members of the security forces and portions of the population that may consider supporting the government. When third parties like the United States intervene with large troop deployments, insurgents employ brutality to demoralize U.S. elites and the public. Even when U.S. military forces are responsible for a small fraction of civilians killed, the ugly images of the struggle on televisions back home are unsettling and, in the end, make the campaign unsustainable.

In Iraq and Afghanistan, U.S. policymakers deployed large numbers of ground troops with the goal of providing stability while indigenous security forces were trained and fielded. This “hammer” as Brennan described it is now broken and won’t be used again anytime soon. But with al Qaeda cells lurking in Yemen’s backcountry and elsewhere, Obama and his team have concluded that looking away is not an option either. Thus, the “scalpel,” the employment of covert raids, secret air strikes, and proxy fighters, be they government soldiers or tribal allies. The “scalpel” is an attempt to fight out of sight. And out of sight, they hope, means out of mind, to the media, the public, and political opponents.

Covert and proxy wars require local allies. After suffering the deaths of more than 5,000 soldiers over the past decade, U.S. officials like Brennan are understandably eager to use local forces for intelligence and military muscle. The hard part is finding local allies whose goals are even remotely similar to those of the United States. Local forces have the annoying tendency to prefer their own agendas, to arrange to get more than they give, and to manipulate the U.S. military to use their muscle on their local rivals. And these local allies frequently have unsavory human rights records which will inevitably embarrass their American sponsors.

In spite of these challenges, there seems little doubt that the covert and proxy war techniques described in the New York Times piece will be a growth business in the years ahead; the alternatives have been tried without happy results. The challenge for U.S. policymakers will be to size up the reliability of potential foreign allies and to come up with alternatives when those measurements fall short. What remains to be seen is whether top U.S. policymakers will have the shrewdness, negotiating savvy, and patience to make Brennan’s scalpel work.

Karzai orders his guests to leave

Afghan President Hamid Karzai has ordered all private security contractors in Afghanistan to cease operations within four months. After the deadline, private security guards will be restricted to compounds and buildings — they will not be permitted to escort supply, diplomatic, or nongovernmental convoys. Afghan private security guards can elect to join the Interior Ministry, which is also offering to buy the contractors’ weapons and equipment. Foreign security guards in the convoy protection business will presumably be shown the way to the airport.

Publicly, U.S. officials are pledging support to Karzai’s effort to gain a tighter grip on Afghanistan’s sovereignty. But Western officials appeared stunned by Karzai’s seemingly impractical deadline. “We are concerned that any quick action to remove private security companies may have unintended consequences, including the possible delay of U.S. reconstruction and development assistance efforts,” U.S. Embassy spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden said.

Shutting down many of the Western aid and reconstruction groups is hardly an “unintended consequence.” Many observers, both inside and outside Afghanistan, disparage Karzai as being merely “the mayor of Kabul.” If Karzai’s authority is currently so minimal, it is because there are so many alternate centers of money and influence and so many ways to bypass the authority of his government. Much of the tsunami of cash that has washed into the country has gone to local leaders who can provide security, labor, and access that outside actors desire. Karzai’s decree aims to centralize authority within the ministries he and his team control. Shutting down the private security contractors centralizes his control over security. Without security, few of the other development activities, which are distributing so much cash around the country, can occur. Karzai will thus gain more control over these cash flows, too.

Karzai’s move is a challenge to the U.S. gambit to bypass Afghanistan’s national security forces and stand up local security militias. More critically, Karzai’s ban on convoy security contractors might threaten the flow of supplies to U.S. bases, should the Interior Ministry not be able to seamlessly take up that duty. U.S. commanders may find themselves diverting soldiers to convoy protection or slowing down the tempo of their operations, just as the fight for Kandahar and elsewhere should be accelerating.

With a tighter grip on the allocation of security and development money, Karzai hopes to increase his leverage over domestic rivals. If the president can gain greater internal control, he will stand a better chance of fending off efforts by Pakistan and the Taliban to employ a divide-and-conquer strategy against him. What effect Karzai’s move will have on Afghanistan’s end game remains to be seen. In any case, his move is one more indication that he is charting his own course, independent of U.S. strategy.

The original article can be found at: This Week at War: War Is Hell. COIN Is Worse

Read more excellent articles at Small Wars Journal