Going to War With the Allies You Have: Allies, Counterinsurgency, and the War on Terrorism
Authored by Dr. Daniel Byman. | November 2005
Potential U.S. allies in counterinsurgencies linked to al-Qa?ida frequently suffer from four categories of structural problems: illegitimate (and often repressive) regimes; civil-military tension manifested by fears of a coup; economic backwardness; and discriminatory societies. Because of these problems, allies often stray far from the counterinsurgency (COIN) ideal, both militarily and politically. Their security service culture often is characterized by poor intelligence; a lack of initiative; little integration of forces across units; soldiers who do not want to fight; bad leadership; and problems with training, learning, and creativity. In addition, the structural weaknesses have a direct political effect that can aid an insurgency by hindering the development and implementation of a national strategy, fostering poor relations with outside powers that might otherwise assist the COIN effort (such as the United States), encouraging widespread corruption, alienating the security forces from the overall population, and offering the insurgents opportunities to penetrate the security forces.
Washington must recognize that its allies, including those in the security forces, are often the source of the problem as well as the heart of any solution. The author argues that the ally?s structural problems and distinct interests have daunting implications for successful U.S. counterinsurgency efforts. The nature of regimes and of societies feeds an insurgency, but the United States is often hostage to its narrow goals with regard to counterinsurgency and thus becomes complicit in the host-nation?s self-defeating behavior. Unfortunately, U.S. influence often is limited as the allies recognize that America?s vital interests with regard to fighting al-Qa?ida-linked groups are likely to outweigh any temporary disgust or anger at an ally?s brutality or failure to institute reforms. Training, military-tomilitary contacts, education programs, and other efforts to shape their COIN capabilities are beneficial, but the effects are likely to be limited at best.
Throughout the 1980s, the United States poured money into El Salvador to check communist expansion in Central America. Although at that time the Salvador conflict was the costliest U.S. military effort since Vietnam, at the end of the decade the United States found itself spinning its wheels. Despite almost a decade of training, aid, and high-level pushes for reform, the Salvadoran security forces still suffered basic flaws such as a mediocre and disengaged officer corps, widespread corruption, a poor promotion system, and conscripts who did not want to fight. These weaknesses were only part of a broader problem. The security forces perpetrated or supported blatant and brutal oppression such as the killing of moderate political opponents and human rights organization and church officials, including priests and nuns. The security forces also were strong voices against much-needed economic, political, and social reforms that, had they been implemented, would have hindered the insurgents? ability to recruit and operate. Not surprisingly, as the decade ended, U.S. military officials concluded that an outright military victory over the communist insurgents was unlikely and that a political settlement was required.
In his landmark study of El Salvador, Benjamin Schwartz found that the problem was not that the United States was fighting the wrong war or otherwise repeating Vietnam-era mistakes of using conventional military power to fight an unconventional war. Rather, Schwartz found the United States did not understand its own allies. El Salvador?s military mirrored the country as a whole, complete with the same fractures, weaknesses, and pathologies. Indeed, U.S. attempts to initiate reform often failed because they relied on the Salvadoran military and government even though they had interests quite distinct from the U.S. agenda.1
The El Salvador experience should be of interest to policymakers today as well as to historians, since the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States not only ushered in a new era of counterterrorism, they also forced the return of the counterinsurgency era.2 The global effort against al-Qa?ida has meant, in part, invading Afghanistan and wrapping up cells around the globe. However, it also has required closer ties with a number of governments involved in fighting Islamist insurgents that, to different degrees, have ties to al-Qa?ida. Since the attacks, the United States has forged closer relations with Algeria, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, and other countries fighting insurgent groups that have relations with the global Sunni jihad that al-Qa?ida champions.
This shift toward counterinsurgency is a concern, as the U.S. record on fighting insurgencies in a third country historically has been poor. The Philippines appears to have been a real but difficult success, and operations in Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban have gone better than many anticipated. Nevertheless, the overall track record of the United States is better characterized by frustration than by victory.3
Successful counterinsurgency (COIN) relies heavily on allies? paramilitary, military, intelligence, and other security forces.4 In different countries these forces comprise a startling range of capabilities and sizes. The particular force-type mix varies by the country in question, the level of the insurgency, and the regime?s level of trust in the various bodies in question. This monograph focuses heavily on military and paramilitary forces, as intelligence and police units typically (though not always) take the lead before the insurgency is full-blown. The term ?security forces? is used as a broad term to encompass a range of units that fight insurgents.
