Friday, May 8, 2015

Why military interventions fail - TransConflict

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.

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