Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Your Lips Move, but I Can't Hear What You're Saying

Kevin Drum recently linked to a William Arkin post that asks the question, "Is the War on Terror a Global Counterinsurgency?" The answer is: Yes. As I've argued on numerous occasions, counterinsurgency doctrine can provide a useful framework for responding to the threats posed by al-Qaeda and its like-minded agents. So it was encouraging to see top military officials tasked with combating al-Qaeda preaching this gospel. A sample of the good news:

The core task, [Mark Kimmit] says, is to eliminate terrorist sanctuaries and safe havens.

"It's clear that [Osama] bin Laden and his associates take advantage of failed states, nations in strife, nations that aren't able to...get the rule of law transmitted," Kimmitt told the assembled attendees. "In our area of operation in the Middle East, we've got to reduce the number of safe havens and sanctuaries."
Amen. More officials saying all the right things - even he of "my God is a real God, and [the Muslim God] is an idol" fame:

...Lt. Gen. William G. ("Jerry") Boykin said the United States should approach the war on terrorism as it would an insurgency.

The controversial Boykin...says approaching terrorism from the perspective of an insurgency allows the United States to apply what he calls the seven "elements of national power": diplomacy, military, economy, finance, law enforcement, information and intelligence.

Coordinating and synergizing these elements, particularly "information" in the global battle of hearts and minds, Boykin adds, will produce better results.[...]

[Vice Adm. Eric T.] Olson split the effort into a "direct approach," what he called a "kinetic" and violent approach to directly find and "engage" terrorists; and an "indirect approach" of building up foreign capabilities, reducing local support for safe havens, and eroding the underlying conditions that contribute to terrorism.
The good news is, they're saying all the right things. The bad news is, the actions undertaken pursuant to this newfangled "counterinsurgency" doctrine - including those linked to Boykin himself - do not match up to the underlying principles enunciated above. While the war in Iraq is the most glaring example of this disconnect, since the futility and counterproductiveness of that endeavor have already been parsed in great detail, let's instead look at how our "counterinsurgency" operations in the Horn of Africa are playing out.

This article in Foreign Affairs by John Prendergrast and Colin Thomas-Jensen offers a sound critique of the Bush administration's approach (actually, the mistakes began under Clinton), and evidence of how our tactics with respect to the Horn of Africa in general, and Somalia in particular, have violated most basic tenets of counterinsurgency doctrine.

The first thing to appreciate is how terribly complex and entangled the situation in the Horn is. There is literally a spider web of conflict, with an astounding array of regimes (close to 10 in total) supporting overlapping and cross-cutting insurgent/rebel movements in their respective neighbors' territory. It requires charts and graphs just to keep track of which countries are fighting which, and through what proxy forces. I have to think that even the combatants themselves get confused on occasion. Here is just a tease, but the article goes into much greater detail for those interested.

The Greater Horn of Africa -- a region half the size of the United States that includes Sudan, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Djibouti, Somalia, Kenya, and Uganda -- is the hottest conflict zone in the world. Some of the most violent wars of the last half century have ripped the region apart. Today, two clusters of conflicts continue to destabilize it. The first centers on interlocking rebellions in Sudan, including those in Darfur and southern Sudan, and engulfs northern Uganda, eastern Chad, and northeastern Central African Republic. The main culprit is the Sudanese government, which is supporting rebels in these three neighboring countries -- and those states, which are supporting Sudanese groups opposing Khartoum. The second cluster links the festering dispute between Ethiopia and Eritrea with the power struggle in Somalia, which involves the fledgling secular government, antigovernment clan militias, Islamist militants, and anti-Islamist warlords. Ethiopia's flash intervention in Somalia in December temporarily secured the ineffectual transitional government's position, but that intervention, which Washington backed and supplemented with its own air strikes, has sown the seeds for an Islamist and clan-based insurgency in the future.
Unfortunately, we have approached this swirling maelstrom from an overly simplistic - and solipsistic - vantage point informed by the "with us" or "against us" principle. Rather than attempting to "disaggregate" the conflicts - even from an analytical perspective in order to gain a "granular" understanding of the legitimate interests of each party - we have instead opted for an over-reliance on military force while backing a couple horses (Ethiopia and Sudan) to the near-exclusion of the rest of the field. We've picked the "with us" group, and all others have been relegated to the "against us" pile.

