Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

The perpetual search for reliable partners

After fifteen years of costly interventions and nation-building, both the public and political leadership in America have grown weary of foreign entanglements, compounded by an expanding list of domestic woes.

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SearchersPoster-BillGold

 

By Sebastian J. Bae
Best Defense Council of the Former Enlisted

“We got to find people to work with here. If we don’t, everything will only get harder,” my platoon commander warned, as our platoon provided security for a meeting between senior U.S. military officials and local Iraqi leaders in Ramadi. My commander would later add, “I don’t think we’ll ever find any friends here, only arrangements of time and convenience.”

 

By Sebastian J. Bae
Best Defense Council of the Former Enlisted

“We got to find people to work with here. If we don’t, everything will only get harder,” my platoon commander warned, as our platoon provided security for a meeting between senior U.S. military officials and local Iraqi leaders in Ramadi. My commander would later add, “I don’t think we’ll ever find any friends here, only arrangements of time and convenience.”

This was in 2009 on the back end of the Iraq Surge in the Sunni heartland of Anbar province. Tragically, my commander’s words would later prove prophetic, resembling the Greek tragedy of Cassandra. At the time, the U.S. military was desperately seeking reliable local partners to take stewardship of the fledging Iraqi state after U.S. troops left the country. This drama of courting responsible allies and partners would become a recurring theme in the following years in Afghanistan, Libya, Tunisia, Syria, and with tremendous irony, Iraq once again.

After fifteen years of costly interventions and nation-building, both the public and political leadership in America have grown weary of foreign entanglements, compounded by an expanding list of domestic woes. In an inflammatory Atlantic article, President Barack Obama said, “Free riders aggravate me” — referring to the tendency of foreign allies to pass the buck to the United States when international crises struck, like Libya’s decent into civil war. Consequently, the United States has sought to cultivate allied participation abroad, which includes wrangling together coalition partners in its aerial campaign in Iraq and Syria, and developing partnerships with Libyan militias.

However, the perpetual search for reliable partners has produced mixed results on its best days, while proving disastrous on its worst days. For instance, the American-led aerial campaign against the Islamic State has helped shrink the ambitious caliphate, while steadily eliminating its senior leadership, like Abd ar-Rahman Mustafa al-Qaduli. Yet, by October 2015, the U.S. had struck ISIS 5,473 times in its aerial campaign, compared to the combined total of 1,574 strikes by its twelve coalition partners. Meanwhile, in Syria, the Chicago Tribune reported that CIA-backed and Pentagon-supported militias in Syria were fighting each other. Jeffrey White, a former Defense Intelligence Agency official, explained, “Once they cross the border into Syria, you lose a substantial amount of control or ability to control their actions.” Similarly, in December 2015, Libyan militias forced a group of U.S. special forces to leave the country, an embarrassing indictment of American influence in the country. Nevertheless, the United States and its allies continue to consider providing military assistance, both in troops and weapons, to the beleaguered Libyan government — reflecting a strategy of relying on local actors instead of American unilateral action.

In recent years, the frantic search for effective local partners has come to define American interventions abroad, while simultaneously proving to be its underlying flaw. Despite receiving fiscal and military support from the United States, local partners and leaders have regularly pursued their own agenda of enriching themselves and consolidating their own powerbase — as reflected in the corrupt tenues of former Afghan President Karzai and former Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki. Despite wishful thinking, aid has rarely, if ever, translated to meaningful collaboration with local elements. Meanwhile, local institutions are more often havens of corruption than stalwart centers of law and order.

So if the United States insists on emulating Lawrence of Arabia’s success, it must accept local partnerships demand even more leadership than unilateral action. Coalitions are fractious and difficult by nature; thus, they require committed, bold leadership to set the standard. As long as the United States dithers on its role abroad, wavering from bold statements of support to isolationism, no foreign ally will see any value in an American partnership. And the grim reality is willing and available partners do not necessarily make effective ones. Ultimately, the United States needs to build sustainable local partnerships rooted in shared values and goals, instead of relying on partners of convenience and time to win its wars. Admittedly, such a high bar for collaboration will produce fewer qualified allies and prove immensely challenging — but the current motley crew of allies have failed to produce any semblance of security or order. No one ever said winning wars was easy.

Sebastian J. Bae, a star contributor to Best Defense, served six years in the Marine Corps infantry, leaving as a sergeant. He deployed to Iraq in 2009. Then he came back. He received his masters at Georgetown University’s security studies program, specializing in violent non-state actors and counterinsurgency. He co-holds the Marine chair on Best Defense’s Council of Former Enlisted. Follow him on Twitter @SebastianBae

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

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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