Why military interventions fail

Why military interventions fail

In examining history, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that a number of major ‘stabilizing interventions’ should not have occurred at all.

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By Nathaniel K. Powell

The current military escalation against ISIS, French engagement in the Sahel, and numerous UN and regional peacekeeping operations illustrate that military interventions are unlikely to disappear anytime soon. Today, most of these interventions, at least nominally, aim at ending armed conflict and (re)building functional states with some degree of inclusive governance. It is a good idea to ask why such policies often fail.

Even when narrow stabilization goals are met, such as in a number of French interventions in Chad and the former Zaire, this often occurs at the expense of long-term stability and democratic governance. Interventions rarely, if ever, positively contribute to improving the political environments that originally generated the crises which sparked the interventions in the first place.

While each case is clearly different, the failure of most of these interventions to achieve the desired stability and accountable governance implies a need for a serious rethink about how interventions are conducted. In some quarters, this has revolved around debates over the effectiveness of counterinsurgency methods. This discussion largely misses the point. Military effectiveness has very little bearing on the success of interventions. Instead, inherently political factors pose nearly insurmountable obstacles to the success of ‘stabilizing interventions’, regardless of the quality and doctrine of intervening forces. Indeed, most such interventions feature a recurring series of obstacles.

Grand narratives 

Whether combating Islamist-inspired guerillas, communist expansion, or regionally-backed rebellions, policymakers in intervening countries often view the conflicts of ‘host’ countries through the prism of broader ideological struggles. While these interpretations often contain grains of truth, they can obscure more than they reveal about the character and motivations of civil war dynamics, particularly in its local dimensions. The problem is that flawed analyses of the politics of violence often lead to intervention strategies badly suited to the realities on the ground.

During the Vietnam War, American policymakers minimized the role that Saigon’s corruption, repression, and bad governance played in fuelling the Vietcong insurgency. Instead, an obsessive focus on global communism and American credibility led to massive support for the Saigon regime, a socially destructive counterinsurgency policy, and futile efforts to apply pressure on North Vietnam. This logic also led to western support for a large number of other unsavoury regimes, in order to prevent the spread of communism. However, most Third World socialist-leaning armed groups were not directed by Moscow or Beijing, despite receiving support from Eastern Bloc patrons. Their ideology was often informed by socialist worldviews, but their politics was supremely local or national.

Today, one cannot understand the dynamics of groups like Boko Haram or ISIS without reference to the very local politics that both drives their success and limits their possibilities for action. By not taking these kinds of factors into account, efforts like France’s military interventions in support of Zaire’s dictator, Mobutu Sese Seko, may save repressive regimes, but do little else than postpone bloody civil wars and state collapse. Today, security assistance to many undemocratic states as part of broader counterterrorism efforts may have similar results and facilitate repression and long-term instability.

The legitimacy problem 

Building the legitimacy of host states represents one of the essential problems in achieving sustainable stability. Legitimacy requires processes that cannot primarily come from the outside. Almost by definition, external interventions are likely to impede legitimacy by highlighting the host state’s inability to fulfil its responsibilities. It can also prevent the host state from doing so by providing disincentives for necessary reforms. 

Most ‘stabilizing interventions’ aim at strengthening host states by providing security against internal or external threats. However, regardless of the ideology or methods adopted by insurgent elites, their success is often predicated on real grievances suffered by their citizenries. More often than not, the governing regime bears a large part of the blame in generating these grievances.  

Interveners, such as the Americans in Vietnam, the Egyptians in Yemen, and the French in Chad, do often, at some point in their interventions, attempt to pressure host regimes to build more inclusive constituencies to address some of the political causes of civil war. However, in each of these cases, regime elites of all stripes knew very well that sincere overtures to other communities or the armed opposition could threaten regime survival. They had little interest in more participatory governance.

This seems to be the case today in Iraq where, despite American and other international pressure for reform, the al-Abadi government in Baghdad is incapable of providing a credible commitment to safeguard critical Sunni interests. In such a situation, even a military victory over ISIS could become a ‘catastrophic success’, whereby the restoration of central government authority will be viewed as anything but a liberation by Sunni communities.

Misunderstanding influence

Interveners often have rough relationships with seemingly mercurial host-regimes. American complaints about Hamid Karzai and Nouri al-Maliki were legion, as was Soviet tension with Babrak Karmal in Afghanistan and Mengistu Haile Mariam’s regime in Ethiopia. This stems from multiple reasons, including the fact that many host regime leaders want to assert their independence for reasons of legitimacy.

Host regimes can often buck certain kinds of pressure and get away with intransigence. They know that policymakers in intervening countries usually cannot simply end a major public commitment or withdraw troops without losing face. Decisions to intervene imply that the survival of the host regime becomes substantially more important to policymakers in the intervening country than would otherwise be the case. Initial failures and sunk cost concerns easily lead to mission creep. This can decrease the intervener’s ability to exercise leverage over host regime behaviour while removing immediate incentives for the implementation of necessary political reforms. It also leaves interveners especially vulnerable to manipulation from below. While the Vietnam War represents a classic example of these issues, one can also find them in the Soviet War in Afghanistan, the Soviet and Cuban interventions in Ethiopia, and the American wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, among others.

