Thursday, October 28, 2010

US Intervention in Central Africa: Getting past the strawman arguments

Uh-oh - I think Ex is pissed I'm holding him to the same standard he (rightfully) applied to the Afghanistan Study Group. And I seem to have drawn out the reflex 'who gives a sh**? It's Africa!' argument from many other quarters.

I admit, I may have been a bit harsh on Ex, but I stand by my central argument. I respect him a great deal - hell, this blog began as a collaboration of people who read and commented on AM - which is why I hold him to high standards. And contra Ex's assumption, I didn't call him out as some sort of 'I know Africa better than you.' I criticized his post for exactly the reasons I outlined: it constituted a glib and scornful dismissal of an idea without any basis in knowledge of the situation, instead drawing a monumentally inaccurate historical analogy that is typical of too many discussions of African security issues. If I was too harsh, it was because Ex's post seemed like a way of shutting down serious debate, rather than encouraging it.

However, Ex is absolutely right to use Kilcullen's four questions as a starting point:

There are four questions we should ask when considering whether or not the United States should engage in an international intervention:

1. Will an intervention make the situation better, or worse?

2. If better, should the U.S. government participate in this intervention?

3. If yes, should the U.S. government lead this intervention?

4. If yes, what should the U.S. government do?

But both Ex and those who've rallied around him have continued to use strawmen arguments and inaccurate assertions to avoid actually addressing these questions.

So let's clear a few things up:

1. Roth didn't propose a strategy. He argued that the US should be willing to use militaryforce to apprehend Kony. He didn't suggest the role that US forces should play, andcertainly did not propose a major deployment. Other advocates, like Resolve Uganda (who have conducted extensive research on the ground), are circumspect about whether US forces should be deployed, or simply provide support for African forces. And this is one scenario where drone strikes might well be a good option, as discussed in this exchange between Benjamin Wittes and Tom Malinowski (also from HRW) (hat tip to Carl for pointing it out). As with all proposals for military action, there are a lot questions to be answered before one can come up with a well-founded approach.

2. This situation bears no resemblance to Mogadishu in 1993. Describing Aideed as the head of a criminal syndicate as Gulliver does is wildly inaccurate. Autocratic though he may have been, he was a leader of the Habr Gidr clan, and firmly embedded in that social network. Opposition to the UN and US forces wasn't a spontaneous reaction to their presence. What turned Aideed and SNA against the UN and US QRF was the decision to selectively disarm his militia among the many in Mogadishu, and to shut down his radio station while leaving that of his rival Ali Mahdi untouched.

Task Force Ranger solidified Habr Gidr clan support for Aideed in July 1993 by killing clan elders while they were meeting his 'defense minister'. The elders had been opposed to Aideed's confrontational stance with the international forces, and had gone to try to reign him in. Following the raid, the clan rallied solidly behind Aideed.

Moreover, Aideed didn't rely primarily on coercion for recruitment, and in the Battle of Mogadishu, many of the civilians who turned combatants did so in response to a call for clan solidarity from Aideed's men at the beginning of the battle.

By contrast, the LRA has no social ties to (and certainly no legitimacy in) the communities it is now victimizing. It relies on forced recruitment of children. During raids, children are kidnapped and then subjected to intensely traumatic initiation, often by forcing them to murder one of their fellow kidnap victims with sticks, stones, or their bare hands. The point is to break down their psyches and social ties so they're susceptible to indoctrination, and feel they can't return to their former communities even if they escape.

The LRA also doesn't use the civilian population of an urban environment as cover for its movements and operations. It preys on them, and occasionally sends unarmed members into villages and towns, but it isn't operating in the midst of a densely populated city. It's a rural guerrilla group, not an urban insurgency.

It also isn't as heavily armed or numerous as Aideed's forces. Given that we're talking about groups of 20-50 generally poorly equipped rebels lacking technicals and heavy weapons, the firepower they can bring to bear in any given engagement is orders of magnitude smaller than the Somali National Alliance in 1993. The biggest challenge isn't defeating the rebels: it's finding them, and keeping them from attacking civilians while you're hunting them down.

In short, the social and political contexts, the dynamics with the civilian population, the nature of the enemy, the and the terrain are all completely different. Other than both being on African continent, and both potentially involving special operations forces, there's not much to this analogy.

I'll also just note that to really understand why things went so badly in Mogadishu, you've got to look far beyond Operation Gothic Serpent to UNITAF's decision to punt the job of disarming militias to the much weaker UNOSOM II, Boutros-Ghali's biases from his previous role as Egyptian FM (also an issue with the UN response to the Rwanda genocide), strategic incoherence in the US and UN approach, and poor coordination between the US QRF and the UN forces, among other things.

3. Contra conventional wisdom, limited Western interventions in Africa for humanitarian/conflict-prevention/nation-building purposes has worked in the recent past. Rather than draw a false analogy with Somalia, why not draw the much stronger analogy to UK operations in Sierra Leone in 2000/2001 that defeated the RUF and stabilized that country? Or French operations in Ituri (DR Congo) in 2003? Or (with a lesser degree of similarity) French operations in Cote d'Ivoire beginning in 2004 and winding down now? In each case, Western forces intervened with relatively few forces and met their limited goals, with hugely beneficial consequences for the areas in question, and very low numbers of Western casualties.

