This Week at War: If Mexico Is at War, Does America Have to Win It?

What Hillary Clinton's remarks on the drug war mean for U.S. strategy.

Ronaldo Schemidt/AFP/Getty Images
Ronaldo Schemidt/AFP/Getty Images
Ronaldo Schemidt/AFP/Getty Images

The insurgency next door

The insurgency next door

While answering a question on Mexico this week at the Council on Foreign Relations, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said, "We face an increasing threat from a well-organized network, drug-trafficking threat that is, in some cases, morphing into, or making common cause with, what we would consider an insurgency." Mexico’s foreign minister Patricia Espinosa was quick to dispute this characterization, arguing that Mexico’s drug cartels have no political agenda. But as I have previously discussed, the cartels, evidenced by their attacks on both the government and the media, are gradually becoming political insurgents as a means of defending their turf.

I note that Clinton used the phrase "We [the United States] face an increasing threat …," not "they [Mexico]." The cartels are transnational shipping businesses, with consumers in the United States as their dominant market. The clashes over shipping routes and distribution power — which over the past four years have killed 28,000 and thoroughly corrupted Mexico’s police and judiciary — could just as well occur inside the United States. Indeed, growing anxiety that southern Arizona is in danger of becoming a "no-go zone" controlled by drug and human traffickers contributed to the passage of Arizona’s controversial immigration enforcement statute earlier this year.

Both Clinton and Mexican officials have discussed Colombia’s struggle against extreme drug violence and corruption, revealing concerns about how dreadful the situation in Mexico might yet become and also as a model for how to recover from disaster. Colombia’s long climb from the abyss, aided by the U.S. government’s Plan Colombia assistance, should certainly give hope to Mexico’s counterinsurgents. But if the United States and Mexico are to achieve similar success, both will have to resolve political dilemmas that would prevent effective action. Clinton herself acknowledged as much when she remarked that Plan Colombia was "controversial … there were problems and there were mistakes. But it worked."

Isolating Mexico’s cartel insurgents from their enormous American revenue base — a crucial step in a counterinsurgency campaign — may require a much more severe border crackdown, an action that would be highly controversial in both the United States and Mexico. Plan Colombia was a success partly because of the long-term presence of U.S. Special Forces advisers, intelligence experts, and other military specialists inside Colombia, a presence which would not please most Mexicans. And Colombia’s long counterattack against its insurgents resulted in actions that boiled the blood of many human rights observers.

Most significantly, a strengthening Mexican insurgency would very likely affect America’s role in the rest of the world. An increasingly chaotic American side of the border, marked by bloody cartel wars, corrupted government and media, and a breakdown in security, would likely cause many in the United States to question the importance of military and foreign policy ventures elsewhere in the world.

Should the southern border become a U.S. president’s primary national security concern, nervous allies and opportunistic adversaries elsewhere in the world would no doubt adjust to a distracted and inward-looking America, with potentially disruptive arms races the result. Secretary Clinton has looked south and now sees an insurgency. Let’s hope that the United States can apply what it has recently learned about insurgencies to stop this one from getting out of control.

What Sri Lanka really teaches us

In a recent Wall Street Journal interview, Gen. David Petraeus foresaw no let-up in Afghanistan’s violence. With top Obama administration officials scheduled to meet in December for a major review of war strategy, Petraeus suggested that he needs a new set of measurements to show progress in time for those meetings.

With little to show from the war effort except frustration, some analysts are again questioning whether the U.S. military’s favored counterinsurgency tactics, exemplified by former commander Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s restrictions on the use of firepower, have crippled the coalition’s ability to bring the war to a conclusion.

Writing in Small Wars Journal, Lionel Beehner, a Ph.D. candidate at Yale University and formerly a senior writer at the Council on Foreign Relations, reminds us how the Sri Lankan government’s unrestrained use of military power crushed the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). "Winning hearts and minds" and protecting the Tamil population were apparently not part of the Sri Lankan government’s military plan. Killing all of the LTTE’s leadership and any foot soldiers who continued to resist, regardless of the secondary consequences, seemed to be the only guidance field commanders needed to remember. The remnants of the LTTE surrendered on May 17, 2009.