The mere presence of a major intervention force introduces variables into internal regime politics that are difficult to predict at the outset. The French intervention in defence of the Hutu-dominated regime in pre-genocide Rwanda represents an extreme case of this. The presence of French forces helped to create the political conditions which empowered hardline elements in the regime to plan a genocide of Tutsis and moderate Hutus. By removing immediate threats to regime survival, interventions can sometimes also facilitate regime infighting. This was a frequent feature of the Chadian political scene in the 1970s during recurring French interventions. It also characterized South Vietnamese politics throughout the American presence in the country.

Congenital weaknesses

Carl von Clausewitz, in one of his less remarked-upon observations, noted that the relationship between state and society plays a major structuring role in the way armies fight wars. One of the issues with security assistance programs is that host country militaries often exhibit congenital weaknesses inherent in most ‘failing’ states or those facing civil war. Truly national armies by definition include elements representing the entire nation. In countries which are ethnically, religiously, culturally, or otherwise fragmented politically, these fissures will seriously impede the military’s capacity to function, especially on national territory.

These problems are highlighted by the frequent inability of major military assistance programs to build robust national militaries in fragile states. In Mali, American-trained units were largely unable to cope with the country’s rebels. While this partly resulted from the episodic nature of the training programs, the real cause was deeply political. Although localized successes, particularly at the unit level, are possible, larger structural deficiencies make real progress difficult. This helps to explain other failures, such as Soviet efforts at building strong security forces in Afghanistan, or the near-collapse of the Iraqi army last year against ISIS, despite years of American training efforts.

The price for short-term stability

Even when interventions provide stability, they rarely contribute to democracy or lasting peace. This is because intervening policymakers often privilege stable, friendly, authoritarian, or semi-democratic regimes with questionable human rights records. Examples include successful French interventions during the Shaba crises in Zaire and later interventions in Chad and Rwanda. In these cases, French forces saved repressive regimes from probable overthrow, yet these regimes’ policies proved enormously destructive for parts of their own countries’ social fabric. Mobutu’s governing strategies ensured that when his regime finally collapsed, the ensuing conflicts were among the bloodiest since the Second World War. Even France’s most recent intervention in Mali, which successfully liberated a large portion of the country’s territory, allowed its former corrupt ruling elites to return to power.

Over the past decade, many of America’s most important partners in Iraq and Afghanistan have been serious human-rights abusers. Empowering criminals both at the local and governmental level may help tip the scales of counterinsurgency on the side of the interveners, but often at a steep long-term cost to both local communities and regional stability.

Warnings for the future

In examining history, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that a number of major ‘stabilizing interventions’ should not have occurred at all. The American wars in Vietnam and Iraq (which became a ‘stabilizing intervention’ after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein), the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and numerous examples of French interventions in Africa, all likely did more harm than good. Even when they did not prove economically and politically costly to the intervening powers, the lives of communities in the targeted countries certainly suffered.

That said, despite the miserable track record of these interventions, they will likely remain a common feature of the international political landscape for the foreseeable future. At times, sheer humanitarian imperatives, such as the recent violence in the Central African Republic, or other considerations may leave capable states with little choice but intervention. At first glance, given their brutal ideology and stated aims, it may seem that ISIS presents us with just such an imperative. However, in light of past experience, policymakers and concerned citizens should give serious consideration to the obstacles described above before ceding too easily to anger and repugnance at what ISIS represents.

ISIS is certainly not a monolithic bloc. The first order of business for any anti-ISIS coalition is a better understanding of how they operate. For instance, beyond their violent and uncompromising ideology, what has driven ISIS’ success in attracting the support of numerous Sunni Arab elites in both Syria and Iraq? What is the extent of their popular support? What are the local dynamics of violence? How does ISIS’ presence interact with community and broader tribal politics? Who are the key actors in this process? These and related questions should guide thinking on developing the bases of a political strategy.

What are the limits to American or other international external political influence over the two ‘host regimes’? Among other factors, the policies of both Damascus and Baghdad bear a large degree of responsibility for this crisis. However, external influence over the former is nearly zero, while the latter cannot be forced into making necessary reforms since this would threaten the ruling coalition’s ability to govern. Substantial military assistance to either regime may only reinforce political intransigence. How does one address this problem?

How can military assistance improve the capacity of Baghdad and the Kurds to combat ISIS? If they manage to recapture large Sunni Arab population centres, how will they treat local civilians? Can anyone provide a credible commitment to refrain from retaliation? Given the past history of many in Iraq’s military and Shiite militias, this question is a critical one.

These issues should be at the heart of any debate over an appropriate response to ISIS. At present, given the means available, it seems unlikely that American and, more broadly, international actors are capable of tackling the political roots of this crisis and its underlying violence. If true, responsible policymakers should ask themselves what a more robust military intervention from the US and its partners could realistically accomplish.

Nathaniel K. Powell is a Research Associate at the Pierre du Bois Foundation for Contemporary History. His research focuses on the history of French military interventions in Africa.

This article was originally published by OpenDemocracy and is available by clicking here.


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