Why are US militant proxies ineffective?

23 October 2015

Friday


The US can only wish its militant proxies were as effective as Hezbollah.

The US can only wish its militant proxies were as effective as Hezbollah.

Some Lessons from Ineffective Interventions

Nation-states and other mainstream political entities often find their policy options constrained by public opinion, legal limitations, treaty obligations, and the moral scruples of individual leaders, and so in order to act with fewer constraints they cultivate relationships with militant groups that can act as proxies and which can take on missions that the regular forces of a nation-state cannot be tasked to accomplish. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union supported an array of militant proxies by identifying their struggle with global communist revolution and so exapting local struggles as new theaters for the Cold War, and they did this very effectively. At the present time, Iran has proved itself masterful in the use of militant proxies to affect outcomes throughout its sphere of influence, even as its economy has suffered from international sanctions. One can only admire this bravura performance, especially in comparison to the lackluster US efforts to mobilize militant proxies. What is it about the US political process that has meant that the militant proxies selected by the US have been largely ineffective?

Mullah Mohammad Omar eventually led forces once sponsored by the US against the US in a stunning reversal in post-Soviet Afghanistan.

Mullah Mohammad Omar eventually led forces once sponsored by the US against the US in a stunning reversal in post-Soviet Afghanistan.

The relation between a militant proxy and its state sponsor is what we would today call a “mutually beneficial relationship.” The relationship to a militant proxy with military objectives that are politically unacceptable (especially for a democracy) grants plausible deniability to the sponsor, who can then act with fewer constraints from behind a veil of secrecy, and it provides resources for the militant group. However, the relationship is often a troubled one. Militant proxies are often extraordinarily difficult to control and constrain, even when a state sponsor of such a proxy can pull the plug on its funding. It was said that Mullah Mohammad Omar was a, “rigid man who defied even his patrons.” While the Taliban were not properly a military proxy organization, the precursors of the Taliban functioned as US militant proxies employed against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, and constituted one of the few successes for the US in proxy warfare — though this success came at a great cost. The description of Mullah Omar by his Pakistani “handlers” prophetically fits the profile of an unmanageable proxy.

Most militant proxies do not view themselves as proxies, but as stand-alone militant groups with their own ends, aims, objectives, and motivations. If a state sponsor gives them arms, matériel, supplies, training, and advisers, such groups rarely feel beholden by these sponsors. Should the sponsor object to its other objectives or its methods, the attitude of the militant proxy is often the equivalent of a shoulder shrug and and a dismissive, “Let them fund the revolution.” There is nothing more commonplace in geopolitics that a nation-state patron of a militant proxy believing itself to be in control of a situation, only to discover that it cannot force the cooperation of its militant proxy at a sensitive political moment. And if a militant proxy can make itself strong enough through the temporary receipt of aid from a state sponsor, it can accept this aid in a pure spirit of cynical opportunism, making the calculation that once the aid is cut off due to lack of cooperation of the militant proxy with the sponsor state’s agenda, the group can then function on its own.

Perhaps the most well-known and effective militant proxy of our time is Hezbollah, which runs a virtual state-within-a-state in Lebanon, controlling much of the county, its politics, and a considerable geographical region. Hezbollah has long been one of the most effective and efficient militant proxies for Iran, and until recently also acted as a militant proxy of Syria; Syria was a crucial conduit for Iranian aid to reach Hezbollah in Lebanon. However, since Syria’s descent into civil war, Hezbollah has acted on behalf of the Syrian government as an agent in the internal struggle, rather than as an instrument of external force projection. That is to say, Hezbollah has proved itself such an effective fighting force that it not only defends its own interests, but now returns to defend the interests of its former sponsor, now under duress and in need of sponsorship itself.

Hmong soldiers of the Secret War in Laos.

Hmong soldiers of the Secret War in Laos.

During the Vietnam war, the CIA virtually created a militant proxy from Hmong tribesmen. Because the US could not openly operate in Laos, a militant proxy was the weapon of choice to expand the war against Vietnam’s communists to the Pathet Lao communists in Laos. By most accounts the Hmong were effective fighters, but they were the military equivalent of astroturf: not grass roots, but essentially created by the CIA for US purposes. As long as the money flowed to pay and supply the fighters, they fought. The Hmong, then, turned out to be ineffective not because they couldn’t fight, but because they were more mercenaries than militant proxies. There is an interesting lesson in this observation: a truly effective militant proxy should have its own agenda, but, as we have already seen, recalcitrant proxies can be dangerous, and so there must be a balance between the militant agenda and the sponsor’s agenda.

