A Better Model of Military Intervention?

How covert assistance to Colombia shows the viability of the so-called 'indirect approach.'

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A police officer, background, inspects the wreckage of the destroyed police station of Inza, in Colombia's southern Cauca state, Saturday, Dec. 7, 2013. The Colombian Army said that five members of the military, two civilians and a police officer were killed when rebels of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, FARC, threw artisanal mortar at the post, destroying that and several other buildings. Sitting, foreground left, is a soldiers.
The wreckage of a destroyed police station in Inza, Colombia.

Sunday's Washington Post contained a fascinating article about U.S. covert assistance to the government of Colombia in its war against the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and National Liberation Army (ELN) rebels. The Central Intelligence Agency and elements of the U.S. Special Operations Command worked with the Colombian military to provide training, assistance and capabilities such as intelligence fusion and off-the-shelf kits to convert regular "dumb" bombs into precision-guided munitions. (Not only do such accurate weapons help to reduce the probability of so-called "collateral damage," but the U.S. used encryption on the guidance systems to ensure that the Colombians used them against approved targets. When the Colombians showed that they were reliably using them they were provided with full access in 2010.)

This covert assistance coupled with the publicly acknowledged Plan Colombia assistance, in turn, has helped the Colombian government to re-gain large swathes of territory from the rebels, to work with locals to assuage grievances and to drastically reduce the numbers of kidnappings, homicides, and the hectare area of coca plant cultivation.

[ 2013: The Year in Cartoons]

This type of intervention is generally referred to under the rubric of the "indirect approach" – although such approaches are highly scalable in terms of the commitment put forward. The assistance in Colombia is probably more rightly described as an "indirect indirect approach" because U.S. troops weren't directly engaged in the fighting. Such a mode of operation stands in stark contrast to the large commitments of personnel and materiel such as Iraq and Afghanistan and might be seen as the road not taken over the past decade. But is it feasible and replicable elsewhere?

Writing over at Foreign Affairs, for instance, the National War College's Michael Mazarr has argued that the United States' obsession with state-building in weak, failing or failed states needs to end and that:

After a decade of conflict and effort with precious little to show for it, however, the recent era of interventionist U.S. state building is drawing to a close. And although there are practical reasons for this shift -- the United States can no longer afford such missions, and the public has tired of them -- the decline of the state-building narrative reflects a more profound underlying truth: the obsession with weak states was always more of a mania than a sound strategic doctrine. Its passing will not leave the United States more isolationist and vulnerable but rather free the country to focus on its more important global roles.

In Mazarr's view this doesn't mean that the U.S. should never get involved in such messy conflicts, but that any such interventions should be small, limited and rare.

[ See a collection of political cartoons on Afghanistan.]

Others, however, see such small-scale approaches as the new normal and that they should, in fact, be the main effort. Navy SEAL Captain Rob Newson, for instance, has argued recently that such a "MINFORCE" approach:

…should not be confused with an economy of force approach; designed as a holding action while the majority of available forces remain engaged in another, higher priority fight. This economy of force construct may have been the case as the wars raged in Iraq and Afghanistan. Today and in to the future, these small, distributed engagements with our partner nations should now be seen as the main effort. This is a new mental model, where size doesn't equate to priority, where distributed and remote nodes of our friendly network require innovative and agile staffing, logistics, fiscal, and intelligence support disproportionate to the numbers of personnel on the ground; where getting power to the edge of our network is fundamental to success against a distributed, adaptive, and resilient enemy network.

(Interestingly the Post article discusses how the simultaneous counter-network operations in Colombia, Afghanistan, and Iraq were feeding lessons and tactics, techniques and procedures to one another.)

[ See a collection of political cartoons on the Middle East.]

So which is it? Obviously the situations in Afghanistan and Iraq were not the historical norm. Both governments were toppled without replacements ready to go — contra Panama in 1989. In 2013, no one in power in Washington, D.C., is itching for another large-scale investment in blood and treasure to help prop up other governments overseas. So Mazarr is likely right about the lack of appetite for armed state-building.

But Newson and others such as Army Special Forces Lieutenant Colonel Fernando Lujan are right that when it is in the national interest to get involved in such messy conflicts it is most probably prudent to go in smaller. The key will be to differentiate when such interventions are necessary and under what conditions it is helpful to assist host-nation governments in countering such threats. This is the tricky part and will likely remain a point of contention and debate for current and future American policymakers.

Michael P. Noonan is the Director of the Program on National Security at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.