State formation and
regime consolidation, as any astute
reader of Charles Tilly could tell you, is an ugly business. Just as ugly, though, can be what its
absence brings. Since foreign aircraft, foreign arms, and local manpower toppled
the Gaddafi regime in Libya, a debate simmered between skeptics, who feared the
infiltration of al Qaeda, jihadists, and widespread instability, and optimists,
who saw potential in a new Arab-formed democracy forming in the wake of a
low-cost intervention against a brutal regime. Both sides have sought to wring
evidence for their positions out of a muddled state of affairs. While jihadist
groups appeared to increase their presence in Libya, relatively secular, even
so-called liberal and independent politicians and coalitions dominate the
Libyan government. Though Libya’s patchwork of legal and extralegal armed
groups remains, these myriad militias have not reduced the country into a new
Somalia on the Mediterranean shore.
The Weberian monopoly on force is a hallmark of political science and a historical analysis, but it is also an ideal-type. No state has a total monopoly on force, and many eke out a form of status quo where coercive instruments remain outside the state’s hands. In the U.S., militias were intended to be the last line of defense against the overlong extension of federal power, but when paramilitary groups overstepped an acceptable political threshold, as they did during the Reconstruction era, federal troops would intervene.
Libya’s recent shrine bulldozing crisis similarly reveals a tenuous equilibrium between Libya’s various coercive agents. Groups many suspect adhere to Salafist teachings demolished two shrines last weekend, prompting Interior Minister Fawzi Abdel A'al to resign, and then reverse his resignation. Yet in doing so, he defended his refusal to use security forces to stop extremist groups demolishing shrines, claiming:
"If we deal with this using security we will be forced to use weapons, and these groups have huge amounts of weapons. We can't be blind to this. These groups are large in power and number in Libya. I can't enter a losing battle (with them), to kill people over a grave," he told reporters.
It was up to the country's religious bodies to stop the desecration, he said.
"If all shrines in Libya are destroyed so we can avoid the death of one person (in clashes with security), then that is a price we are ready to pay," the minister added.
What is going on here is
certainly more complicated than simply state failure, but it also underlines
the difficulties for policymakers trying to navigate the interplay of
paramilitary groups and state-formation. Despite vigorous Western intervention,
support for favored NTC militias, and a government at least theoretically
opposed to violent extremist groups, Libya’s security forces remain incapable
or (perhaps worse) unwilling to exercise the political prerogative of a sovereign
government and prevent armed groups from acting unimpeded in Libya. It may be
that the Libyan government will not concern itself with the destruction of
religious property (though the assumption that desecration and death are
alternatives, rather than potential bedfellows, seems quite naive).
In many cases, states or political elites allow violent non-state groups to flourish so long as they pursue narrowed aims that do not threaten the sovereign government’s ideological, power-political or rentier interests. In some cases, sympathy, sanction, or outright support for these groups is a viable means for supplementing a political community’s capacity beyond conventional limits. Rightist paramilitary and terrorist groups performed this function in Latin America, while white supremacist paramilitaries and terrorists served much the same function for the parties, classes and interests opposed to Reconstruction in the U.S.
While the sheer volume of arms and weakness of state security forces in Libya suggest incapacity plays a significant role in this crisis, the Interior Minister’s acknowledgment that some members of the security forces (which arguably amount to the integrated, approved militia groups in Libya) may be sympathetic or active participants in the attacks suggests a lack of will is also at play. After all, if unfettered desecration is preferable to risking the lives of the state’s security forces, and then left to religious institutions to check, that is a tacit political sanction or concession in the evolving negotiations between Libya’s armed entities.
