Monday, October 29, 2012

The failure of light-footprint intervention to provide long-term stability

Today the RAND Corporation released Libya's Post-Qaddafi Transition: The Nation-Building Challenge co-written by a team of researchers. The paper is pretty good on discussing the current security, economic, and political situation and challenges in Libya. However, the paper's discourse on the security situation, specifically through a "light-footprint strategy", has helped me get my brain around an issue I've been struggling to wrap my grey matter around because I don't think it addresses the nature of the conflict that lead to today's situation. To be exact (and with caveats not discussed here):

Light- to no-footprint intervention in support of rebel forces is not a long-term solution for stability.

The U.S. and other NATO involvement in Libya was essentially the provision of air support (with notable exceptions of on-the-ground SOF teams). There are a number of reasons for this approach, much of which is centered around domestic Western politics. But the provision of close and strategic air support to a motley crew of disparate and competitive armed groups is only asking for a disaster. Yes, this method helped bring about the end of the much despised Qaddafi regime, but it is certainly not helping bring about a lasting peace and stability. Much like our initial efforts in Afghanistan, failing to provide the forces necessary in the aftermath of the destruction of a regime creates an environment conducive to warlord-ism and the promise of many years of conflict.

Since the 1990s at least, conflict studies have proven time and again the value of well executed DDR (disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration) and SSR (security sector reform) programs. Our failure to begin this in earnest in 2002 (or really up to at least 2005!) in Afghanistan and our failure to do it now in Libya is exacerbating the security situation where the internationally-recognized government has very limited control over its own territory. Did we expect that these militias, that we supported with weapons (in some cases) and effective air support, to simply integrate themselves into the state or to return to their peaceful lives in the interest of democracy and human rights? Our planning for both Libya and Afghanistan suggest that we did expect that even if it sounds profoundly stupid when stated this directly. But without adequate intervention forces (military, police, civil) on the ground to provide security and to direct and lead DDR and SSR efforts, your only other option is to hope that DDR and SSR happen on their own. Which, as near as I can tell, has never happened.

The purpose of this short post is not to lobby for boots on the ground in Libya, but on the contrary to caution those out there who think that we can simply help these rebel groups with air power. For example: here. If our actions in Libya did create a gratitude account with the Libyan people, great. But that does not translate to those warlords that wield power through their militias as often their fight will be with other militias as they strive for greater influence. Without boots on the ground, we are unlikely to be able to stop these violent struggles for power if we can't be there to broker the peace and help move it along.

As much as military analysts bemoan the general public's lack of understanding of the effort and violence of a no-fly zone, the longer peace is much harder to accomplish without large numbers of troops on the ground to provide stability after the regime falls. If we are not willing to put troops on the ground before or after our service as a rebel-force air force, then we should seriously contemplate refraining from intervening in the first place. Or at a minimum, not be surprised when our actions do not provide the stability for which we had hoped.  That is where I have issue with the RAND paper: it discusses the light-footprint as a problem in developing long-term stability, but it does not discuss the real nature of our initial intervention and how we have not yet succeeded in using it to accomplish long-term foreign policy objectives. Instead of looking merely at Libya today, we need to understand that this has not worked yet in accomplishing anything other than short-term objectives: removing the guys we don't like. We need to understand that this approach is the minimal-interventionist version of the Bush administration's failure to provide a Phase IV plan for Iraq. It has the exact same consequences and is based on the same weak planning assumptions. Just keep that in mind as debate about intervening in Syria continues and we consider possible courses of action.


  1. My general understanding: The United States may attempt to direct the leadership of middle eastern countries, but they cannot actually determine the stability of a country or its leadership. Take one dictator out and there will be plenty more of the same to replace him, if not a dictator, a local warlord.

    1. That's an absurd over-simplifcation. The U.S. can't 'determine' anything in foreign policy - only help shape complex, unpredictable processes. There are no sure bets in this business - does that mean we should give up on it and go isolationist?

  2. Jason - while I broadly agree with your central point, I think you may be painting with slightly too broad a brush. It should go without saying that any intervention that doesn't align ends, ways and means in logical way amounts to action for its own sake (or perhaps, for the appearance of action). And if that end is long-term stability and security for the population (to harken back to the logic of force as authorized under the UNSC resolution), then packing up and leaving Libya a mess doesn't really accomplish the objective. I do think you have to cut the administration some slack on this front though: the Libyans themselves rejected even a small UN peacekeeping force that might have helped stabilize things and co-opt militias into a political process.

