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Is Foggy Bottom Ready for Irregular Warfare?

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

This decade the U.S. military, led by its mid-ranking and junior leaders, has adapted to the demands of irregular warfare. It has thus renewed centuries of American tradition. Now American statesmen must show similar powers of adaptation.

Why has the United States had so much trouble in Iraq and Afghanistan? When U.S. statesmen look at a map, they see national borders and think about their political counterparts in other nation-states. When today’s American soldiers look at a map, they see an abstract watercolor of tribal territories, which often run over political boundaries long ignored by the tribal combatants.

After years of trial and error, U.S. soldiers in the field now know how to cooperate on common goals with tribes and local leaders—the pacification of Iraq’s Anbar Province through the tribal Awakening movement is the most notable recent example of this. But the United States has encountered hostility when it has attempted to enforce a top-down nation-state model on unwilling tribes and local leaders—the growing insurgency in Afghanistan is evidence of this. In fact, traditional resistance to central national authority is what has caused the chaotic regions the United States has found itself in to be chaotic in the first place.

Top-level U.S. statesmen are loath to give up on the nation-state system, which is the foundation for so much of international law and diplomacy, and the basis by which U.S. statesmen do their work. Yet American soldiers have learned from hard experience how to succeed in the parts of the world that continue to function on a tribal basis. U.S. statesmen need to catch up in their thinking to where U.S. soldiers already are. Once they do, the United States will have an easier time achieving its national security objectives.

Irregular warfare is now regular

America’s frustrating experience in Vietnam provided both an inspiration and a lesson to America’s enemies. These enemies learned that irregular warfare is the best way of harassing and demoralizing the United States while simultaneously avoiding the U.S. military’s overwhelming firepower and technological superiority. The Iranian embassy hostage seizure in 1979; suicide truck bombings against U.S. and French targets in Beirut in 1983; the running gun battle against U.S. Army Rangers in Mogadishu in 1993; the attacks on the World Trade Center in 1993 and 2001; numerous other terror attacks; and the insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan should indicate clearly enough that the United States now lives in an age of irregular warfare. The fact that Saddam Hussein was foolish enough to line up his army in the desert in 1991, only to watch it be destroyed by a U.S. military machine that had prepared for decades for just such an opportunity, only reinforces the point. The U.S. military will need its conventional war fighting capabilities to deter future peer competitors. But the actual fighting U.S. soldiers will do will occur on the irregular battlefield.

U.S. statesmen need to catch up in their thinking to where U.S. soldiers already are. Once they do, the United States will have an easier time achieving its national security objectives.

So just what is irregular warfare? In September 2007 the U.S. Department of Defense defined irregular warfare as “a violent struggle among state and non-state actors for legitimacy and influence over the relevant populations. Irregular warfare favors indirect and asymmetric approaches, though it may employ the full range of military and other capabilities, in order to erode an adversary’s power, influence, and will.” The Pentagon had in mind “a complex, ‘messy,’ and ambiguous social phenomenon” encompassing insurgency, counterinsurgency, terrorism, and counterterrorism.

America’s long history with irregular warfare

After almost eight years in Afghanistan, six in Iraq, and numerous smaller deployments elsewhere in the world, America’s soldiers in the field have demonstrated that they can adapt to the irregular battlefield. For U.S. soldiers deployed to irregular conflicts, struggling for “legitimacy and influence over the relevant populations” has meant patrolling in towns and villages, meeting with tribal leaders, interacting with the local population, and assessing whom to trust and whom to fight.

Viewed through the lens of America’s great Industrial Age wars, the Civil War and the 20th century’s two World Wars, fighting a war by sitting down to tea with a tribal sheikh and his entourage may seem odd. Yet recalling the four centuries of American experience from the Jamestown settlement in 1607 until today, it is the mass-mobilization “conventional” wars that are the odd exceptions in American military experience. Throughout American history a professional soldier most likely spent the vast portion of his career doing the work of irregular warfare, just as American soldiers are doing today.

As America’s recent history with nation-building suggests, attaining the conditions for a viable nation-state will rarely be realistic within a reasonable time frame or after a reasonable expenditure of blood and treasure.

