Small Wars

This Week at War: The Bremer Test

Iraqi reconstruction as a cautionary tale for Libya.

Marco Di Lauro/Getty Images
Marco Di Lauro/Getty Images

Testing the ‘Bremer Hypothesis’ in post-Qaddafi Libya

This week Andrew Mitchell, Britain’s secretary of state for international development, briefed reporters on emerging contingency plans for a post-Muammar al-Qaddafi Libya. Mitchell is supervising a British-led international team that prepared a 50-page outline for how to stabilize Libya after the hoped-for collapse of Qaddafi’s regime. Notably, the report recommends retaining much of the existing pro-Qaddafi army and police forces in Tripoli and elsewhere in western Libya. This recommendation is an attempt to learn from what many believe was a disastrous decision in 2003 to disband the Iraqi army after the fall of Saddam Hussein. But for Libya to actually benefit from this seemingly straight-forward lesson from Iraq will require many sketchy presumptions to come true.

In his memoir of his time as head of the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq, L. Paul Bremer attempted to defend his decision to disband the Iraqi army, a verdict he rendered almost immediately upon first landing in Baghdad. According to Bremer, the army had already disbanded itself after the U.S. capture of Baghdad, when the vast majority of largely Shiite conscripts had deserted and gone home. Second, Bremer was highly concerned that the officer corps, which he presumed was stocked with pro-Saddam loyalists, would be a threat to the post-Saddam future he and the Iraqis he was working with hoped to build.

The Sunni establishment sacked by Bremen later constituted a major portion of the Iraqi insurgency. We will never know whether the Sunni officers may have become insurgents anyway had Bremer retained them instead. If a large-scale purge of the officer corps was inevitable, the least-risky decision may have been to do the purge up front rather than waiting for insurgent officers to infiltrate themselves inside the army and government. Needless to say, Bremer’s decision remains highly controversial to this day.

The "Bremer Hypothesis" may get another test in Libya, as Mitchell seems determined to learn from the presumed error. Mitchell and his colleagues are assuming — or at least hoping — that army and police officials in Tripoli and elsewhere in pro-Qaddafi western Libya will readily agree to fall in with the post-Qaddafi political order, which we can assume will be dominated by the anti-Qaddafi National Transitional Council now in Benghazi. Mitchell’s recommendation also seems to assume that the anti-Qaddafi leaders in Benghazi have come to the same conclusion about Bremer’s decision as most policy analysts in the West and will agree to share military and police power with their former enemies in Tripoli. Whether that assumption will remain valid during a post-Qaddafi transition (or if it is even valid now) remains in question.

Of course, the biggest motivation behind placing a risky bet on Qaddafi’s officers is the paramount necessity to avoid a Western-led military stabilization campaign in Libya. Once NATO "boots on the ground" for any purpose have been ruled out, there is no other choice but to rely on Libyan security forces, regardless of their recent loyalties. With the rebels yet to establish anything remotely resembling an organized security force, that leaves whatever remains of what Qaddafi build up over the past four decades as the only choice.

Add up the passions of a civil war, tribal frictions, hatred of an authoritarian regime and its enforcers, and inevitable post-conflict insecurity and there is a lot that can go wrong with Mitchell’s plan. The United Nations is looking into sending a small force of unarmed monitors to observe a hoped-for post-Qaddafi ceasefire and perhaps later send in a presumably non-Western peacekeeping force. We can only hope that such a force will fare better than earlier hapless U.N. peacekeeping missions in Bosnia, Somalia, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Mitchell’s attention to the details of how to stabilize post-Qaddafi Libya is a welcome initiative and one that should have been thought through before NATO leaders committed themselves to the war. As is habitually the case, Mitchell is determined to refight the last battle, even if its lessons might not transfer well. Should NATO and Libya’s rebels succeed in ousting Qaddafi, we can hope that Libya fares better than post-Saddam Iraq. But simply doing the opposite of what Bremer did is no guarantee of success.

RAND has good news for Obama – Afghanistan could be much worse

In a column last January, I discussed a report from the RAND Corp. analyzing the factors that determined success or failure in counterinsurgency campaigns. RAND’s researchers studied 30 counterinsurgency operations that began and ended between 1978 and 2008. These cases occurred on six continents across a variety of cultures and terrain. RAND uncovered "good" and "bad" counterinsurgency practices that were excellent predictors of success or failure against insurgent movements. My January column concluded with a grim prognosis for Afghanistan, based on RAND’s findings.

Earlier this year, RAND itself examined the current outlook for Afghanistan using the model it developed and released its conclusions this week. According to this evaluation, the current campaign in Afghanistan ekes out a barely positive score, a result below the lowest-scoring counterinsurgent "win" in the 30 cases it studied.

For its analysis, RAND recruited a variety of experts and Afghanistan veterans to assess the current campaign. The researchers asked the experts to answer yes or no to 51 questions that, when added together, would reveal whether the specific "good" and "bad" counterinsurgency practices were present or absent in Afghanistan. The experts were questioned individually by e-mail and were unknown to each other. Those whose answers were in the minority were asked to explain their reasoning, which was then shared with the others. After the dissents were shared, the experts were asked to answer the questions again. This process was repeated one more time, with the final answers compiled as the expert assessment of the campaign.

The experts agreed that the Afghan campaign has failed to establish some critical conditions which the prior research found important for counterinsurgency success. Although the experts believed that the coalition scored well on developing good intelligence, avoiding excessive use of force, and attempting to establish good relations with the population, these positive attributes of coalition behavior were offset by failings in the Afghan government, over which coalition officials seem to have little control. The Afghan government received low marks for achieving legitimacy, demonstrating competency, and providing services better than the insurgent’s "shadow government." It also doesn’t help that the coalition forces are increasingly viewed as occupiers and that the coalition’s interests seem to diverge from those of the Afghan government.

Most critical of all for RAND was the inability of the coalition and the Afghan government to disrupt the Taliban’s access to tangible support. The experts believe the campaign has had little effect on the Taliban’s ability to recruit fighters and financing, develop its own intelligence, or replenish its material resources. In RAND’s study of 30 insurgencies since 1978, success or failure at cutting off this tangible support to the insurgents was the single best predictor of the campaign’s overall success.

As I discussed last week, President Obama’s decision to reduce the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan will reduce the coalition’s dependence on supply lines running through Pakistan. This in turn will increase U.S. leverage over Pakistan and could remove a barrier to taking effective measures against Taliban sanctuaries inside Pakistan.

Will Obama actually shift fire eventually onto the Pakistan sanctuaries? There is no question that the U.S. relationship with Islamabad has sunk and with it, the patience of U.S. officials (Pakistan just kicked out the CIA drone operation it previous hosted). According to RAND, there is little prospect for permanent progress against the Taliban without pressure on its sanctuaries, including those inside Pakistan. Whether Obama wants to fight that war remains to be seen.

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