Such stories should make us skeptical, too, about the ability of arms provision to paramilitaries and proxy forces to reliably advance foreign political interests. In Syria, many arguments assert that a more vigorous role in arming the relatively secular or moderate opposition will undermine the position of al Qaeda and jihadist groups. Yet arms provision in Libya, and indeed the consolidation of the most favorable government the West could ask for, failed to create a force organized and coherent enough to actually stamp out local extremists. Aaron Zelin and Andrew Lebovich, in their earlier analysis, make a persuasive case that jihadist groups did not dominate the Libyan rebels. Nor, of course, do jihadist groups need to totally dominate a country’s territory or the composition of its militia groups to pose a significant concern. Yet today the new government supposedly faces groups better armed and organized than their own, or at least well enough such that the state forces cannot effectively suppress them. How could this come to pass?
Asessing combat power, political cohesion, and other factors vital to understanding the sorting-out that occurs of armed groups in a multi-faceted rebellion, requires recognizing qualitative elements. Radical groups are not always the largest or best-armed group initially, but they may be more organizationally coherent thanks to shared ideology. Additionally, unlike militias primarily focused on overthrowing a tyrannical regime, success at that aim does not lead to their dissolution. They may also have superior access to foreign advisors that allow them to tap into a well of experience and superior tactics, techniques, and procedures.
Further, arms remain instruments, and do not reliably alter the political agency of their users. In Syria, the fact that many rebels buy their arms from regime troops, or from Iraqi soldiers reselling U.S.-provided arms, should suggest that any foreign power that floods Syria with arms is likely to see those weapons used for undesired purposes in unexpected places. Not only that, but as Libya demonstrated, merely providing arms to rival groups does not preclude the existence of others.
Many Libyan militias appear to be seeking primarily to extract political and economic rent from access to state revenues and local control. Creating a monopoly on force could actually severely disrupt this process, and what benefits does it offer the militias? Similarly, in Syria, while foreign patrons can arm friendly militias, how can they exclude the wrong militias from being armed by other actors, their own proxies, or as a result of regime caches entering the market? The more likely scenario than undesirable groups fading away is a multiplicity of armed groups existing simultaneously. As Libya should now demonstrate, supporting a rebel group and new government does not guarantee it will be ready, willing, or even able to stamp out the armed undesirables. More extreme groups may choose to focus more on preserving and expanding their combat power and revolutionary agenda, while groups whose political aims mainly sought overthrow of a regime may, with their ideological objectives satisfied and primary threat extinguished, may face fewer incentives to enhance their combat readiness or mobilize politically.
The result, then, is that groups that may be a popular or political minority, and even outside the bounds of a new government’s security infrastructure, maintain a share of combat capability large enough to pursue their aims or at least hinder or deter the new regime’s attempts to extinguish it or curtail its influence. They may do this in spite of relative disfavor in foreign political ties and arms trade, and in spite of a failure to contest or undermine the popularity or non-coercive operations of the new regime. Warlords’ games are not so easily or durably won, which is why states approximating the Weberian ideal type will not play by their rules in the first place, and refuse to tolerate such groups’ existence.
State formation and the maintenance of state power involves tacit deals with potentially dangerous and undoubtedly unsavory actors as often as it does, whether by might or right, the imposition of a monopoly on force. Whether through a corrupt bargain that tolerates or legitimizes racial violence and disenfranchisement, a stable arrangement between a government and powerful narcotics traffickers, or the integration of gruesome paramilitary and its allies into an expanding state, we should be wary about letting Hobbesian anarchy color our metrics for success or failure. We should be even more wary about pursuing policies that seek to tame the complex and ugly business of finding a working distribution of political and violent power in a transitioning political community. Ultimately, the covert remedies so popular today must grapple with many of the problems of nation-building and state formation that supposedly belonged to the failed policies of the past.
I have been abroad for the past five weeks and just got back two nights ago. I have currently worked my way through two weeks of emails and have another three to go, so if you have tried to get in touch over the past month, have some patience with me. I was working a bit while I was abroad, as anyone who watched me in debates on France24 knows, and I want to provide some links to my columns for World Politics Review so that you can reach beyond the paywall. (Now having said that, I encourage you all to actually buy a subscription to WPR. It's not terribly expensive, and -- my column aside -- the content is both fresh and informed.)