    Afghanistan and Iraq both illustrate your point nicely, but one has to ask whether our problem is the willingness to send in large-scale ground forces, or to develop and implement a political strategy from the start aimed at ensuring there's a responsible transitional authority. Point being that there are options for structuring your military assistance to insurgents and linking it to a political plan that could create the space for even a non-US ground force. This requires a conscious decision to foster dependency (in order to maintain sufficient leverage) and avoid having our clients reverse the game on us (which seems to happen a lot - GIRoA being the latest example). The point is not to create a puppet regime for the long term - only to create a reasonably competent and capable transitional political authority and maintain the political space for peacebuilding efforts to gain traction. In fact, maintaining our leverage is part of what helps ensure the regime is only transitional. But to do this, there has to be a realistic political strategy that does not imagine that it's possible for a society to go from brutal dictatorship or decades of civil war to democracy in a heartbeat.

    All that said, I think your suggestion that if we aren't willing to go whole hog we should just stay out of it is privileging theory over reality. As messy as Libya is today, there's good reason to believe that the human toll of leaving the East to Qadhafi's mercy would have been MUCH worse. We can argue over what the strategic consequences of those massacres would have been, but in human terms I think it's undeniable that our intervention remains a win.

    That is not to suggest that the same approach would be successful on even those limited terms in other cases, and comments like "with no boots on the ground, this intervention would not require an exit strategy" (from the article you linked to) are horrific. Whether we're planning for a large ground intervention or not, employing military force without a political strategy is not a recipe for success.

    1. I will freely admit to a broad brush here, leaving some nuance to the caveats I left out (my internet was flickering on and off as I was trying to write this). One of those would be that our strategic elements are aligned, etc. I made an assumption that long-term stability and security (for the population, sure, but more importantly preventing increased instability across borders) is the overarching objective of as it's one of our four enduring interests which exceeds our enduring interest of respect for universal values.

      In one sense you may be right in that I'm privileging theory over reality by suggesting a "go big or go home" approach. On the other hand I disagree in that the reality of our interests (in practice) rests with global and regional stability more so than human lives (up to a point that is yet TBD). I don't want to argue (here at least) about the correctness of this interest ranking, but you would be hard pressed to disprove it. On that assumption, the reality is that we care more about the long term than the short term. Based on that assumption, I suspect that desired ends in interventions is not merely the cessation of atrocities, but something beyond that provides long-term stability that prevents future atrocities from occurring. Which gets to your very valid point about developing a political strategy from the start. But we don't do this very well leading me to put this in the theory bucket instead of the reality bucket, as much as it pains me to.

      All that said, you are absolutely spot on that the point is not create a puppet regime and that we should have a political strategy before committing force of any size (I also endorse your framework for doing this). The point of this post is that while we continue to put limit our political strategy through Phase III only we need to recognize the limitations of any force we use.

    2. On the other hand I disagree in that the reality of our interests (in practice) rests with global and regional stability more so than human lives (up to a point that is yet TBD). I don't want to argue (here at least) about the correctness of this interest ranking, but you would be hard pressed to disprove it.

      I don't think they are fundamentally divisible in the long term (short term often more complicated). But cheeky to throw down the gauntlet and then close off discussion! ; )

      I suspect that desired ends in interventions is not merely the cessation of atrocities, but something beyond that provides long-term stability that prevents future atrocities from occurring.

      Without question. I just worry that in the aftermath of our colossal failures in Iraq and Afghanistan, we will be driven the make the perfect the enemy of the good when it comes to international affairs in general, and the use of force in particular. I want better, but don't think we (or the world) can afford to wait for the perfect.

      But you're right - 'better' or even 'passable' has to involve planning for the end from the beginning.

    3. But cheeky to throw down the gauntlet and then close off discussion! ; )

      Not closed off - just discussion better had over whisky!

    4. There is no counter-argument to that.

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  4. A very good post, and chimes with my own thinking on the topic over the last year.

    I think this speaks to a wider trend that there is a more general reluctance to launch the sort of large-scale, multidimensional peace-building operations that seemed to be in vogue until the early to mid-2000s.

    But to play devil's advocate: one potential critique of this post (though not necessarily a view I subscribe to, but one that may appeal to policy makers in a cash-strapped era bereft of public will for enduring operations) is that one can argue that doing enough to kick the door of a regime down is good enough, and in the long-run you can always try to use other sorts of carrots and sticks to influence the subsequent regime.

    One could point to the difficulty of getting a workable, self-sustaining political settlement in Bosnia and Herzegovina even a full decade and a half after Dayton. They could also point to the frustration over the direction of the Karzai government despite the substantial commitment of blood and treasure to Afghanistan. A light-touch approach might not deliver; but the heavy-touch approach also has a mixed record. (Your correct point about the generally positive effect of SSR and DDR notwithstanding.) There is much to criticise about the international protectorate model of peacebuilding.

    In essence, it is the prophylactic approach to international security: if "bad guys" come to the fore that can threaten your wider interests, send in the irregular forces or continue to back local proxies. Just do enough to keep the problems away from our strategic interests. (Eg, not flying planes into our buildings.)