This is a snippet made by Robert Jones over at Small Wars Journal.
We need to evolve. As I said, Pop-centric COIN was a half-measure evolution. A change of tactical focus without the requisite change of strategic perspective. The change of strategic perspective is that causation for insurgency radiates out from the government, and that in today’s world the interests of powerful external states are better met by helping populaces have the governance THEY want, rather than forcing them to submit to the governance that WE want.
I enjoy many of the comments that Robert C. Jones puts up over at SWJ. He’s one of the most considered and intelligent commenters who frequent the site. His thought above is very brief, but it encompasses a set of ideas that bears a tremendous amount of reflection. It is also something that we attempted to teach at the CTC-A. At least, some of us did.
While many critics of the current state of affairs in Afghanistan speak of strategy, their use of the term is an excuse for failure to visualize. It is all too often used as some sort of overarching trump card which then excuses the inability to resolve a difficult and complicated issue. Words like, “strategy,” and “national interest” are often used by many who want to put their own spin on what those things are, to provide their own interpretation. Over time, a chorus of voices saying these things can generate memes that mutate and replicate. This is especially true when such memes alleviate responsibility for truly appreciating complex issues that require more than a military response. Killing is easy. Building the capacity to govern is not. Building the capacity to govern in a locally acceptable way is even more difficult. Using such terms as “strategy” and “national interest” as exculpatory trump cards excusing intellectual laziness is unacceptable.
I don’t know if my thoughts on a “requisite change in strategic perspective” agrees with Mr. Jones’, although I do agree with his simple statement. I don’t agree with anyone who insists that “pop-centric COIN” has truly been adopted as the strategy employed in Afghanistan. I do think that there are units that are doing it fairly well, and those who simply cannot employ it due to a number of factors. To me, what we have is a strategic perspective that has significant static inertia facing a world that requires some movement of this perspective. While Mr. Jones’ statement appears to relate to strategic perspective as it applies to forcing a certain type of governance on any given population, I see it as larger than that. I also see the the issue of what is in our national interest as larger than what many critics seem to think.
Population-centric COIN has been described as a failure. It is a failure because we cannot perform this function, not because it is a flawed approach. I have seen it applied in discrete situations, and it has been effective when applied adequately; meaning that it does not have to be done perfectly. The failure occurs because we are demonstrating ourselves to be institutionally incapable of adaptation. Is this driven by strategic perspective? I would have to say, “Yes.”
This brings us to the second part of Mr. Jones’ statement; that the interests of powerful external states are better served by helping populaces have the governance THEY want, rather than forcing them to submit to the governance that WE want. This accepts the presumption that our interests are served by populations being governed. As we see in places like Yemen, ungoverned spaces and peoples provide dangerous breeding grounds for what we have come to call “terrorists.” We all agree that terrorism is a problem, and one that our approaches over the past 50 years have neither contained nor diminished. In fact, the problem has gotten worse. The old policies of military might and specialized anti-terror units attempting to contain terrorism has not brought good results. Afghanistan was a largely ungoverned space, and what government was provided was in sync with the leadership of groups who espoused the use of violence to attempt to influence our national policies. Ungoverned spaces and peoples are not good for us. But what to do about that?
The United States has long gone on about “self-determination of peoples.” I would submit that throughout the Cold War, we did not truly subscribe to our own theory. Direct interference led to such debacles as the installation of the Shah in Iran. It turned out that the Shah was a despot, and when he was eventually overthrown, we then concealed and protected the Shah from his own people who, as people who have suffered despotism are wont to do, wished to try him according to their laws and customs and probably put the ailing Shah to death. “What would our other allies think,” our politicians and state department officials wondered, “if we demonstrated that we do not ‘have their backs?’”
Well, it might have given them the idea that they were, indeed, subject to being accountable to their own people.
By protecting the Shah and providing him medical care during his battle with cancer, we earned the long-lasting hatred of the Iranian people. We proved our own talk of self-determination to be just noise. We betrayed our own national values. Our leaders at that time would say that they did it for a greater purpose; to contain the spread of Communism. It is not clear if installing the Shah in Iran hastened the fall of the Soviet Union. It is not clear if providing sanctuary to the Shah in exile hastened the fall of the Soviet Union. It is unlikely that evoking the everlasting ire of the Iranian nation and suffering the ignoble occupation of the US Embassy and the holding of over 50 Americans hostage for nearly two years hastened the fall of the Soviet Union. But it did leave a legacy which had nothing to do with the Soviet Union and follows us decades after the dissolution of that threatening specter.
During the Cold War there were numerous instances of such manipulations in the internal politics of other countries. We supported a number of questionable regimes simply because of their staunch anti-Communism. We trained and funded the Mujaheddin in Afghanistan and Pakistan because they were a thorn in the side of the Soviet Union, and when the Soviet Union fled Afghanistan, we fairly abandoned the Afghans to their fate. Whether our strategic perspectives contributed to the fall of the Soviet Union is open to debate. But the decisions that we made under that strategic perspective established many of the issues that plague us to this day. Yet we continue to view both the world and our approach to nations such as Afghanistan through lenses ground by the same optician. We set about to make the world safe for democracy, and in demanding that others wind up looking like ourselves, we shot ourselves in the foot.
Governance and well-governed people are good for the rest of the world, and insisting that they emulate our government and lifestyle does not necessarily help us to achieve that end.
The current situations in Tunisia and Egypt show us that the political situation in the Middle East is changeable. There are a number of potential turns this process may take that are positive… and it is just as likely that the changes will not be “positive” to our national interests as we understand them currently. If the government of Egypt falls, for instance, the most organized group that would be prepared to take advantage of the vacuum would be the Muslim Brotherhood. I’m not sure that they would be amenable towards the West in general. That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t engage with them and seek opportunities to be of assistance with regards to building capacity. There is just a good a chance that Baradei will be successful in gathering a coalition and working to provide an Egyptian government that is dedicated to addressing the grievances of the Egyptian people while providing a moderate government. Either way, it is in our best interest that there is no civil war in Egypt. It is in our best interest for Egypt to be a governed space.
The same goes for Yemen. Do those nations have to be western-style democracies? I don’t think that our capacity-building efforts need to be predicated upon this. From what we have seen, even in fairly tightly-controlled regimes, as the population becomes educated and aware of the outside world, they want more freedoms. Witness Iran. Iran has a fairly strict government with an entrenched political leadership, and yet there is a thriving opposition movement. Every government has the opportunity to address the grievances of the people. Insurgencies are fueled by dissatisfaction and revolutions are based upon it. When a government works to address the grievances of the citizens, then insurgencies and revolutions are averted. We sometimes consider revolution a positive thing, but I question whether we are fueling further problems by trying to foment them when it is perceived to be in our interest. Perhaps it is best to work to build capacity and allow the natural development of people take its course. Education and the ability to reach out to the rest of the world through such means as the internet can do more to advance the desire for liberty more than any overt acts by the United States.