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Somalia and “Post-COIN”

It’s not difficult to imagine why many in the defense community think that the 2006 Lebanon conflict offers a preview of future war. Because Hezbollah fought as a “hybrid” adversary utilizing both irregular and conventional small-unit tactics, both counterinsurgency aficionados and conventional advocates can claim validation. Influence operations–consisting of both rockets raining down on Israeli towns and psychological warfare–were also employed. There was even a minor cyberwar brewing between Israeli and Palestinian hackers. In short, something for everybody–except the Air Force, whose Effects-Based Operations (EBO) was famously trashed by General James Mattis in a widely republished memo.
      The Small Wars Journal‘s Robert Haddick, however, has his doubts:

“I suggest that the U.S. government’s abortive dealings with Somalia since 1992 merit equally intense study. …Since 1992, the U.S. government has tried nearly the full range of policy options in an attempt to prevent Somalia from becoming what Afghanistan became between 1996 and 2001. ..None of these approaches has yet to establish stable governance in Somalia. A manpower-intensive U.S.-led counterinsurgency campaign in Somalia is out of the question. With the toolbox seemingly empty, the U.S. government now fears that the local al Qaeda affiliates will strengthen and that ‘al Qaeda central’ figures now in tribal Pakistan could displace to a new sanctuary in Somalia.

The scope and scale of the Somalia problem extends beyond intelligence agency covert action. Other ungoverned spaces will also require the involvement of U.S. military resources and thus supporting doctrine and strategy from the Pentagon policy office. Ungoverned spaces and the ‘Somalia prototype’ circle back to the U.S. campaign in Afghanistan. U.S. policymakers would no doubt be ecstatic if Afghanistan would transition to another Colombia: a strengthening central government with improving security forces, making progress against an insurgency with the assistance of a very small U.S. advisory team. But the darker outcome for Afghanistan also looms, the Somalia prototype. This could occur after the U.S. public becomes exhausted with the current effort and after Afghanistan’s central government fails to come together. The Pentagon would then have to create a new doctrine, how to manage a “post-COIN” conflict.”

       Haddick brings up two truly “wicked” problems: influencing ungoverned spaces without too heavy of a footprint and managing a state without any effective institutions. For the first doctrinal problem, direct military involvement is unlikely to be an available or desired option. There are many different places, some as large as Somalia, and others as small as the South American Tri-Border region, where terrorists could set up logistical bases and command centers. American efforts in Afghanistan in the 1990s demonstrated that bombing from the air cannot displace these encampments. In Somalia, the US supported local forces (the Ethiopian occupation force and the Somali Transitional Federal Government)–with little to show for it. We are now helping the current government fight back a wave of Al-Qaeda affiliated rebels.
      The second scenario involves, as Haddick argues, a state-building mission gone awry. After the bloody aftermath of Operation Gothic Serpent, both the executive and legislative branches lost the political will to continue what had become a state-building mission in Somalia. International support for the expanded mission also withered on the vine, leading to withdrawal. Haddick’s nightmare scenario involves a similar loss of public support for Afghanistan and an implied breakdown of the NATO mission deployed in theater. With what remains of the central government steadily eroding, the Pentagon is forced to try to maintain some level of control over the country utilizing the remaining air, special forces, and indigenous assets available.
       There may not be a doctrinal fix for this kind of problem–Somalia unfortunately illustrates the perils of all kinds of strategic solutions commonly offered. Multinational UN aid/stability mission? Been there, done that. Proxy campaigns with both conventional armies and indigenous factions? No luck there. Have the Air Force make the rubble bounce? Didn’t work. It’s also hard to imagine how “soft power” could be utilized effectively in such an environment, as the population is likely too atomized to be reached.
       One may object by citing Somalia’s uniqueness–there are few places in the world as impoverished, anarchic, and violent. This is a fair criticism, as strategic analogies are far from scientific, especially when they are used to support military futurism. But it is clear that, as Haddick argues, Lebanon is not the only example worthy of study. I also want to repeat what I voiced in an earlier post on strategic analogies: the kind of criminal conflicts occuring in Mexico, Colombia, and the slums of Brazil also deserve study in light of their significance for security force assistance close to home.

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