More than anything, however, the United States' counterterrorism policy in the Greater Horn of Africa now hinges on three strategies: almost unconditional support for the Ethiopian government, extremely close cooperation on counterterrorism with Khartoum, and occasional but spectacular forays into Somalia in the hope of killing or capturing al Qaeda suspects.
The problem with this approach is that it ignores the larger conflicts in favor of pursuing short term goals that are facilitated by our regional champions. Yet picking favorites only serves to exacerbate the divisions between the warring parties - leading us to ignore legitimate grievances on the part of the least favored nations, while allowing our allies to overreach. However, these conflicts will continue to fester until a comprehensive, regional modus vivendi can be reached that will satisfy each party - not just those we've singled out as expedients. Unfortunately, a continuation of the underlying conflicts will render any short term gains made in counter-terrorism ephemeral.

While the supposed counterinsurgency practitioners quoted above paid lip service to the poisonous effects that "failed states" and conflict can have on the appeal and spread of terrorism, and the value of winning over local populations, our policies in the Horn betray a lack of prioritization. The recent invasion of Somalia by Ethiopia, backed by American air power and troops, provides a stark example. Consider all that was staked on the prospect of netting a few al-Qaeda operatives, and try to reconcile that tradeoff with sound counterinsurgency doctrine.

Although Ethiopia's intervention this winter dislodged the potentially hostile Islamic courts -- which can be considered a short-term counterterrorism success -- it is too early for Washington to roll out the "Mission Accomplished" banners. Ethiopia's invasion has only displaced the most visible part of the Islamist movement; other elements have survived, including a network of mosques, madrasahs, and businesses, as well as a militant wing, known as the Shabaab, that has threatened to wage guerrilla war. Meanwhile, the courts' collapse has left a huge vacuum that the transitional government cannot fill. The courts had brought peace and stability, and their defeat has returned Mogadishu to the warlords who have preyed on Somalia for much of the past two decades. Two related insurgencies are likely to break out in the future, one led by the remnants of the courts, the other by disaffected clans.

This leaves the United States' interests in Somalia at risk. Having pursued the narrow objective of capturing or killing a few terrorist suspects, Washington has now become embroiled in Ethiopia's policies in Somalia, which may diverge significantly from its own in the long run. Focusing on hunting down suspects without also investing in state building is a strategy that could not have worked, and the decision to support Ethiopia's military invasion without devising a broader political strategy was a stunning mistake, especially considering the U.S. experience in Iraq. Predictably, resentment over foreign intervention has been building among Somalis. And U.S. air strikes against Islamist holdouts in the far south of the country have turned Somalia into a much more interesting target for al Qaeda than it once was; they could boost recruiting for the Islamists for a long time.
The flaws in our approach have revealed themselves in less spectacular ways as well. Our outright support for Ethiopia, and coddling of Sudan, have led us to turn a blind eye to brutal internal repression in those countries, as well as each nation's backing of proxy wars in neighboring states. Ethiopia and Sudan give with one hand in terms of cooperating with anti-terror initiatives, but take away with the other by continuing to sow violence, instability and conflict that provide fertile soil for terrorism and extremism to flourish. Not to mention the fact that with us openly backing certain factions in this multi-faceted conflict, we now garner an undue amount of blame for the concomitant destruction. We've volunteered to be the regional lightning rod for very little in return.

Recent U.S. policy has only made matters worse....[S]temming the spread of terrorism and extremist ideologies has become such an overwhelming strategic objective for Washington that it has overshadowed U.S. efforts to resolve conflicts and promote good governance; in everything but rhetoric, counterterrorism now consumes U.S. policy in the Greater Horn as totally as anticommunism did a generation ago. To support this critical but narrow aim, the Bush administration has too often nurtured relationships with autocratic leaders and favored covert and military action over diplomacy...

The results have been disastrous. Sudan's autocrats are reverting to the extremism of their roots. In Somalia, the core of the Islamist militant movement remains intact after Ethiopia's invasion, its members' passions inflamed by the intervention. The leaders of Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Uganda have used the specter of war and the imperative of counterterrorism as excuses to crack down on political opponents and restive populations at home. The humanitarian situation throughout the region, fragile even in times of peace, is now catastrophic: nearly nine million people have been displaced, and chronic insecurity severely constrains access to humanitarian aid for the more than 16 million people who need it.

The fundamental flaw in Washington's approach is its lack of a regional diplomatic strategy to tackle the underlying causes of the two clusters of conflicts. These crises can no longer be addressed in isolation, with discrete and uncoordinated ad hoc peace initiatives. Washington must work to stabilize the Greater Horn through effective partnerships with Africa's multilateral institutions, the European Union, and the new UN secretary-general. Until it does, long-term U.S. counterterrorism objectives will suffer -- and the region will continue to burn.
It's nice to hear our top generals and military officials talking the counterinsurgency talk. But unless they start walking the walk, it will continue to be one step forward, two steps back. It's a shame real men don't do diplomacy. At least that's what Ann Coulter and the Republican Party faithful think. Sigh.

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