American soldiers now deployed to Iraq, Afghanistan, the Horn of Africa, and elsewhere would find much in common with those who fought in the Frontier Wars across North America (1607–1890), the Banana Wars in Central America and the Caribbean (1898–1934), in the Philippines at the beginning of the 20th century, on the Yangtze River and Shanghai in the 1920s and 1930s, or in rural South Vietnam in the 1960s.

In all of these cases tiny American military units were sent off on their own, usually isolated from higher headquarters and logistical support. The young leaders of these units had to summon up their own initiative, create their own support, and adapt to their surroundings. A major portion of this adaptation was political, opportunistically forming alliances with certain indigenous tribes in order to isolate the most dangerous adversaries. U.S. soldiers in today’s irregular wars are performing many of the same tasks, under similar conditions, as their ancestors performed since 1607.

Problems with the nation-state solution

For the U.S. operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, the desired goal, the “end state,” is a functioning nation-state that provides a safe and secure environment to its citizens, implements the rule of law, provides for social well-being in its territory, results in stable governance, and encourages a sustainable economy. U.S. statesmen have concluded that a functioning nation-state has the highest probability of achieving these laudable goals.

The burden falls on America’s statesmen, and American society at large, to accept outcomes other than a stable nation-state as satisfactory end states to irregular wars.

But in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere, U.S. soldiers in the field are finding it difficult to sew together into a functioning nation-state the tribes with which they work. A large gap has opened up between what U.S. statesmen want delivered in these troubled areas—a nation-state with which they are familiar—and the tribal world U.S. soldiers actually work in.

Although “nation-building”—the establishment of good governance, the rule of law, and democratic institutions—is a noble aspiration, America’s experience with nation-building over the past 40 years has not been encouraging. In spite of a massive effort by the United States, the government in South Vietnam was not able to achieve sufficient legitimacy, at least not within a span of time the U.S. public was willing to support. U.S. efforts to promote central authority in Lebanon in the early 1980s and Somalia in the early 1990s came to naught. For now, NATO’s efforts in Bosnia and Kosovo appear more promising. But we do not know how Kosovo will fare without the large NATO peacekeeping force stationed there. In October 2008 Paddy Ashdown, who ran Bosnia-Herzegovina after the civil war, and Richard Holbrooke, assistant secretary of State for Europe during the war, raised concerns about renewed violence and fragmentation there.

In Iraq the U.S. military has successfully worked with local leaders to reduce violence. What remains unknown is whether these local Iraqi leaders and Iraq’s central government can cooperate. And in Afghanistan a determined insurgency rejects the legitimacy of the Afghan government and the constitution under which it functions.

A large gap has opened up between what U.S. statesmen want delivered in Iraq, Afghanistan, and other troubled areas—a nation-state with which they are familiar—and the tribal world U.S. soldiers actually work in.

These cases from the past 40 years have a common feature. Top-level U.S. statesmen have sought to resolve civil conflicts by bringing the institutions of the modern nation-state to these conflict zones. The first step has been to establish security and these statesmen dispatched the U.S. military to do so. Employing America’s centuries-old irregular warfare traditions, mid-level U.S. officers and their soldiers have often been able to establish good relations with local and tribal leaders. But when the statesmen have had the soldiers hurry along a nation-building process that under natural conditions would take decades to mature, America has more often than not had to abandon the field.

Must a nation-state be the only “end state”?

With the turnaround it achieved in Iraq in 2007–2008, and with the local successes it has attained in Afghanistan, the U.S. military has demonstrated greatly increased proficiency at irregular warfare. However, achieving success at a local or tribal level is a necessary but insufficient condition for building a viable nation-state. As America’s recent history with nation-building suggests, attaining the remaining conditions for a viable nation-state will rarely be realistic within a reasonable time frame or after a reasonable expenditure of blood and treasure.

Top-level U.S. statesmen are loath to give up on the nation-state system, which is the foundation for so much of international law and diplomacy, and the basis by which U.S. statesmen do their work.