UK operations in Sierra Leone are particularly instructive given that things did go wrong - badly wrong - when the UK misjudged the operational environment and British personnel were taken hostage by a rebel faction. Those personnel were freed in a rescue mission executed by UK special forces (1st Para, SAS and SBS). The British adjusted their approach, ramped back up to ~1,000 personnel who provided training, equipment and advice at the strategic, operational and (to a limited degree) tactical levels to the Sierra Leonean forces, and defeated the RUF in about 9 months.

The point is not to gloss over the challenges that were involved in these operations, or would be in going after the LRA, but to counter the gross generalizations and broad-brush declarations that too often characterize this debate. Like Ex's casual references to the debate about intervention in Rwanda in 1994 - Ex, go read Scott Feil's article on the subject, and then we can go talk about APODs in the area over Scotch.

4. Possible second- and third-order effects cut both ways in this situation. On the positive side, action to end the LRA threat would also a) help stabilize three fragile states, and create opportunities to for the US to help address other destabilizing issues (through existing train and equip missions, advice on security sector reform in Western Equatoria as S/CRC deploys personnel to South Sudan ahead of the Jan 2011 referendum, etc.) b) help free up additional Ugandan troops for the AMISOM mission in Somalia, and c) enhance AFRICOM's relationships and reputation in ways that will help the US find partners to address its own security issues in Africa.

On the negative side, US involvement in hunting down the LRA could induce Khartoum to begin aiding them again (although I think that's pretty remote, given that Khartoum already has a lot on its plate, and can't really afford to alienate any more of its neighbors).

The LRA will inevitably attempt to retaliate against civilians for intensifying attacks against it, but they attack civilians in any case, and any strategy needs to include plans to mitigate that threat (using local military or self-defence forces). Such plans also need to take into account the danger of simply spreading the misery by driving the LRA into new areas, rather than finding, fixing and destroying them in place.

Finally, US assistance to the ethnic Dinka-dominated SPLA forces in Western Equatoria State could be misused, given existing tensions with the Zande communities in the area that are being attacked by the LRA. This is an issue for US assistance to the Government of South Sudan in general, though, which will continue with or without US involvement in operations against the LRA.

5. The risks of this kind of operation don't exceed (and are probably lower) than those US SOF are already undertaking. US SOF are currently involved in operations to hunt down the leaders of radical Islamist militant groups, including in Somalia. At least one press report suggests that they've expanded as of this year. In most cases, these operations are taking place in completely non-permissive environments with few if any supporting troops on the ground, against considerably more capable adversaries than the LRA. In the case of the proposed operations in central Africa, US personnel would be operating with the permission of the countries in question, and with friendly forces on the ground.

On the issue of child soldiers - a reasonable question, but given that other Western forces have had to deal with them and not sparked controversy, and that the US has been confronted with child soldiers in Afghanistan (and prosecuted one at Guantanamo), I am skeptical that this would become an issue in operations against the LRA.

6. Is it in US interests? There's a strong case that US participation in operations against the LRA (in some capacity, not necessarily in the lead, or even as trigger pullers) could radically improve the situation, has manageable risks, and good prospects for success. That leaves the question of whether it is in the US interests, and depends how you define them. I can't point to a specific chain of causation leading from LRA attacks to a threat against the US. But then, the chain of causation linking the border dispute between Ethiopia and Eritrea and the growing threat from Al-Shabaab wasn't clear until after Jendayi Frazer decided to undercut the peace deal between the two countries by overturning the Boundary Commission's findings (see here for an overview of Eritrean support for Al-Shabaab). Or, for that matter, the consequences of the decisions to allow the ISI to decide which Afghan mujahideen groups received Western money in '80s, or to disengage after the Soviets withdrew. By the time the causal links are clear, the risks and resources involved in addressing threats has generally grown along with the threat itself.

My point is this: the US does have interests in Africa, at the very minimum in helping build stable, reasonably legitimate and human-rights respecting states with the capacity to control their own territory. Want to prevent Hezbollah, the Taliban, or Mexican cartels from making money from the drug trade in West Africa? Or Al-Shabaab spreading its influence and reach to Europe and the US via Kenya? Or Boko Haram further polarizing Nigeria (and potentially the region) along religious lines? Then the US needs capable partners. Hence AFRICOM, and CJTF-HOA, and the Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership. And US SOCAFRICA running training programs for Congolese troops.

Helping to defeat the LRA is not without risk, but both the risks and the resources required are moderate. Tintin makes an excellent point that the US has its hands full in Afghanistan, but US interests extend beyond Central Asia, and AFRICOM may well be able to marshall the modest resources required from among the SOF capacity to which it already has access. As always, its a matter of balancing priorities, risks and payoffs. But it deserves serious discussion, not glib dismissal on basis of tired stereotypes or inaccurate information. I appreciate Ex taking up the challenge, and hope his next post on this or related subjects will be more than 300 words.