1 August 2012: "Fallout from Libya Precedent Felt in Syria Debate"
25 July 2012: "State, USAID Must Learn From Afghanistan Errors"
18 July 2012: "U.S.-Israel Military Ties Face Long-Term Strains"
4 July 2012: "No Crisis in Wartime U.S. Civil-Military Relations"
27 June 2012: "America's Dysfunctional Decade in Afghanistan"
Peter Beinart, hailing the Israeli system:
Every time I get depressed about politics in Israel, I try to remember one salient fact: their political system still sometimes functions better than ours. ...
Why is their system working when ours did not? In Israel, as in the United States, military and intelligence officials are generally more cautious than civilian leaders when it comes to war, largely because they know firsthand how crude and unpredictable an instrument war is. But the Israeli system is less hierarchical. The military and intelligence agencies in the United States certainly leak to the press, and use bureaucratic tactics to box in their civilian overlords. At the end of the day, however, soldiers and intelligence analysts are trained to give their professional advice and then get out of the way. In Israel, the lines are more blurred, and bureaucrats are more freewheeling in speaking to the press. This has its disadvantages, but in a case like this, it gives the antiwar generals and spies greater leverage to fight back.
If anyone noticed Sam Huntington spinning in his grave, that's because Beinart is arguing that in a democracy, a military that actively resists the policy preferences of its elected leaders is a more responsible military than one that faithfully executes those same policy preferences.
Needless to say, this is a model of civilian-military relations that few political scientists would endorse.
It is fine to think the decision to invade Iraq -- which Beinart loudly supported, if memory serves -- was a poor decision. And it is also fine to think that a decision to attack Iran in order to retard the development of the Iranian nuclear program would be a similarly poor decision. We can have debates about either, of course, but the positions are ones reasonable people can get behind.
But endorsing a system of government in which military officers get to pick and choose which policy preferences of their elected leaders to carry out is not a prescription for better policy-making. It is instead a prescription for turning yourself into Pakistan.
WASHINGTON — An inquiry by the Defense Department inspector general into a magazine profile that resulted in the abrupt, forced retirement of Gen.has cleared the general, his military aides and civilian advisers of all wrongdoing.
Pentagon investigators said they were unable to confirm the events as reported in the June 2010 article in Rolling Stone, and the inquiry’s final review challenged the accuracy of the profile of General McChrystal, who was the top commander in Afghanistan. ...
“Not all of the events at issue occurred as reported in the article,” the inspector general’s review stated. “In some instances, we found no witness who acknowledged making or hearing the comments as reported. In other instances, we confirmed that the general substance of an incident at issue occurred, but not in the exact context described in the article.” ...
The Pentagon inspector general’s team had invited Mr. Hastings to meet with investigators to provide his views. He declined, and pointed to previous statements and the article, according to the inquiry. Mr. Bates provided some clarifying information in an e-mail, the investigative report stated.
In looking at specific incidents reported in the article, Pentagon investigators found contradictory or inconclusive information on the statement disparaging the vice president.
Let's take bets on the page number of the Times in which this article will run? A16? And while we're taking bets, what are the odds, between this investigation and the now discredited article on Gen. Caldwell, that Rolling Stone will conduct its own internal investigation into these stories?
When the president fired Gen. Stan McChrystal last year, a chorus of pundits rushed to proclaim the United States faced a crisis in civil-military relations. I do not want to argue that civil-military relations are entirely healthy, because I do not believe they are*, but it seems clear in retrospect that L'Affair Rolling Stan was not as symptomatic of a crisis as we were initially led to believe. As Hew Strachan correctly noted, "This was a cock-up, not a conspiracy. [McChrystal's] dignified response, and his refusal to try to justify or explain away the remarks attributed to him, confirmed his disciplined acceptance of his own constitutional position."**
I think today's news*** only confirms what Strachan argued, though the next time Gen. Petraeus disagrees with someone in the White House about the pace of Afghanistan troop withdrawals, you can count on pundits to reliably begin screaming anew about a crisis in civil-military relations.