The burden thus falls on America’s statesmen, and American society at large, to accept outcomes other than a stable nation-state as satisfactory end states to irregular wars. The U.S. military is capable of dealing with America’s irregular security challenges on a tribal basis. U.S. statesmen and policy makers now need to be willing, when necessary, to read from the tribal map instead of just the nation-state map.

Isn’t the nation-state worth saving?

Aren’t tribal or ethnic-based settlements of conflict a discredited notion in the 21st century? And by endorsing tribal or ethnic boundaries, wouldn’t the United States be instigating future tribal or ethnic conflict?

It should always be the first preference of U.S. policy to support the nation-state system. Nor should the United States promote the breakup of existing nation-states. Nation-states, when they function properly, offer a better chance of delivering stable governance, social well-being, the rule of law, and a sustainable economy. The international community can hold nation-states accountable for violations of international law and for violations of human rights.

Yet even the most cursory glance at recent history reminds us that nation-states and their institutions can be criminally barbaric, both across borders and within them. The concept of the nation-state has frequently failed to deliver justice or well-being to those within its borders. Indeed, the imposition of nation-state institutions over particular pieces of territory has often been the cause of, and not the solution to, mayhem.

At a practical level, tribal or ethnic groups have recently been very useful to the achievement of U.S. national security aims. On September 12, 2001 the U.S. government counted itself lucky to still have contact with the Northern Alliance, a mostly Tajik militia that was still holding out against the Taliban. Without this ally the task of liberating Afghanistan from al Qaeda and the Taliban would have been far more difficult.

Traditional resistance to central national authority is what has caused the chaotic regions the United States has found itself in to be chaotic in the first place.

In 1995 the U.S. government permitted a U.S. military contractor to assist Croatian forces fighting in Bosnia’s civil war. In August of that year those Croatian forces rapidly ejected Serbian militias from the Krajina region of western Croatia. Holbrooke, President Clinton’s Balkan diplomat, believes the rapid Serb defeat at the hands of the U.S.-supported Croat forces was decisive in compelling the Serbs to later accept the Dayton peace agreement in December 1995.

And in Iraq in late 2006 top U.S. military leaders in Baghdad finally gave their consent to allow U.S. officers and advisors in the field to support Sunni tribes in Anbar Province in their rebellion against al Qaeda terror cells. The famed Sunni tribal “Awakening” was a turning point in the Iraq war. As for the future, America’s long-run relationship with Iraq’s central government in Baghdad remains uncertain. Someday America and Anbar’s Sunni tribes may need each other again.

The United States needs a tribal doctrine, too

The U.S. government has a doctrine for nation-building. Military publications like “Field Manual 3-07: Stability Operations” and the State Department’s Office of the Coordinator for Reconstruction and Stabilization foresee responsible nation-states as the measure of success in post-conflict situations. It should be America’s first choice to promote and strengthen the nation-state system.

America’s enemies have learned that irregular warfare is the best way of harassing and demoralizing the United States while simultaneously avoiding the U.S. military’s overwhelming firepower and technological superiority.

But the nation-state tool should not be the only tool in America’s national security toolbox. In the messy world of irregular warfare, America’s best allies will often be tribes and ethnic groups and not functioning nation-states. Alliances with such sub-national groups will often be the key to success. After irregular conflicts end, top-level U.S. statesmen need to be more willing, when necessary, to consider solutions other than the nation-state. Forcing a nation-state outcome on tribal or ethnic allies will in many cases result in a betrayal of those who had assisted the United States and will lead to more violence.

This decade the U.S. military, led by its mid-ranking and junior leaders, has demonstrated that it has adapted to the demands of irregular warfare. By doing so, it has renewed four centuries of American military tradition. It is now up to America’s statesmen to show similar powers of adaptation.

Robert Haddick is managing editor of Small Wars Journal and is a former U.S. Marine Corps officer.

FURTHER READING: Haddick wrote “Closing Iran’s Oil Spigot,” on our last chance for a peaceful resolution to Iran’s nuclear ambitions, and “Doomed to Repeat It?”on how China’s military and economic rise resembles that of pre–World War I Germany.

 

Image by Dianna Ingram/The Bergman Group.

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