A chaplain leads a group of Contra troops in a prayer at their base camp, Honduras, 1983. The Contras refer to the loosely organized groups of Nicaraguan rebels (who were at least partially supported by the US government through the Central Intelligence Agency) who militarily opposed to the success of the socialist Sandinista political party in Nicaragua in the late 1970s and 1980s. (Photo by Steven Clevenger/Getty Images)

A chaplain leads a group of Contra troops in a prayer at their base camp, Honduras, 1983. The Contras refer to the loosely organized groups of Nicaraguan rebels (who were at least partially supported by the US government through the Central Intelligence Agency) who militarily opposed to the success of the socialist Sandinista political party in Nicaragua in the late 1970s and 1980s. (Photo by Steven Clevenger/Getty Images)

After the US withdrawal from Indochina, Cold War proxy wars came closer to US shores as a number of guerrilla wars were fought in Central America, with the US backing a number of militant proxies in the region, most famously the Nicaraguan Contras, who fought against the Sandinista government of Nicaragua. The Contras did manage to disrupt the region, but they mounted few effective military operations, and no decisive operations. One would have thought, what with US resources flowing into a conflict so close to its borders, that it would have created a truly formidable militant proxy. This did not happen. In Latin America, militant proxies both communist and anti-communist became deeply involved in the drug trade in order to finance their operations. There is another important lesson to be learned from this failure: personal greed often trumps ideological fervor, and if the head of a militant proxy sees an opportunity to transform himself into a drug lord, he may well do so.

I think this is one of the greatest photographs of the Iraq war.

I think this is one of the greatest photographs of the Iraq war.

In the war in Iraq to unseat Saddam Hussein, with the Kurdish Peshmerga, the US had, in a rare instance, partnered with a militant proxy that really could deliver the goods. The Kurds fought effectively and seemed to possess the right balance between serving their own ends by serving the agenda of a sponsor. If the US had promised the Kurds a state of their own in exchange for an effective settlement of the conflict in Kurdish lands (or, perhaps I should say, the aspirational map of Kurdish sovereignty), it is highly likely that this could have been achieved. And by “a state of their own” I mean a real de jure nation-state, and not the de facto state the Kurds now possess. But the US is a world power, and the use of US power to guarantee a Kurdish state would have offended too many US allies. The overall strategic goals of the US and the Kurds were and are incompatible. Almost certainly both the US and the Kurds knew from the beginning that their alignment had to be temporary.

The Kurds were recently in the news again largely as a result of this photograph of a Kurdish woman identified as Rehana, sometimes known as the Angel of Kobane.

The Kurds were recently in the news again largely as a result of this photograph of a Kurdish woman identified as Rehana, sometimes known as the Angel of Kobane.

The Kurds have been in the news again lately because they have proved themselves among the few regional forces that have been combat effective against ISIS, and because of a particularly compelling photograph of a female Kurdish fighter that became briefly famous on the internet. However, the temporary and effective convergence of interests between the US and the Kurds was not fully exploited and the moment for this has probably passed.

In the tumult and confusion of regional instability in Mesopotamia, the US is now supporting the Free Syrian Army in Syria. Unfortunately, the Free Syrian Army is not making progress, but they have said the kind of things that US political leaders like to hear, and so they receive support. This is the “strategy” for Syria, but Syria cannot be treated in isolation from the rest of the region.

We can no longer speak of a US strategy in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria, because these states are nation-states in name only. The facts on the ground belie the official maps and the seats for delegates to the UN. We must speak of US policy regionally, apart from any hollowed-out and ineffective nation-state; and regionally, it must be said, US strategy has been a catastrophic failure. Worse yet, the US is continuing old and repeatedly failed policies, as though the situation on the ground can be rescued and turned around if the US will simply keep doing what it has been doing. In other words, the US is digging itself in deeper by the day.

One of the problems in Mesopotamia and the Levant is the failure of the US to support effective militant proxies, and its willingness to support ineffective militant proxies, so that even as it is spending money and political capital on forces that cannot win, it is not spending these same resources that could win if given the chance. Thus the US is experiencing an opportunity cost in the region with profound consequences. If the US supported the Kurds instead of the Free Syrian Army it might actually accomplish something, but this apparently comes with unacceptable political costs — as though the costs of failure could more easily be borne.

The bottom line is that US militant proxies are selected for ideological reasons rather than for reasons of combat effectiveness or shared military objectives. This is a disastrous mistake. Trying to select winners on the battlefield is a lot like a nation-state attempting to choose winners in the marketplace: states are notoriously bad at picking winners, and when they attempt to use the power they possess as a nation-state to enforce their choice (i.e., when they try to turn a loser into a winner by the methods available to nation-states) they usually fail. Not only that, they fail at great cost.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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