People Power

The United States has the blueprint for a smarter way to make peace. Now it has to use it.


A little more than a decade ago, as an Army civil affairs officer in a part of Iraq that is now in the hands of Sunni extremists, I questioned my commander’s use of conventional tactics in a "battlespace" that was clearly more psychological than physical. "The Iraqi people were the prize in this fight, not the playing field," wrote Tom Ricks, recounting the incident in his book Fiasco. As he told my story, Ricks was conveying one of the major lessons of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — one that might explain why many Iraqis now prefer the militants of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), which is now calling itself just the Islamic State, over Iraqi forces trained by the same U.S. Army to be warriors far more than public servants. The lesson is remembering that the most important element of Clausewitz’s "remarkable trinity" — the people, not the government or the army — is the ultimate determinant of war and peace.

Many responsible for U.S. foreign and national security policy prefer to shelve this critical insight: namely, that the ultimate source of security is with the people. But reality keeps getting in their way — and will continue to as long as they do not fully understand this.

Vietnam began to expose the inefficacies of the industrial-era American way of war — the application of overwhelming force and technology known as the "strategy of annihilation." This wholesale, materialistic approach peaked during World War II and the Cold War, but its limitations — and decline — were sketched in Southeast Asia and later by the "Blackhawk Down" incident in Somalia and then in the Balkans, where the U.S. military reluctantly participated in NATO peace support operations. The clear need for a more people-centric understanding of conflict, security, and ultimately peace has been mounting for decades, but faces the inertia of a military-industrial complex that finds it difficult at best to process this paradigm.

In recent years, one major challenge after another — Libya, Egypt, Syria, Somalia, Burma, Mali, the Central African Republic, Ukraine, Nigeria, and now Iraq again — has demonstrated what former Defense Secretary Robert Gates outlined in a major defense policy speech in 2007: that "military success is not sufficient to win." Instead, fostering economic development, institution building, and the rule of law; promoting internal reconciliation and good governance; providing basic services to the people; and other "non-kinetics" have become the better, less costly, and less risk-laden tools of choice.

As President Barack Obama finally framed it this spring in his commencement speech at West Point, "to say that we have an interest in pursuing peace and freedom beyond our borders is not to say that every problem has a military solution…. Just because we have the best hammer does not mean that every problem is a nail."

Nor should every foreign policy challenge be viewed through a national security prism. "Foreign assistance is not an afterthought, something nice to do apart from our national defense, apart from our national security," he said at his recent commencement speech at West Point. It is, in fact, the primary means to create the peace and stability that we’ve often sought, unsuccessfully, through military action.

Making good on that potential, though, requires more than understanding that "the future of war is about winning people, not territory," or "leaving behind an outmoded view of nation-on-nation warfare," wrote Eliza Griswold, paraphrasing Brig. Gen. James B. Linder who commands U.S. Special Operations in Africa, in the New York Times Magazine. It requires changing how American power is projected in the world, empowering people more than governments, and pursuing peace and justice with the same fervor as engaging enemies. This emerging civil-military enterprise, however, is not just about power to the people. It’s about finding and leveraging the power in the people.


Twenty years ago, the United Nations Development Program’s Human Development Report introduced a dialectic to the conventional national security paradigm: "human security." Human security is about the security of the tribe, the community, and, above all, the individual. Put simply, it is a democratization of the concept of security. 

Human security has emerged as the alter ego of national security mainly because, as Obama has pointed out, "technology and globalization has put power once reserved for states in the hands of individuals." Unlike national security’s fixation with threats, human security’s concern is with the "drivers of conflict" — the difference between treating symptoms and curing the disease, or preventing its outbreak in the first place. One is primarily tactical; the other is more strategic.

Despite the already long life of human security as an idea and the United States’ professed interest in it, the country’s strategic capabilities to wage war still far outweigh those to make peace. Defense budgets are dropping, but so are those for diplomacy and development — where the most relevant equities to foster human security reside. As I wrote in May, the diplomatic corps is underfunded, overstretched, and set up to fail. One-third of ambassadorial posts remain vacant, and country teams are so thinly staffed they cannot execute national security programs, let alone venture beyond their fortress embassies to pursue commercial interests that lead to jobs at home or to fulfill Obama’s promise at West Point to "form alliances not just with governments, but also with ordinary people."

Efforts by the United States to help countries bolster their own security are typically driven by an obsession with terrorism and "bad guys" — not the human security concerns of resident populations. This habit of being distracted from the bigger picture by personalities and groups — from Osama bin Laden to Joseph Kony to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi — often does little to create lasting security. "Train-and-equip" efforts that teach client military forces how to shoot, move, and communicate often exacerbate the internal instabilities of weak and fragile states well catalogued in the Fragile States Index and Global Peace Index. While "there is some reason to believe that counterterrorism assistance can work in the absence of governance reform," James Traub wrote for Foreign Policy last month, "the gains are very modest, and very tenuous."