According to various works on counterinsurgency, in theory security forces play several key roles. First, they establish government control and eliminate insurgent combatants. Second, they secure an area so political and other reforms can be carried out.5 Allies? security forces are also vital in part for political reasons at home. The American people naturally prefer that others fight and die in their stead, particularly when the conflict so obviously involves a third country?s vital interests.6 Equally important, allies should be better able to carry out most aspects of counterinsurgency. Their forces speak the language and know the culture, so they are better able to gather intelligence and avoid actions that gratuitously offend the population.7 Even the best-behaved foreigners may generate a nationalistic backlash among local citizens who otherwise feel little sympathy for the insurgents.8 Finally, perhaps the greatest factor affecting the insurgents? success or failure is the response of a regime: a clumsy or foolish response can be the insurgents? greatest source of recruits.9
Despite these advantages, thinking and scholarship on COIN tends to ignore the role of allies. Analyses are typically bifurcated into two players: the insurgents on one hand, and the COIN forces on the other. Even the recently issued U.S. counterinsurgency doctrine mentions the role of the host nation only in passing, without any serious discussion given to problems that may be encountered.10
In reality, even though both the ally and the United States want to defeat the insurgents, their interests differ considerably. An ally?s politics, society, and economy affect both the overall culture of its security forces and the political profile they present to their people: effects that shape the ally?s COIN strengths and weaknesses.
The U.S. COIN allies (with regard to al-Qa?ida) reviewed in this monograph?Algeria, Afghanistan, India, Chechnya, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Saudi Arabia, the Philippines, and Egypt?have (to different degrees) four categories of structural problems: illegitimate (and often repressive) regimes; civil-military tension manifested by fears of a coup; economic backwardness; and discriminatory societies. Because of these problems, allies often stray far from the COIN ideal, both militarily and politically. Their security service culture often is characterized by poor intelligence; a lack of initiative; little integration of forces across units; soldiers who do not want to fight; bad leadership; and problems with training, learning, and creativity. In addition, their structural weaknesses have a direct political effect that can aid an insurgency by hindering the development and implementation of a national strategy, fostering poor relations with outside powers that might otherwise assist the COIN effort (such as the United States), encouraging widespread corruption, alienating the security forces from the overall population, and offering the insurgents opportunities to penetrate the security forces.
The implications of these weaknesses go beyond the ability (or lack thereof) of local forces to fight the insurgents and shape the relationship between the regime and the United States. Washington must recognize that its allies, including those in the security forces, are often the source of the problem as well as the heart of any solution. The ally?s structural problems and distinct interests have daunting implications for successful U.S. counterinsurgency efforts. The nature of regimes and societies themselves feeds an insurgency, but the United States is often hostage to its narrow goals with regard to counterinsurgency and thus becomes complicit in the hostnation?s self-defeating behavior. U.S. COIN doctrine, no matter how well thought out, cannot succeed without the appropriate political and other reforms from the host nation, but these regimes are likely to subvert the reforms that threaten the existing power structure. Unfortunately, U.S. influence is often limited, as the allies recognize that America?s vital interests with regard to fighting al-Qa?ida-linked groups are likely to outweigh any temporary disgust or anger at an ally?s brutality or failure to institute reforms. Training, military-tomilitary contacts, education programs, and other efforts to shape their COIN capabilities are beneficial, but the effects are likely to be limited at best.
This monograph has five remaining sections. In the second section, the overlap between counterinsurgency and counterterrorism is discussed. Section three offers an ?ideal type? COIN force and then assesses how allied militaries involved in the struggle against al-Qa?ida fare by these criteria. In section four, several of the more structural causes that shape allies? security forces? cultures and their political profiles as they are relevant to COIN are discussed. Section five details how these general structural problems affect the politics of counterinsurgency and the military cultures of the countries in question. The final section examines the implications for the United States.
1. See Benjamin C. Schwarz, American Counterinsurgency Doctrine and El Salvador: The Frustrations of Reform and the Illusions of Nation Building, Santa Monica, CA: RAND, 1991, for a superb overview of the U.S. counterinsurgency program and its many problems. Another valuable study of the U.S. problems in El Salvador with regard to reform is A. J. Bacevich, James D. Hallums, Richard H. White, and Thomas F. Young, American Military Policy in Small Wars: The Case of El Salvador, Washington, DC: Pergamon-Brassey?s, 1988.
