The Royal Navy (and several of its Commonwealth cousins) have a toast for each day of the week. Each toast is a salute to (or, in a sense, a wish for) some element or component necessary for the realisation of the maritime ‘good life’. On Fridays, the traditional toast is made to “A willing foe and sea room.” The logic is that in order for a navy (and its officers) to reach its full potential as an armed force it requires an enemy to fight and enough ‘battlespace’ within which to engage him. Cue deeds of daring do, war stories on which to dine out for years to come, rum, medals, promotion, peerage, dotage, state funeral. Hoorah!
As Dave Betz has noted in his witty post, it would seem that Western military commanders and their political masters have taken a page from the annals of naval tradition. In this case it would seem that their toast is to “Adequate numbers of dependable locals.” Sadly, it appears that their panegyrics may be badly misplaced, and worryingly unanswered.
Dave has mentioned that in Afghanistan, Western strategy relies on the creation of a dependable and capable Afghan army. However, as the NYT article points out, despite shed-loads of money and effort, things are not looking good:
a third of the Afghan Army perpetually consists of first-year recruits fresh off a 10- to 12-week training course. And in the meantime, tens of thousands of men with military training are put at loose ends each year, albeit without their army weapons, in a country rife with militants who are always looking for help.
These problems are compounded by issues of infiltration by the Taliban and by rampant corruption. The circularity of Dave’s alphabetic pantheon of plans accurately captures the likely result of what will happen—sooner or later—following the looming 2014 deadline. In war, as in family planning, the withdrawal method (with its codiciliary bout of prayer and wishful thinking) is no guarantee of success. (Don’t ask me how I know; I just do.)
But this is not only a ‘now thing’. Commentators have drawn allusions to the ‘Vietnamization’ strategies of the early 1970s. But we don’t need to go back that far; we can glance at the heady days (2001-2002) of the most recent Afghan campaign and see that Western hopes were also underpinned by the existence of ‘adequate numbers of reliable locals’. Ten years ago these were not to be found in the Afghan army, but rather in various entities such as the Northern Alliance.
Stephen Biddle examined the ‘hopeful practice’ then known as the ‘Afghan Model’. While it may have been useful a decade ago, in a particular set of circumstances, against some enemies, with the right kind of American ‘enabling’, Biddle warns that it is not a universal panacea:
Where we enjoy local allies with the needed skills and motivation, we can expect the Afghan Model to work, and we should use it. But we will not always be so lucky.
The problem of relying on ’adequate numbers of reliable locals’ is not restricted to Afghanistan. Also in today’s NYT we are told that
The Obama administration quietly won Congress’s approval last month to shift about $8 million from Pentagon operations and counterterrorism aid budgeted forPakistanto begin building an elite Libyan force over the next year that could ultimately number about 500 troops. American Special Operations forces could conduct much of the training, as they have with counterterrorism forces in Pakistan and Yemen…
But wait, there’s more. There are many in the West who are rooting for the Free Syrian Army, to provide ‘adequate numbers of reliable locals’ in the running effort to get rid of Assad and his regime in Damascus. Who could forget this impromptu fashion show on the Syrian-Turkish border?Looking good, boys!
What is the appeal? Well, frankly put, having ‘adequate numbers of reliable locals’ means that fewer Western (let’s be frank, mostly American) soldiers need to serve and die in the far flung corners of the Emp…I mean, world. Call it ‘imperial policing by proxy’, call it ‘leading from behind’, call it ‘outsourcing’, whatever. It makes sense from an economical (in both literal and figurative uses of the word) point of view. Everyone’s done it: the British had imperial troops; the French used La Coloniale (made up of such forces as the Tirailleurs sénégalais) and on and on.
The only problem is that in order to get the first part of the equation (adequate numbers), we are apt to overlook deficiencies in the second part (reliable locals), rendering the entire model, at best, ineffective, and at worst, counter-productive. The partners or proxies of today often contain the nascent elements of our problems of tomorrow.
Consider this advice from the former French ambassador to Senegal, published recently in Paris Match (who knew? The translation is mine, so apologies in advance.)
Why do democracies seem condemned to forever repeat the same errors ? Why, in the name of good feelings and pity for the victims, have we gone to bed with the worst monsters? Why, from the Khmers Rouges to Bin Laden, from the terrorists who bloody Iraq to those to just massacred the American ambassador in Libya, have we given the title ‘freedom fighters’ to those who have only the soul ambition to practice terror and, in turn, install their own dictatorship?
The trouble, the ambassador warns, is that when
Faced with bloody dictators, we [the West] commit three principle errors:
1. Personify the evil. Giving a face to evil is the means of mobilizing energies. Saddam, Milosevic, Kadhafi played this role to perfection…Unfortunately, this incarnation of evil leaves us to believe that shooting one single man permits the dénouement of the crisis. This is the big misunderstanding…dictatorships in collapse open the path to chaos. Serious things begin and, unfortunately, human rights, for which we mobilized, are more threatened than ever.
2. Idealise the ‘rebels’. Whether the event occurs in Balkans, in Central Asia or in Africa, we try and see in the rebels copies of [the French resistance hero] Jean Moulin. It is time to be conscience of the fact that History doesn’t repeat itself…Each historical situation has its own specificity, and every ‘rebel’ is not a democrat. This blindness continues to cause damage. During the entire Arab Spring, it was practically impossible to speak of the opposition in objective terms. The fact that they were fighting against dictators seems to have given the protestors a character automatically democratic, to the point that certain people have wanted to theorise about the entry of the Arab world into a ‘post-Islamist’ era. That there were a large number of democrats amongst the protestors is an incontestable fact. But the only organized political force remains the Islamists and the very radical groups have reinforced themselves.
3. Believe that in the name of good all is permitted. In Libya, France launched itself on a total war against the Kadhafi regime. From the start, there was only one option: to win. As the deployment of ground troops was excluded, the soul possibility was the victory of the Libyan combatants. The ‘allies’ were therefore resolved on two very serious actions—but which were not the object of any debate: send arms to the insurgents and accept the support of the best fighters, who were often the radical Islamists. We pay for this initiative today in two ways: arms proliferations throughout the entire Sahara (Mali has paid this price directly), and a Libya which is under pressure from powerful Salafist Jihadists, the same ones who just commemorated September 11th in their own style [with the attack on the US consulate and the killing of the US Ambassador in Benghazi].
As the ambassador sagely concludes:
To react to violations today is important, but no more than avoiding, by our maladroit actions, creating the conditions in which the worse succeed the bad.
Not all the locals we support are bad people, but neither are they all good soldiers.
Let us turn back to the original NYT article and listen to the voice of one of the Afghans we are looking to pick up the torch for us in 2014:
The news of the American withdrawal has weakened our morale and boosted the morale of the enemy,” he said. “I am sorry to speak so frankly. If the international community abandons us again, we won’t be able to last.
And so. We must be careful not to try and avoid the messy reality of situations by wishing away our problems, hoping that all of our worries will be dealt with by ‘adequate numbers of reliable locals’. They may not come. They may not last. And they may not do as we wish.