  1. I'll see your Scott Feil and raise you an Alan Kuperman.

  2. Uh, dude... why didn't you just say all that in the first place?

    Seriously, though, this is an excellent post, and I think it's much, much more effective advocacy for your position. Which is not to say that I'm convinced, however.

    1) You begin:

    Roth didn't propose a strategy. He argued that the US should be willing to use military force to apprehend Kony. He didn't suggest the role that US forces should play, and certainly did not propose a major deployment.

    I'll give you this one on a technicality, but I think it's important that we make a distinction between A) a collaborative, multilateral, multinational approach to the LRA problem that is enabled or facilitated by U.S. military personnel and resources, and B) use of force by the U.S. military. Maybe I'm quibbling over semantics here, but I think it's important. "The U.S. should be prepared to use military force"? Meh, I disagree. "The U.S. should consider ways in which its forces can participate in the resolution of this problem"? That's something I could be talked into.

    2) On Somalia parallels: PWN3D. You worked me over here, in large part because you're a real, live African security expert and I'm not. That said: while you highlight the ways in which Somalia 1993 and DRC/Uganda/Sudan 2010 are different, I think it's important that we acknowledge the clarifying effects of hindsight. In 1992, things seemed simpler in Somalia than they turned out to be. When planning GOTHIC SERPENT, things seemed simpler than they turned out to be. When sending a QRF to secure a downed helo in Mogadishu, things seemed simpler than they turned out to be. This tends to characterize military operations in all environments. As such, we should be absolutely certain that the proposed action is justifiable, advisable, and actually doable, and that contingency plans are in place to deal with a range of possible failures. This is less of an issue when you're facilitating host nation operations as opposed to directly engaging, but I think you take my point. When we think about the ways this is cleaner, simpler, and easier than Somalia, we should remember that we once thought that way about the effort to get Aidid.

  3. 3) You reasonably assert that U.S. SOF are involved in high-risk efforts in other places -- possibly HIGHer risk efforts. And I'm not going to get into a big tirade about our interests in south Asia or the Horn of Africa or anywhere else, but I'd just say that the bulk of people in government would assert that this higher risk is commensurate to more significant strategic interest in those places. And I'll leave it at that.

    4) It's perfectly fair to talk about legitimate U.S. interests in Africa, which is why I find it so curious that that conversation has been such a small part of this debate. WHY is going after Kony a good idea? WHAT is the thing that his removal would deliver to us that we can't achieve otherwise? HOW does that end justify the risks involved? You've alluded to some of the broad themes, but what about the details?

    5) This is a very small point, and it's possible that I'm wrong on this, but I'd suggest that what you referred to as "marshall[ing] the modest resources required from among the SOF capacity to which it already has access" may be more difficult than you imagine. For one thing, there's probably some room for debate about exactly how modest the required resources are. But more importantly, "the SOF capacity to which [AFRICOM] already has access" for something like this IS, in fact, modest. I THINK -- and again, I could be wrong about this, but I THINK -- that SOCAFRICA, like its parent command, has no organic forces. That means that it requests forces from the SF Groups (and other services' SOF) to execute specific missions on the continent, mostly efforts to build partner capacity, theater security cooperation, etc. (to include train and equip efforts through OEF-Trans Sahara and Joint Combined Exchange Training or JCETs). All of which is a long way of saying that there's not a big resource pool just sitting there for use as required by the COCOM, but rather that they have to go get personnel/units that are racked and stacked against all the priorities that COCOMs are requesting SOF to execute on. So the point is that you can't just do this with guys already tasked for Africa, because there aren't any guys already tasked for Africa.

    Anyway, those minor quibbles aside, I think this is an excellent post.

  4. Alan Kuperman's research is, in my opinion, heavily skewed to fit his hypothesis. His findings don't match up with the data and qualitative research from other scholars. His work just doesn't hold up to careful scrutiny.

  5. That doesn't actually say anything of substance, I'm afraid. I actually don't agree with Kuperman (or you and Roth, for that matter), but it's not really fair to dismiss his research out of hand without explaining why. Vague statements like the one above don't really count as explaining why.

    I'm not a military specialist, but I remember one question I had when reading Kuperman's book was why would troops need to come form the US to Rwanda, as opposed to, say, from the Gulf or from Germany?

  6. MK--very nice elaboration. Can you do this more often? It's good stuff.


  7. **********

    What Happened to ZUMBA GIRL?


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    "Civilized men are more discourteous than savages because they know they can be impolite without having their skulls split, as a general thing." --Robert E. Howard


  10. Very well argued. I would emphasize that if done, it may be possible to use very few US forces. France perhaps supplies the few SpecOps trigger pullers required, as Malinowski suggested. The aircraft to support the tracking forces could all be contracted from civilian operators. We would mostly do the money, the sigint and the ISR. There are already some civilian ISR assets operating in the area.

    In any event very impressive post.