How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
After two decades, the United States is finally leaving Afghanistan, and only 2,500 U.S. troops remain in Iraq. In both countries, the insurgencies continue. It wasn’t supposed to end this way. In both wars, Washington hoped that imposing democratic reforms could protect the population, win hearts and minds, and defeat the insurgency.
That, after all, was the narrative spelled out in the vaunted U.S. Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual, published in 2006, which was intended to guide both campaigns. Drawing from Western practitioners’ accounts of successful counterinsurgency campaigns over 60 years, the document argued that good governance—including democratic reforms—defeats insurgencies. “Soldiers and Marines are expected to be nation builders as well as warriors,” two generals, David Petraeus and James Amos, wrote in the manual’s foreword. “They must be able to facilitate establishing local governance and the rule of law.” A 2005 article in the journal Military Review by another pair of officers—Peter Chiarelli and Patrick Michaelis—made the same case: “A gun on every street corner, although visually appealing, provides only a short-term solution and does not equate to long-term security grounded in a democratic process.” Governments must limit civilian casualties, they noted, because harming the population only bolsters support for the insurgency.
Civilian policymakers have made similar points. In 2009, the Center for a New American Security, the liberal-leaning U.S. think tank, recommended that a top priority for the United States should be to “promote democracy, the rule of law, and human rights in Afghanistan and the region.” In 2010, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told lawmakers that in Afghanistan, “success requires a fully integrated civilian-military effort, one in which security gains are followed immediately by economic and political gains.” She was in line with the rest of the administration of President Barack Obama: the National Security Strategy published by the White House that same year concluded that in Afghanistan and Iraq, “building the capacity necessary for security, economic growth, and good governance is the only path to long term peace and security.”
In fact, successful counterinsurgency campaigns have rarely included democratic reforms, and there was little reason to believe that the ones in Afghanistan and Iraq would prove any different. Rather, when Western powers have intervened militarily to support a threatened government, they have often perpetuated the government’s human rights abuses, bolstered self-interested elites, and harmed civilians. Even when an external power has pushed for reforms, it has found that its influence over another state’s domestic political choices is limited, making democratic reforms exceedingly unlikely.
Sometime, somewhere, the United States and its partners will again be tempted to militarily support a government threatened by an insurgency, convinced that a good-governance counterinsurgency campaign can defeat the rebels through democratizing reforms. What they should recognize is the chief lesson of the history of counterinsurgency: that great powers cannot easily shape the domestic politics of smaller, weaker states.
The belief that democracy is necessary for long-term stability and can flow from the barrel of a gun is rooted in misleading accounts of past counterinsurgency campaigns. Five campaigns in particular have been frequently invoked as success stories: those in El Salvador, Greece, Malaya, Oman, and the Philippines. Some of the most prominent proponents of good-governance counterinsurgency served in these campaigns. Sir Robert Thompson, a British counterinsurgency expert who advised the South Vietnamese government during the Vietnam War, served in Malaya. David Galula, a French military officer, served in Algeria and Greece.
In each of these five campaigns, the story goes, the United Kingdom or the United States recognized the costs of using too much military force against civilians and instead helped their threatened partners provide good governance. Growing popular support for the government cost the insurgency support, and the military went on to defeat what was left of it. In this view, there is a battle between insurgents and counterinsurgents for the allegiance, or at least cooperation, of the people, who ultimately determine the winner in the new democracy.
The problem is that the campaigns most often cited as examples of good-governance reforms did not in fact include such reforms. Rather, elites won these campaigns by paying off rival political and military leaders and imposing tight military control on civilian communities. In the process, they abused civilians and ignored human and civil rights. In the decades since, none of these five states—El Salvador, Greece, Malaysia, Oman, and the Philippines—have become full democracies. But in one important respect, the campaigns in these countries were indeed success stories: in the short run, the threatened governments survived, and in the long run, all have remained relatively politically stable and at least marginally aligned with the West. If those are the goals, then liberal free-market democracy is not necessary to achieve them.
What is necessary is something else: a costly and violent effort. The local government must accommodate the interests of powerful rivals in order to gain important information about other actors, including members of the insurgency. Information on elites’ personal, political, and financial interests and political alignments helps the government target rivals to win them over or otherwise manipulate them. The government also needs rival elites’ military power to augment its own ability to control civilians and attack insurgents. Militias are a way to strengthen the government’s efforts at a relatively low cost. It must control its population to prevent crucial resources such as food from flowing to the insurgency. And it must mount a war of attrition against the insurgents. In short, the threatened government stays in power by controlling civilians through brute force, cutting deals with strongmen and other self-interested elites, and showing insurgents that they cannot win.
