My friend MK over at the Ink Spots blog has posted a tough criticism of my argument that Kenneth Roth's idea for the United States to lead a U.S. military intervention into Central Africa to arrest Joseph Kony and destroy the Lord's Resistance Army is the worst idea on the internet. Since MK never really disagrees with my conclusion -- that getting U.S. troops involved in Central Africa to literally act as the world's policeman and carry out arrest warrants from the International Criminal Court is madness -- I get the sense this post of MK's was a chance for him to show off his knowledge of Africa and throw a brushback pitch to those of us who are not area experts but have the temerity to write on issues relating to the Dark Continent. (This is what Africa specialists call it, right? Right?)
Fair enough. I should have included a disclaimer in my 300-word post that I have never lived south of the Sahara Desert and am by no means an Africa expert. And as someone who has spent several years of my life studying the peoples, languages, history and geography of one area of the globe, I deeply appreciate area experts and what they can offer. I similarly appreciate any and all attempts to correct any gaps in my horticultural knowledge. (Forests are not jungles. Noted.)
But I am responding to MK's post for two reasons. The first is that I cannot believe my luck. I am regularly accused on the internets of being some kind of wild-eyed liberal interventionalist because I have favored counterinsurgency operations as well as slower, conditions-based withdrawals in Iraq and Afghanistan. I think people just assume that I think these conflicts are fun and was in favor of the decisions that were made concerning our entry into each conflict. So whenever I get the chance to set the record straight and stress the fact that my experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan have made me more reluctant to engage in expeditionary military operations, I welcome the opportunity.
The second reason has to do with my semi-flippant reference to the disastrous 1993 debacle in Somalia. I stick by this analogy for reasons I'll discuss later.
First, though, let's talk about international interventions. There are four questions* we should ask when considering whether or not the United States should engage in an international intervention:
No surprise, but Roth skipped straight to Question 4, which is pretty typical not just for humanitarian advocates but also for U.S. military types, congressmen, talking heads, think tank researchers, etc. Questions 1 and 2 are really important, though. Question 2 gets at interests: does the United States have a vital interest at stake? (With "vital" meaning you're willing to use force?) Question 1, meanwhile, gets at a tricky question about how an intervention would change the dynamics of the conflict: On the one hand, it might immediately end the conflict. (Good!) On the other hand, it might also prolong the conflict due to unforeseen second-order effects of the intervention. (Bad!) Can we make a determination about what it would do prior to the intervention? And Question 3 is pretty important as well: are there other nations or militaries that might be better suited to intervene? Would it be more appropriate, in this case, to work by, with and through African nations?
Obviously, we can all disagree on interests. Kenneth Roth and I probably disagree on the question of whether or not the United States has a vital interest in Central Africa or, specifically, whether or not the United States has a vital interest in leading an expedition to arrest Joseph Kony.
That leads to operational concerns and my use of the Blackhawk Down analogy. I stick by the use of this analogy, even though I employed it pretty flippantly (and drew some grief from Laurenist as well). Here's why:
Once upon a time, in Prussia, some dude remarked that everything in war is very simple -- but the simplest thing is difficult. I understand that the LRA is not exactly Hizballah. But we should be very wary of those who claim military operations conducted against them would be some kind of cakewalk. Because one of the reasons the best military units constantly conduct rehearsals and plan for contingencies is not to prepare for when things go right but for when, even independent of enemy action, things go wrong.
Things will always go wrong. You may embark on an open-and-shut humanitarian intervention, as we did in Somalia, and get dragged into something different. Or you may be hitting a relatively easy target in the Bakaara Market one day when boom! A helicopter goes down and suddenly things get a lot more complicated. And it doesn't matter that you and your buddies manage over the next 18 hours to kill 1000+ Somali militiamen: when dead U.S. soldiers appear on CNN, the reason why U.S. troops are on the ground has to make sense to people back home. Going back to Central Africa, what happens when a helicopter drops out of the sky -- as helicopters tend to do -- and eight U.S. servicemen are killed? Was it worth it? Does the mission still make sense to the public?
Things go wrong, folks. Things always go wrong. Which is why it is really important that we determine vital U.S. interests are at stake before intervening.
In the next few years, the United States will draw down in both Iraq and Afghanistan. On the right, the last neoconservatives will clamor for more U.S. military action against rebels in Yemen or Iran's nuclear program. Liberal interventionalists on the left, meanwhile, will argue for the employment of U.S. military force in humanitarian interventions from Burma to Uganda.