What lessons does Beehner apply from this experience to the struggle in Afghanistan?

The U.S. military, given the constraints it faces and wariness of the war back home, suffers from the Goldilocks paradox: It applies just enough force to upset the locals and kill civilians, yet not enough to actually dislodge the threat and win the war. The result is a worst-of-both-worlds scenario: An angry populace and an entrenched non-state actor.

Niel Smith, a major in the U.S. Army, also discussed the Sri Lankan insurgency in the latest edition of Joint Force Quarterly. Smith rejects the argument that newfound ruthlessness by the Sri Lankan government was the primary reason for its eventual success against the LTTE, noting that the long war had been particularly brutal from the beginning. According to Smith, what changed during the last years o
f the conflict were the actions the Sri Lankan government took to isolate the rebels from outside support and the war from outside political pressure.

Smith explains how the Sri Lankan government took advantage of the post-9/11 global crackdown on terror financing to cut off the LTTE from the Tamil diaspora that funded its operations. Just as crucial was the Sri Lankan navy’s effective blockade of the LTTE’s sanctuary in the northeast corner of the island. Finally, the government recruited China to be its new patron — with protection at the Security Council, the government would no longer have to yield to international demands to cease fire just as its attacks on the LTTE began to inflict damage.

Those who object to the coldblooded "Sri Lankan Way" remind us that the Soviet Union’s brutal campaign in Afghanistan did not result in victory. But the real lesson of the Sri Lankan campaign is not the level of brutality employed by the counterinsurgents, but rather the ability of the counterinsurgents to isolate the battlefield from all outside support and influence.

The Soviets were not able to achieve this condition in Afghanistan and U.S. chances don’t look much better. Do the insurgents have sanctuaries and external support? Those factors, and not the level of brutality, seem to best explain victory or defeat. Not good news for Petraeus and his staff.

Robert Haddick is managing editor of Small Wars Journal.

More from Foreign Policy

A photo collage illustration shows U.S. political figures plotted on a foreign-policy spectrum from most assertive to least. From left: Dick Cheney, Nikki Haley, Joe Biden, George H.W. Bush, Ron Desantis, Barack Obama, Donald Trump, Vivek Ramaswamy, and Bernie Sanders.
A photo collage illustration shows U.S. political figures plotted on a foreign-policy spectrum from most assertive to least. From left: Dick Cheney, Nikki Haley, Joe Biden, George H.W. Bush, Ron Desantis, Barack Obama, Donald Trump, Vivek Ramaswamy, and Bernie Sanders.

The Scrambled Spectrum of U.S. Foreign-Policy Thinking

Presidents, officials, and candidates tend to fall into six camps that don’t follow party lines.

A girl touches a photograph of her relative on the Memory Wall of Fallen Defenders of Ukraine in the Russian-Ukrainian war in Kyiv.
A girl touches a photograph of her relative on the Memory Wall of Fallen Defenders of Ukraine in the Russian-Ukrainian war in Kyiv.

What Does Victory Look Like in Ukraine?

Ukrainians differ on what would keep their nation safe from Russia.

A man is seen in profile standing several yards away from a prison.
A man is seen in profile standing several yards away from a prison.

The Biden Administration Is Dangerously Downplaying the Global Terrorism Threat

Today, there are more terror groups in existence, in more countries around the world, and with more territory under their control than ever before.

Then-Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Menendez arrives for a closed-door briefing by intelligence officials at the U.S. Capitol in Washington.
Then-Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Menendez arrives for a closed-door briefing by intelligence officials at the U.S. Capitol in Washington.

Blue Hawk Down

Sen. Bob Menendez’s indictment will shape the future of Congress’s foreign policy.