*Richard Kohn offers the most exhaustive list of reasons to be worried about civil-military relations in this 2008 essay. As with this other essay by Kohn, I do not endorse everything he argues but nonetheless found it enlightening and powerful.
**Strachan went on to argue that the affair revealed a more immediate problem with our strategy in Afghanistan. Read his essay here.
***In the interests of full disclosure, my employer is a partner of the White House in this welcome new initiative focusing on military families. Also, I think readers of this blog understand I have both long admired Stan McChrystal and completely understood the president's decision to replace him in the aftermath of that Rolling Stone article.
"Riddle me this," a particularly careful student of civil-military relations wrote to me this morning:
How many of the people who think we have a serious civil-military problem because the military is controlling Obama (or whatever word one wants to use) also a) complained when Shinseki spoke out about the Iraq war strategy, b) thought Rumsfeld was correct in general to ride roughshod over the generals in 2001-2003, and c) thought that the generals complaining about Bush's Iraq strategy should have piped down and been quiet?
Good questions. I, for one, am not arguing questions being asked about civil-military relations right now are appropriate or inappropriate. If pressed, in fact, I would argue that we should always be having a dynamic debate about these issues lest we grow complacent. But it's worth noting how partisan preferences shape when and how people choose to get their panties all up in a twist on this. (Although it needs to be said that some individuals, such as Richard Kohn, have been writing about this issue in a determinedly non-partisan manner for some time.)
Update: Case in point: Here is Andrew Sullivan warning, today, of the menace David Petraeus poses to healthy civil-military relations. But when a bunch of retired flag officers get politically involved and start lobbying the administration on the "right" side of an issue that Andrew Sullivan cares about, they are to be applauded. And when generals complained about Don Rumsfeld, they too were to be lauded for speaking out. I'm not trying to pick on Andrew Sullivan here, but the uneven way he approaches civil-military relations -- alternately praising or chiding flag officers for getting politically involved depending on the issue and the political preferences of the writer -- seems representative of most punditry I read on this on both the right and the left. Again, I respect folks like Andrew Bacevich or Richard Kohn for being more ecumenical (if uncompromising) in their treatment of the issue. Read Kohn's biting essay on the subject here.
Today's newspapers have some good thoughts on the dismissal of Gen. McChrystal, some predictable drivel on the dismissal, and a touching tribute written by one of Gen. McChrystal's Afghan colleagues. The Skype connection between Denver and CNN's studios malfunctioned, so you the reader will miss me talking about all this today with Tom Friedman and Dave Kilcullen on Fareed Zakaria's show. Alas. One thing that I will add to Andrew Bacevich's op-ed, though, is that he may have missed a trick: yes, civil-military relations are strained when you ask an officer corps to fight as long as it has, but as I was discussing with a friend the other day, officers within the special operations community might be more likely than others to treat their civilian leaders with contempt. Within the uniformed officer corps, officers who serve in special operations assignments seem less likely to serve tours of duty in Washington -- and are thus less likely to remember that we have these things called "civilians" which determine U.S. foreign and defense policy. Since the readership has officers and soldiers who have served in both regular assignments and in special operations, I would be interested in hearing your thoughts on this. Are special operators more likely to treat their civilian leaders with contempt?
Update: A friend wrote in to say that based upon her experiences, special operations types tend to treat everyone with contempt. Heh. But maybe contempt is the wrong word, or at least the wrong way of looking at things. Maybe a better way of thinking about this is to consider the issue in terms of separation. That might be closer to what Bacevich is getting at too. When you separate an officer from the society he or she serves for long periods of time, the officer might grow distant from the institutions he or she is meant to be protecting and serving. Special operations officers tend to be more separated than most other officers from their society and its institutions, so maybe civil-military relations are more fraught with peril when they are involved. Thoughts?
