Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

What to do after the dictatorship falls?

By Robert Helvey Best Defense bureau of war termination What to do after the dictatorship falls is a question that needs to be answered before the first "above the ground" opposition demonstration or other action takes place. Too often we seem to take a "Chicken Little" approach to planning. That is, nothing is remembered from ...

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By Robert Helvey

Best Defense bureau of war termination

What to do after the dictatorship falls is a question that needs to be answered before the first "above the ground" opposition demonstration or other action takes place. Too often we seem to take a "Chicken Little" approach to planning. That is, nothing is remembered from yesterday, and no thought is given to tomorrow. Moreover, there seems to be a widely held view that the transition to democratic government from authoritarian rule begins after the dictatorship has been removed.

By Robert Helvey

Best Defense bureau of war termination

What to do after the dictatorship falls is a question that needs to be answered before the first "above the ground" opposition demonstration or other action takes place. Too often we seem to take a "Chicken Little" approach to planning. That is, nothing is remembered from yesterday, and no thought is given to tomorrow. Moreover, there seems to be a widely held view that the transition to democratic government from authoritarian rule begins after the dictatorship has been removed.

The fact is that the transition from dictatorship to democracy begins when the people have a vision of tomorrow that provides a better life for themselves. This transformation in attitude from hopelessness to hope is the beginning of a revolution. The revolution ends when that vision becomes structurally possible in a government that is responsive to the will of the people. Ending the dictatorship is merely one of many phases in that march to victory.

In waging a strategic nonviolent conflict, the vision of tomorrow is translated into a strategic goal in which the general public can see themselves better off at the end of a successful struggle, and they are confident enough in their movement leadership to risk their lives and fortunes in bringing down the dictatorship by removing its very sources of power found in "pillars of support." These pillars are those institutions and organizations that make themselves available to be used by the dictator. Most often these are the military, police, political parties, religious institutions, government workers, and large businesses.

To prepare the battlefields for waging a strategic nonviolent struggle, many of the same considerations given to waging an armed conflict are applicable. For example, no military commander worthy of command would ever develop a strategic plan without preparing a strategic estimate in order to identify the environment in which the struggle would be waged, the capabilities of his own and opponent forces, and conducting a detailed analysis of opposing courses of action. As an observer, I cannot find any evidence of a strategic estimate being prepared by either the Egyptian or Syrian nonviolent movements. Otherwise, there would have been plans to pre-empt the Muslim Brotherhood victories in the recent elections and the Syrian movement would have considered that the current Assad would most likely act as did his father in quelling opposition through slaughter. They would have prepared for this contingency from the very beginning of the movement.

Another strategic planning failure is the misconception that a nonviolent movement can co-exist with a violent (armed) component. There is no nonviolent force that can exist with an armed element within its movement, any more than a pregnant virgin can walk among us.  (There has only been one recorded incident of this happening and that was more than 2000 years ago.) If a movement leadership requests the participation of foreign military forces in its democracy struggle, it is, in effect, forfeiting its claim to self-liberation and has placed its future to be subordinate to the interests of the foreign government intervening on its behalf.

In addition, should a nation, or its generals, commit combat forces to national development they need to understand that combat soldiers are trained to destroy, not build. No one should ever see a deployed combat unit unless they are targeted for destruction momentarily.  Nation-building missions initiated by combat forces dilute the commitment to battle and send confusing signals to both the combat forces and the enemy (as hapless civilians find themselves needing a chocolate bar from the soldiers who may be attacking their village tomorrow). In short, if the military mission is to be assistant mayors, well diggers, and barefoot doctors, then send the combat forces home. If the infantry, armor, and artillery constitute the "point of the spear," it should not be dulled by digging wells and fraternizing with the locals. Combat commanders should not be restricting the ability of combat forces to destroy those who attack our troops. Committing our soldiers to fight, then forbidding them from killing their attackers is simply criminal. The point to be made is that nonviolent movements cannot accommodate military forces, whether their generals are incompetent or brilliant.

Preparing plans for waging a strategic nonviolent conflict requires that the planners keep the vision of tomorrow in focus throughout the planning phases, not unlike a composer of a symphony keeps the melodies in mind as he writes the score for each instrument to contribute to the crescendo of the final movement. 

Returning to the question of what to do when the dictator falls, there must be a blitzkrieg of nonviolent actions to create a new government, achieve diplomatic recognition, publish a draft constitution, hold a referendum, then hold elections under that new constitution, prepare amnesty policies, and finally detain those responsible for heinous crimes who will be tried in accordance with the rule of law. This part of the transition is very dangerous for democratic movements and needs to proceed at "warp speed" to gain the obedience and loyalty of the coercive pillars of support and to preempt groups contemplating overthrowing the newly installed interim government. Every detail must be thought out for maximum impact. These steps need to be examined well before the dictator is removed, and ready when like a nuclear submarine surfacing at max speed, a huge wave goes through society, shaking the regime to its core. In its wake, a new society takes its place, demonstrating competence and commitment to achieve the vision that sparked the revolution. That takes strategic planning. Instead of giving pallets of $100 bills to Afghan warlords and corrupt officials, we might be better off transferring strategic planning skills to a few university professors in Kabul, Cairo, Damascus, and Baghdad.

Col. Robert L. Helvey, U.S. Army, (ret), is the author of On Strategic Nonviolent Conflict: Thinking About the Fundamentals, and a consultant and instructor to pro-democracy groups.

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. Twitter: @tomricks1

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