There are further complications to this approach. "The host country has to have the political will to fight terrorism, not just the desire to build up an elite force that could be used for regime protection," J. Peter Pham, director of the Africa Center of the Atlantic Council, told the New York Times. "And the military has to be viewed well or at least neutrally by a country’s population."

For any security force to be effective, it needs to protect the people more than the state, as just seen in Iraq. After all, people have to want what you are offering. In Syria, for example, there is no definitive evidence that suggests a majority of Syrians wants to see President Bashar al-Assad replaced by an opposition faction, especially one associated with jihadists. Popular support for the opposition may have shrunk to as low as 10 percent of the Syrian public, according to NATO estimates. And yet, the Obama administration has asked Congress to fund a $500 million train-and-equip mission to help "vetted elements" of the Syrian armed opposition "defend the Syrian people, stabilize areas under opposition control, facilitate the provision of essential services, counter terrorist threats, and promote conditions for a negotiated settlement."

But it should not be about us — it should be about them. In order to engender sustainable peace, what they want and need should come before what we want and need, at least in the short term, and that means focusing on human not national security. Seen this way, it becomes clear that security sector assistance is really a development challenge, which is why such programs should be led and managed by the U.S. Agency for International Development, not the Defense Department.

Addressing the real drivers of conflict that bad guys look to exploit in the first place is the key. Instead of "building partnership capacity" to deal with threats like terrorism, "training must involve not just soldiers but police officers, judges, and prosecutors, with a strong emphasis on the rule of law and human rights," admonished the New York Times editorial board about the proposed $5-billion Counterterrorism Partnership Fund, "so cracking down on extremists does not end up radicalizing more people or empowering authoritarian leaders." The concern is valid: The ratio of security assistance dollars devoted to building relationships and institutions versus train-and-equip has held steadfastly at around 1:9. It looks like it will remain so under the CPF.

Much of it will be spent in Africa, where human security approaches are most relevant. Boko Haram’s abduction of young girls this past spring was facilitated by poor governance and weak civil society institutions; socioeconomic shortfalls, especially with respect to youth and women; and illicit activities such as transnational drug and human trafficking. The bad behavior of Nigeria’s military, and its poor relationship to the country’s citizens, poses an even greater threat to local citizens than terrorism. As Amnesty International’s Kolawole Olaniyan said in an op-ed in Vanguard, "corruption seems to be present and potentially widespread in law enforcement and security services, eroding the citizenry’s trust in the rule of law, and contributing to a sense of lawlessness that encourages violence and abuse."

Instead, the U.S. has been sending soldiers and special operators to teach counterparts in Nigeria and other client countries battle skills in what the U.S. sees as the next front to combating terrorism — often in an overwhelmingly enemy-centric way not because people like Linder see it as such, but because, as he told the New York Times Magazine, "I see Kony because Congress tells me to."  The focus of attention, in other words, is still more on the guys with the guns, not the conditions that allow them to use them.


Other than Linder’s forces, there are signs that the lights have been coming on for a more civil society centric understanding of the task at hand. In the aftermath of the coup in Mali, State Department official Todd Moss determined that the United States "was too narrowly focused on counterterrorism capabilities and missed the bigger picture," while former AFRICOM General Carter Ham recognized the failure of its security sector assistance to pass on "values, ethics and military ethos." AFRICOM’s director of strategy, plans, and programs, Major General Robert Hooper, further noted the "underlying premise of U.S. institutional capacity-building efforts is that military forces must be subordinate to civil authority and accepted as legitimate members of a civil society based on the rule of law."

And U.S. civil affairs officers providing training to countries contributing peacekeepers to U.N. and African Union field missions all around the continent are beginning to recognize the need to use U.N.-based frameworks to "build partnership capacity" in civil-military operations, which emphasize peacebuilding and human security approaches, rather than refer to U.S. doctrine that concentrates on threats. That means they must learn it themselves.

"There is nothing so terrible as activity without insight," Goethe once said. Today, "smart power" must involve strategic insight applied operationally — specifically, approaches that put foreign assistance out in front of security assistance, bring together public and private sectors, and demonstrate democratic values. This power must be premised on the (admittedly slow and painful) withdrawal process from an addiction with enemies and "send in the troops" reflex response to more of a "military as the last resort" default.

Geothe also said, "Thinking is easy, acting is difficult, and to put one’s thoughts into action is the most difficult thing in the world." It will take a while longer for America to make the transition to a greater balance between national and human security approaches in its engagement with the world. There is no paradigm shift, after all, until it reflects in programs, budgets, and operations — not just in speeches and policy papers.

The "battlespace" has changed, but because human security is really about democratic governance, America has the right model for how to succeed in that space. Now it just has to use it.

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