I arrived in Vail, Colorado this afternoon to digest the news from Washington -- which I did during a trail run up Riva Ridge, getting in touch with my 10th Mountain Division forefathers. I think the president acted very wisely today. I think he was well within his rights to fire Gen. Stan McChrystal, a friend and a man for whom I have great admiration, and that it was correct for healthy civil-military relations that he did so. He did so in a very classy way, too, noting Gen. McChrystal's long record of service and the role he has played since 2001 as both commander in Afghanistan and in command of the Joint Special Operations Command. (I believe he will someday get the credit he deserves for his service at the helm of JSOC.) And he did so in a way that minimized many of the risks I wrote about yesterday by replacing Gen. McChrystal with Gen. Petraeus. Those who hoped this episode would lead to a wider examination of U.S. and allied strategy in Afghanistan will be disappointed. But it will be interesting to see how Gen. Petraeus responds to the day-to-day challenges of Afghanistan and what shifts he recommends to both President Obama and President Karzai.
These have been a remarkable but tough few days. We have reason to hope, though, going forward. The president acted with confidence and wisdom. And we have a very good general en route to Kabul. All that is left, then, is to thank Gen. Stan McChrystal for his service. It is a pity that a man who has given so much to his nation ends his career in such ignominious fashion.
Something very, very positive happened today in Washington, DC. Senior Republican legislators, to include Sen. John McCain, and Bush Administration national security specialists, to include Peter Feaver and Eliot Cohen (both careful scholars of counterinsurgency and civil-military relations, I might add), have made clear that the president is well within his rights to fire Gen. McChrystal for comments made in a Rolling Stone article by Michael Hastings. Those who love our constitutional democracy should exhale, because I for one was really afraid this was going to turn into a partisan catfight, with those on the Left screaming for the president to fire McChrystal and those on the Right laying the blame at the feet of the president.
I am at a loss, though, as to what the best option for the president is. As I have made clear, I believe any course of action carries risk. The purpose of this post is to share three options for the president that, I believe, minimize those risks.
1. If you decide to retain Gen. McChrystal:
Have him resign ... and then do not accept his resignation. If you really do not think the war in Afghanistan can be waged without Gen. McChrystal, you still have to make clear that words and actions carry consequences and that at the end of the day, the President of the United States is the commander in chief. This option allows the president to keep Gen. McChrystal while at the same time reestablishing a healthier civil-military balance.
2a. If you decide to fire Gen. McChrystal (but believe the current strategy is still the most appropriate strategy for Afghanistan):
Fire him, and replace him with LTG Dave Rodriguez, McChrystal's deputy. This is a simple "drop one" drill, it allows for the greatest continuity, and it allows you to procede as planned with both operations this summer and this fall's strategic review.
2b. If you decide to fire Gen. McChrystal (but decide you need a new strategy as well):
Fire him and name LTG Rodriguez the interim commander while you carry out another strategic review. Once you decide on your new strategy, name a commander best suited for carrying out that strategy. The shame here is that the U.S. general best qualified to carry out a lighter-footprint counter-terror strategy like the one described by Austin Long is ... Stan McChrystal.
I have been struck by the degree to which a lot of smart friends are in disagreement about what should be done about l'Affair Rolling Stan. In some ways, the argument about whether or not you dismiss Gen. McChrystal for comments made by the commander and his staff in this Rolling Stone article breaks down into unhappily familiar lines. Critics of the current strategy in Afghanistan unsurprisingly think McChrystal should be fired. Supporters of the strategy think that while the comments made to Rolling Stone were out of line, McChrystal should be retained in the greater interest of the war effort. Neither side, that I have yet seen, has acknowledged that either course of action would carry risk. The purpose of this post is to outline the risks of dismissing Gen. McChrystal as the commander of ISAF in response to the affair. This is an uncomfortable post to write. I very much admire Stan McChrystal and have looked up to him since my time in the Rangers when I fought in Afghanistan under his command. I know the man personally and worked with him last summer in an effort to analyze the war in Afghanistan and NATO/ISAF operations there. And so there may be a limit to how objective I can really be, but I'm a defense policy analyst, so I'm going to try and soberly analyze these risks without letting my admiration for McChrystal get in the way. I'll let you be the judge as to how well I succeed here.