This conclusion is not a pretty one, but it is historically accurate. Democratic reforms never entered the picture. In fact, if any of the threatened governments had enacted such reforms, they would have stripped themselves of the wealth and power they were fighting to hold. If Greece or El Salvador had held free and fair elections, for example, successive juntas would probably have been cast out of power. Good governance would have meant regime suicide.
One of the most referenced successful counterinsurgency campaigns is the Malayan Emergency. Beginning in 1948, the British fought and won a war against a communist, nationalist insurgency in their colony of Malaya. Decades later, advocates of good governance would present the case as a model of how reforms can defeat an insurgency. John Nagl, a retired U.S. Army officer, cited the campaign in the 2005 edition of his book, Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife, and Petraeus turned to it as a model in the 2006 field manual. But the Malayan Emergency actually tells a different story: how the British had to abandon the reforms they had hoped to make and succeeded nonetheless.
Practitioners and pundits often point out that the United Kingdom offered independence to the Malayans, thus introducing a major reform that weakened the insurgency. In 1972, for instance, Robert Komer, U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson’s pacification czar in Vietnam, wrote that the campaign took place “within the context of a firm rule of law and steady progress toward self-government and independence, which robbed the insurgency of much political appeal.” But this gets the history wrong. For one thing, the British complained to the end that they never got the popular support they thought they needed to win. For another thing, it was widely known that the British had been planning for Malayan independence since 1942—well before the insurgency began—making it chronologically impossible for the offer of independence to have been a reform that weakened the insurgency.
What’s more, the case is hardly an example of the importance of building an inclusive liberal democracy. Originally, the British planned to make Malaysia a liberal, pluralistic state with a multiethnic military. But facing resistance from the dominant Malay elites, they abandoned these plans, agreeing to form a state where the Malays would remain more politically powerful than the slightly smaller ethnic Chinese community and the considerably smaller ethnic Indian community. Only after the insurgency was defeated did the British begin sparingly expanding some political rights for non-Malays. Even today, ethnic Malays remain favored by the government in areas from education to housing.
The popular view of the campaign falls short in another important way. Many believe the British quickly learned to avoid civilian harm, limit their use of force, and respect human and civil rights. In fact, the conflict was defined by military control of civilians—through collective punishment, mass arrests and imprisonment without trial, and property destruction. The British also rounded up civilians and forced them into concentration camps. By 1952, more than 500,000 people had been forced into these “New Villages.”
Great powers cannot easily shape the domestic politics of smaller, weaker states.
Around the same time, a similar story was playing out in the Philippines. In a campaign lasting from 1946 to 1954, the U.S.-backed government defeated the Hukbalahap, insurgents who wanted government protection against rapacious landlords, less U.S. influence in the Philippines’ policy decisions, and communist reforms. The Philippine military forcefully controlled civilians throughout the campaign. It conducted massive clearing operations against civilian communities, committed extrajudicial executions, created civilian prison camps, burned houses, destroyed livestock and food, and raped women. All of this flies in the face of the myth that good governance leads to a successful counterinsurgency campaign.
At the root of the counterinsurgency myth is a failure to understand the decision-making calculus of local governments. These governments do not and will not implement the reforms demanded by their great-power backer unless those changes serve their interests—and that is a rare occurrence.
Any external power, even a great power, and even a superpower such as the United States, has limited influence over the domestic political choices of other governments. When a great power declares that a threatened government’s survival is an important security interest of its own, the great power considerably reduces its leverage; the smaller state knows it has the clout to resist the intervening country’s demands. Even after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, when the United States was the ruling power, it had limited freedom to act as it wished. Instead, it had to consider the interests of some influential Iraqi military and political actors because of the power, influence, and sometimes even military strength they wielded.
Bringing an idealized version of American governance to another country may be appealing in theory. In practice, however, intervening in and then continuing a war in the hope that the government will ultimately see the need for reforms is a dangerous chimera. Again and again, doing so has compounded human suffering, required shocking moral choices, and sparked violence across regions. Nonetheless, this belief in reforms persists. In fact, it explains why the United States stayed in Afghanistan and Iraq for so long. For nearly 20 years, the United States and other powers have been urging Afghan and Iraqi leaders to make reforms intended to weaken or defeat the insurgency. Military leaders have pleaded for more time, more resources, and more effort to achieve good governance. But these reforms have not come.
The United States’ tendency to fight so-called small wars in distant lands where its interests are limited is part and parcel of the grand strategy the country has pursued since World War II. But these adventures do not serve American interests or values; they scatter U.S. attention, incur massive costs, and require ghastly moral compromises. A wiser grand strategy would be one of restraint. Under this approach, the United States would focus on its interactions with other great powers, particularly nuclear-armed ones. Outside that realm, in countries where there is a pressing humanitarian need, the United States should offer nonmilitary support for groups suffering from government repression. When it comes to counterinsurgency campaigns waged or supported by outside powers hoping for reforms, history suggests that the game is not worth the candle.
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