I may be the only person to have read Samantha Power's "Bystanders to Genocide" and come away thinking Richard Clarke was kind of a hero. Clarke was one of those who asked the tough questions of all the plans to commit U.S. military power on the ground in Rwanda, another landlocked area of Central Africa: How would we seize the airport? How would we resupply the troops? What is our endstate? How would we evacuate casualties?
I'm sorry, but these are the kind of questions responsible people have to ask. The fact that we often don't ask these questions depresses me.
*A varient of these four questions is in my notes from a conversation I had with Dave Kilcullen two years ago, so we can safely assume I stole these from him.
Update: The comments thread of this post is a good one, with some back and forth between Gian Gentile and Gulliver worth reading. But the real show is the comments thread at Ink Spots, where the five of them are locked in what can only be described as "intense disagreement" with one another.
It's not quite New Coke, and it's not as ill-advised as signing up to be al-Qaeda's #3, but this is a pretty bad idea.
Wrap your head around this one: the executive director of Human Rights Watch, an organization for which I have much respect, has suggested the United States wage a counter-guerrilla campaign in the dense jungles of not one but four central and east African states to defeat the Lord's Resistance Army and arrest Joseph Kony.
What could go wrong, right? I mean, this would surely be one of those in-and-out things. And our efforts to track down and arrest two dudes in the border region between Afghanistan and Pakistan went off without a hitch in 2001, so we probably don't need to do any contingency planning or anything. This is what we call a fail-safe plan.
The International Criminal Court has issued arrest warrants for Kony and other Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) commanders, charging them with war crimes and crimes against humanity, but the court depends on governments to make arrests ... there is no better case for the humanitarian use of force than the urgent need to arrest Joseph Kony, the ruthless leader of the LRA, and protect the civilians who are his prey.
Kenneth Roth is literally suggesting the United States act as the world's policeman here. I have a tremendous amount of respect for both Roth and his organization, but this is a terrible, terrible idea. Roth mentions Bosnia and Kosovo as precedents for humanitarian intervention, but those were massive expeditionary operations supported by tens of thousands of soldiers. What he says is needed in this particular case is for the United States to send "special forces, expert intelligence, and rapid-deployment capacity" to a state in East Africa for humanitarian purposes.
Stephen Ellis, a scholar at the Free University Amsterdam, has a very good article on Open Democracy about what extremists are up to in the Sahara.
"It is not often that the words "cocaine" and "al-Qaida" are plausibly linked. But these two forces are turning the western half of the Sahara - approximately from southern Libya to the Atlantic coast - into a locus of illicit money-making and radical politics. The development, quite a feat for a sparsely populated region, presents a challenge that the rich states to the north cannot afford to ignore."
I spent some time in Mali not so long ago and thought it was one of those places that could suddenly become a "hot spot". At which point everyone would sit around scratching their heads saying, "Wow, we didn't know. That came from no-where". Well, it has been building and some of that has been reported. Stephen's article will give you a good round up on what's happened so far and what the situation is at the moment.
If suddenly something horrible were to happen and all attention turned to the Sahel, I'm pretty sure that we will hear the usual thing about how all Muslims - whether in the Middle East, Asia or Africa - are all violent mental cases who follow a religion that tells them to kill and dance in blood etc etc. That will be pretty annoying. So, I'm also posting an article I wrote while out there about the spread of extremism in the region and the reaction of local communities.
"In the market next to the grand mosque in the centre of town, Muslim women with their hair covered but their shoulders and arms bare barter for T-shirts emblazoned with photos of US President Barack Obama. In another part of the market, a young man in the austere Saudi-inspired dress of trousers hitched up at the ankle and long beard berates a bookstall owner for not carrying the "right sort of works".
And just for fun, here's a photo of Bamako market:
On one side are the Djiboutians, a relatively well-equipped African military with combat boots, CamelBak strap-on water bottles and the occasional buttery croissant in the field.
On the other side are skinny Eritrean soldiers, covered in dust and wearing plastic sandals, camped out in thatch-roofed huts that look like fortified tropical bungalows.
There is no buffer zone between the soldiers, as there usually is
along a contested frontier. Instead, the heavily armed fighters, who are becoming increasingly tense and irritable, are squeezed together on a sweltering hilltop, watching each others’ every move.
Politicians from the governing party and the opposition spoke sweet words of unity — but the top leaders continued to sit apart from one another in the chamber.
“Honorable members, you must now become the ambassadors of peace and reconciliation,” President Mwai Kibaki told the lawmakers. “Please forget the history of what has happened, not because you want to put it aside, but because you want to do something much better.”