Dismissing Gen. McChrystal
1. If you think the current strategy in Afghanistan is the right one -- and that is a big if -- this is not the ideal time to change commanders. (By contrast, if you feel the strategy in Afghanistan needs a radical change, this would be the ideal time to change commanders.) Shaking up the command in Kabul for the third consecutive summer would throw operations into temporary disarray. A new commander -- Jim Mattis, anyone? -- might not feel comfortable with all of his subordinates or staff and seek to change them, which would be his right as the commander but not so great in terms of continuity. Most crucially, the relationship between the president of Afghanistan and the new commander would have to be re-built. If you think the strategy in Afghanistan is the correct one, then, you are risking mission failure by replacing the commander and his staff at this stage in the conflict. You are in effect arguing that healthy civilian-military relations are more important than winning in Afghanistan.
2. In dismissing Gen. McChrystal, you may be dismissing the wrong American. The person who emailed Noah emailed me as well:
“It would be a travesty if we fired McChrystal and kept Eikenberry.” Not only is McChrystal the “only one with any sort of relationship with [Afghan president Hamid] Karzai,” says this civilian NATO advisor. But Eikenberry “has no plan, didn’t get COIN [counterinsurgency] when he was the commander and still doesn’t.” Plus, the advisor adds: “The Embassy hates Eik. That’s not necessarily an indictment (I’m no fan of the Embassy). But it contributes to the dysfunction and it means that half the Embassy is focused on keeping Eik in line.”
I would further add that Amb. Eikenberry has been, in my opinion, as intemperate in his comments and actions as Gen. McChrystal. Ahem.
Retaining Gen. McChrystal
1. Here is Article 88 of the UCMJ:
Any commissioned officer who uses contemptuous words against the President, the Vice President, Congress, the Secretary of Defense, the Secretary of a military department, the Secretary of Transportation, or the Governor or legislature of any State, Territory, Commonwealth, or possession in which he is on duty or present shall be punished as a court-martial may direct.
If you do not dismiss Gen. McChrystal, what message does that send to junior officers? The president aside, both Gen. Petraeus and Adm. Mullen have an obligation to hold their four-star field commanders up to the same standard to which they hold lieutenants. Failure to enforce the standard establishes a new standard. And no officer is irreplacable.
2. But the same person who made the point about McChrystal and Eikenberry also noted that in every single review of best practices in counterinsurgency, unity of effort is at the top of the list. "Every. Single. Review." It's obvious we are not singing from the same hymnal in Afghanistan. Can we ever as long as McChrystal and Eikenberry serve alongside one another? I am not sure, which is why I suspected that Eikenberry would leave his post. But in the end, Eikenberry might be the one who stays, and McChrystal might be the one who leaves. I still think it would be best for one of them to go.
In conclusion, I believe there are grounds for dismissal or other discipline under Article 88 of the UCMJ. But I also believe the president has every right to say that while Gen. McChrystal's statements to Rolling Stone were shockingly inapparopriate, there is a greater good here, and that greater good is stablizing Afghanistan. In the end, your opinion on whether or not Gen. McChrystal should be dismissed might come down to whether or not you think the current strategy is the correct one for the war in Afghanistan. My own prediction is that Gen. McChrystal will be retained. As much as critics of counterinsurgency like to blame Gen. McChrystal (and nefarious think-tankers, of course) for the current strategy, the reality is that the civilian decision-makers in the Obama Administration conducted two high-level reviews in 2009 and twice arrived at a national strategy focused on conducting counterinsurgency operations in Afghanistan. I suspect the president will not replace the man he has put in charge of executing that strategy with just 12 months to go before we begin a withdrawal. On the other hand, there are those who will argue that the principle of civilian control over the military is more important than whatever national interests we have in Afghanistan. And that is a legitimate argument to make. We just need to be honest about the risks both courses of action carry with them.