One Insurgent at a Time

One Insurgent at a Time

President Obama’s commencement speech at West Point last Wednesday touched a lot of nerves. From America’s already uneasy allies in East Asia to concerned Afghans to a litany of critics who feel he is abrogating the United States’ role in the international order, the vision he sketched for U.S. engagement has been a popular target for opprobrium. But in the speech, he also set forth one oft-repeated goal that has generated little discussion: renewing the effort to build partner nations’ capacities to combat al-Qaeda and related groups on their own soil.

This is, of course, a laudable goal, at least in theory. It’s also one that could hypothetically absolve the U.S. of some of its current and future commitments abroad, which is why this approach has underpinned the long-term U.S. strategies in both Iraq and Afghanistan. The United States has spent billions of dollars and thousands of lives creating indigenous military capabilities to take over the fight against extremists when allied forces leave. But the tactic of building other nations’ abilities to address terrorist threats relies on one major assumption: that these nations have the same goals and objectives with regard to these groups as the United States does. Unfortunately, in many cases this has proven far from assured — and it’s time for the architects of U.S. policy to recognize that.

Pakistan presents the most glaring example of this paradigm. Billions of dollars in military and other aid has failed to change that government’s fundamental position towards the Taliban and its allies, which remains ambiguous at best. While the Pakistani military has become more effective in certain ways, it has rarely used those capabilities to the ends desired by Washington and its allies. Though there is no evidence that U.S.-trained Pakistani forces have directly aided the Afghan Taliban, the fact that elements of the Pakistani military and intelligence apparatus apparently do provide such support — against U.S. and NATO forces no less — brings the divergence of interests quite close to home.

This misalignment of objectives between two ostensible allies highlights a dangerous habit within the U.S. policy apparatus of assuming that they would naturally align. The United States devotes more resources to building up countries’ capacities than to convincing them that reducing extremism within their borders might actually benefit them — not just America — in the long term. Unfortunately, money, weapons, and training can’t change a country’s fundamental orientation; only the country itself can do that.

With regard to Afghanistan and U.S. assistance to the Afghan National Security Forces, this problem has come up repeatedly as the Afghans have failed to use their capabilities to pursue objectives aligned with the NATO agenda. The first American reporter to embed with the Afghan Army without the accompaniment of U.S. or NATO military personnel, Luke Mogelson, portrayed a very different state of affairs from what most journalists had seen when working with combined NATO-Afghan teams. The article he published in January 2013 recounted heavy drug use, negotiations with the Taliban and other insurgents, and a general lack of enthusiasm for going after the enemy.

Obama said at West Point that, "sustaining this progress [in Afghanistan] depends on the ability of Afghans to do the job." Mogelson’s account, however, implies it depends on a bit more than that — it demands political will. Hopefully the next Afghan government can repair this problem at the national level, but even if they manage to do that, there remains the problem of individual soldiers and smaller units often having little incentive to go after members of their families and tribes who have joined forces with the Taliban.

Having watched this dynamic repeat itself in countries around the world, I’ve found there is one philosophy that quite aptly conveys this state of affairs: Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). Admittedly, the comparison might sound hokey at first, but while observing friends and family members work through the 12 steps of AA and its partner program, Narcotics Anonymous, one thing has repeatedly struck me: Trying to convince an addict to get and stay sober looks a whole lot like trying to help another country fight an extremist movement or insurgency. Until the addict, or country, as the case may be, decides on their own to take on their problem, no amount of resources can get them to change their mind.

There are of course examples in which countries have decided for their own reasons to "get sober" or take on whatever threat the U.S. had been training it to combat. In Colombia, for example, U.S. Special Operations Forces trained with the Colombian military and provided them with equipment for years without any real success against the FARC and the National Liberation Army, leftist guerillas that have operated in the country for over 50 years. It was not until President Alvaro Uribe was elected in 2002 and decided that taking on these groups was in the interest of his country did that assistance really start to turn things around, with the Colombians themselves in the lead. As with an alcoholic or addict, it is only when they "hit bottom" or decide that enough is enough that countries can really make this kind of change. As David Rothkopf recently noted, the examples President Obama provided at West Point — Libya and Yemen, for instance — do not appear to be at this stage.

This is not to say that the international community cannot take steps to convince a country that taking on their internal foes is something that would benefit them in the long term. While nations’ hesitance can have all kinds of roots, from corruption to incompetence to philosophical allegiance, in many cases a government will resist deploying its military against these targets because they are hesitant to "poke the hornets’ nest" — especially if they’re not confident that they can win, or even really put up a fight. This is hardly an irrational fear. Who wants to take on a bully when you’re likely to lose?

To return to the AA analogy, only one method has proven effective in convincing drug and alcohol addicts to join "the program," namely exposing them to success stories and promising them the support of other members of the community if and when the going gets tough. Providing this kind of support to newcomers and giving back to the community is actually the 12th step of AA. Reassurance like this can also help convince governments to use their capabilities against internal enemies, whose retaliation they may fear more than the status quo damage they inflict. Put in the simplest terms, if they, whether an addict or nation, feel they have real, reliable back up, they’re more likely to take the plunge.

This is where Obama’s speech missed the broader strategic objective behind the tactic of building partners’ counterterrorism capacities. Providing training and equipment aren’t enough, and alone, can even be counterproductive. To be effective, the United States and its allies must assure
countries with extremist groups operating within their borders that the international community, and the United States in particular, has their back if things really start to go South. Giving token aid like walkie-talkies is, in the words of one Syrian rebel, "like coming up to a man who is dying and offering him sunglasses." Without taking these steps to secure countries’ trust and political will, building partner nation capacity is all but meaningless.