Saturday, June 18, 2005

Dirty Secrets of War

Insurgency. Occupation. Peacekeeping. Nation building. If ever there were a collection of dirty words in national security, this set of close cousins would qualify. I believe these words are less popular in the halls of the US Congress than France or ethics investigation. And yet any survey of the military operations of the last 3, 10, 50, or 200 years would demonstrate that these are not a rare cancer of war and conflict but rather the most common infection -- yet equally fatal -- and likely increasing in incidence and toxicity.

I've been working for some time on the question of how the US can better prepare for and conduct these types of low intensity operations. I had the privilege of helping prepare for three such operations (Bosnia, Rwanda, Kosovo) and witnessed a 1990's Pentagon leadership absolutely allergic to the entire concept in combination with a completely disorganized civilian effort and a dysfunctional interagency unable to agree on such basics as who can drive what kind of vehicles.

The slow learning US national security apparatus has finally gotten the message (silver lining of the mess we made in Iraq) and are taking on the issue with serious intent and resources. The State Department has stood up a Special Coordinator for Reconstruction and Stabilization (S/CRS) to marshall the civilian effort -- led by a great USAID civil servant Carlos Pascual -- while DoD has embraced the requirement so intensely that the Navy is now objecting to the Army having the lead on such missions (we need more peacekeeping ships! uh, right).

We still have a long way to go, however. This mission set is extraordinarily complicated and difficult. The critical concepts and capabilities necessary to succeed are not well understood. For one thing, there are really a number of different missions and environments under the "low intensity" banner, requiring very different approaches. That nuance is lost on the reform efforts which are almost entirely dominated by the current Iraq mess as the only planning scenario. Second, the failures of Iraq are primarily being seen as a question of insufficient civil capacity -- as if we just had a kick ass construction, security training, and civil society building corps, we'd be fine. Unfortunately, that totally misses the real problem.

What is the real problem or challenge in these environments? Building a pragmatic level of cooperation with the local leaders. If the local leaders are sufficiently convinced, scared, bribed, or confused so as to go along with the program, communicate with the occupiers, then the security and governance issues go from short term crisis to long term considerations, to be solved long after anyone remembered that we were in whatever god forsaken place we were in. Examples of the truth of this maxim abound from colonial experience to post-WWII Japan and Germany to the successful days of Somalia (yes there were some of those), the dangerous early days of the Bosnia mission in flashpoints like Brcko, and even the hidden success stories of Iraq and Afghanistan -- obscured in the more news worthy failings.

Translated, this means much more emphasis on a closely integrated military-political team on the ground, much more concept and training focus on negotiation, direct communication, and pragmatic relationship-building with locals, and a broader recognition of the need for all activities to support this core political challenge. Less important to the point of overkill: trying to create a capacity to autonomously build any government, infrastructure, or economy from scratch.

One of the ironies is that if done right, this approach actually demands LESS investment and involvement in the actual mechanics of government, economics, or security beyond the initial weeks and months. After all, what nation would really want or trust a government run by foreigners? That would be as bad as a government run by religious fanatics (you know who you are).


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