2.For a general overview of insurgency and counterinsurgency issues, see D. Michael Shafer, Deadly Paradigms: The Failure of U.S. Counterinsurgency Policy, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1988; Douglas Blaufarb, The Counterinsurgency Era: U.S. Doctrine and Performance, New York: Free Press, 1977; George K. Tanham and Dennis J. Duncanson, ?Some Dilemmas of Counterinsurgency,? Foreign Affairs, Vol. 48, January 1970, pp. 113-122; William Odom, On Internal War: American and Soviet Approaches to Third World Clientsand Insurgents, Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1992; Harry Eckstein, ed., Internal War: Problems and Approaches, New York: Free Press, 1964; Nathan Leites and Charles Wolf, Jr., Rebellion and Authority: An Analytic Essay on Insurgent Conflicts, Chicago: Markham, 1970; Ian F. W. Beckett, Modern Insurgencies and Counterinsurgencies: Guerrillas and Their Opponents since 1750, New York: Routledge, 2003; Bruce Hoffman, Jennifer M. Taw, and David Arnold, Lessons for Contemporary Counterinsurgencies: The Rhodesian Experience, Santa Monica, CA: RAND, 1991; and Tom Marks, ?Insurgency in a Time of Terrorism,? Journal of Counterterrorism & Homeland Security International, Vol. 11, No. 2, Spring 2005, electronic version.
3. See Blaufarb, Counterinsurgency Era, for a review.
4. In Saudi Arabia, for example, the regular army is excluded from many sensitive duties linked to counterterrorism and counterinsurgency, with the Saudi Arabian National Guard playing the key role. The Special Security Forces and the Special Emergency Forces play particularly important roles in the effort against alQa?ida. See Anthony H. Cordesman and Nawaf Obaid, ?Saudi Internal Security: A Risk Assessment,? May 30, 2004, working draft, p. 18. In Algeria, initial failures led to the formation of elite COIN units that over time became quite large. Luis Martinez, The Algerian Civil War, 1990-1998, Jonathan Derrick, trans., New York: Columbia University Press, 2000, p. 149. India has numerous forces involved in fighting insurgents in Kashmir, including the regular and special police, village defense committees, the central reserve police force, the Indian reserve police force, the Central Industrial Security Force, and the Border Security Force, among other units. For a review, see Tom Marks, ?At the Frontlines of the GWOT: State Response to Insurgency in Jammu,? Journal of Counterterrorism & Homeland Security International, Vol. 10, No. 1, Fall 2003, electronic version. In many countries, the paramilitary forces are as large or larger than the regular army forces. In Uzbekistan, the paramilitary forces number approximately 20,000, and those in the regular army and Air Force account for another 55,000. Roger N. McDermott, ?The Armed Forces of the Republic of Uzbekistan 1992-2002: Threats, Influence, and Reform,? The Journal of Slavic Military Studies, Vol. 16, No. 2, June 2003, p. 29.
5. Marks, ?Insurgency in a Time of Terrorism.?
6. Stephen T. Hosmer, Constraints on U. S. Strategy in Third World Conflicts, New York: Crane Russak & Company, 1987, p. 128.
7. U.S. Army, Counterinsurgency Operations, FMI 3-07.22, October 2004, section 1-10.
8. For a discussion on the nationalistic backlash that outside occupiers face, see David Edelstein, ?Occupational Hazards: Why Military Occupations Succeed or Fail,? International Security, Vol. 29, No. 1, Summer 2004, pp. 49-91; and Bard E. O?Neill, Insurgency and Terrorism: Inside Modern Revolutionary Warfare, Dulles, VA: Brassey?s Inc., 1990, p. 137.
9. O?Neill, Insurgency and Terrorism, p. 125. Some experts argue this has happened already in Uzbekistan. See ?Prepared Statement of Martha Brill Olcott,?as reprinted in ?Central Asia: Terrorism, Religious Extremism, and Regional Instability,? Hearing before the Subcommittee on the Middle East and Central Asia of the House Committee on International Relations, October 29, 2003, p. 57.
10. U.S. Army, Counterinsurgency Operations, section 2-16, notes that the United States seeks to improve host nation security forces, but it does not discuss their common problems and weaknesses.