The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The U.S. military is trying to manage foreign conflicts — not resolve them. Here’s why.

A U.S. soldier assigned to provide security to the Army’s new 1st Security Force Assistance Brigade stands near a mine-resistant armored vehicle on the outskirts of Kabul, Afghanistan, on June 2. (Photo by Dan Lamothe/The Washington Post)
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In the wake of the Iraq “surge” from 2006 to 2008, it looked like the United States had cracked the code for defeating insurgencies overseas: putting boots on the ground to provide services and security that win cooperation from civilians and defecting militants.

This optimism has disappeared in the last decade. The successes of the surge in Iraq turned out to be tenuous, and the model largely failed from 2009 to 2011 in Afghanistan. Troops could secure villages, and development aid and governance programs might follow, but broader political forces — from factional rivalries within local governments to the interventions of external states — could easily unravel village-level gains.

The Obama administration (in 2012 and 2014) and the Trump administration (2017) abandoned this form of “population-centric” counterinsurgency. U.S. policy shifted toward a new kind of small war strategy that could avoid another Afghanistan or Iraq-style conflict while focusing more on great power competition.

America’s “violence management” strategy relies on light ground forces, airpower and loose partnerships with local armed actors. Its aim is to degrade and disrupt militant organizations within a chaotic, fractured political landscape, not to commit large numbers of forces and resources to building robust new governments.

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From Pakistan to the Sahel, the costs of this approach have been politically tolerable at home, while still giving the U.S. influence in conflict zones. But this same ability to fly below the domestic political radar screen has meant that the violence management approach and its implications have escaped real debate in the United States. 

Here’s how violence management works in practice

Violence management sidesteps politics in favor of sustained military targeting. This approach takes for granted high levels of political disorder, illiberal and/or fractured local regimes, and protracted conflicts. The goal is disrupting militant organizations without trying to build new states, spur economic development, or invest heavily in post-conflict reconstruction.

It has three core elements: a light U.S. ground force commitment favoring special forces, heavy reliance on airpower and partnerships of convenience with local militias, insurgents, and governments.

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Politically, this strategy reduces both costs and commitments. America’s wars stay off the front pages, the U.S. can add or drop local partners as it sees fit, and U.S. counterterror operations remain opaque.

Militarily, these are “hammer-and-anvil” operations: local militia, insurgent, or government forces work with U.S. airpower and special forces to take territory without needing to put large numbers of U.S. forces at risk. Flexibility and ambiguity combine with ruthless lethality to keep enemies off balance.

The international intervention in Libya and drone war in Pakistan under the Obama administration were previews of this military shift. There was no appetite for state building and peacekeeping in Libya, nor for an expansive ground presence in Pakistan.

In Libya, the U.S. relied on airpower, special forces and alliances with militias. In Pakistan, intelligence operations combined with drones and bargaining with the Pakistani military to degrade militant groups. The U.S. presence in north and west Africa has these characteristics as well, with special forces and drones backing local governments against Islamist militants.

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The U.S. tried big counterinsurgency in Afghanistan from 2009 to 2011, but before and after that “surge,” U.S. force levels have been low, airpower has occupied a central role and U.S. forces worked closely with an array of regime and militia forces.

Violence management is clearly U.S. strategy in the war against the Islamic State (IS). In Iraq, the U.S. supported the Iraqi government, Kurdish pesh merga and Sunni armed groups against IS, culminating in bloody urban warfare in Mosul.

In Syria, the U.S. has linked up with Kurdish and Arab militias to push back the Islamic State.@L The battle for Raqqa involved extensive U.S. airpower, a small U.S. ground presence and a heavy reliance on local armed groups to do the fighting.

Violence management can be risky

While there was extensive debate about counterinsurgency during its brief heyday, the shift into violence management has received far less attention. Yet there are important risks to this strategy:

1) This strategy still involves the United States in conflicts overseas. It seeks to limit commitments, but cannot eliminate them. There is no guarantee that U.S. policymakers will not be pulled into deeper interventions if local partners falter or unexpected setbacks arise.

2) Violence management aims to reduce American casualties, but is much less concerned with civilians than classical counterinsurgency. Its goal is disruption, not governance, and so civilian protection takes lower priority.

Here’s an example. Numerous reports have highlighted the heavy human toll of the operations in Mosul and Raqqa. Airpower is less surgical and discriminating than its advocates often claim. Dependence on local militias and regime forces can make the U.S. complicit in extrajudicial executions and other human rights abuses.

3) Local partners have their own political agendas. They can engage in corruption, manipulate U.S. policy to their advantage, and involve U.S. forces in ethically and strategically dubious targeting of their rivals. From the Northern Alliance in 2001 Afghanistan to today’s Kurdish militias in northern Syria, local partners are active political players, not simple pawns.

4) The question of how to rebuild political order in areas of conflict remains unresolved. The counterinsurgency model’s flawed effort to solve political problems with technocratic programs left it unable to build lasting political stability.

But violence management does not offer a clear way out, either – it pushes hard questions about how to allocate political power and create durable institutions into the indefinite future. In the Philippines, for instance, U.S. aid and advising have not overcome corruption, poor training and exclusionary politics.

5) And U.S. counter-militancy strategy has not received adequate public attention to weigh these advantages and potentially counterproductive costs. In the past, Congress, the public and defense community have provided this sort of scrutiny. But the “accountability crisis” plaguing U.S. foreign policy – in which Congress has abandoned serious oversight of foreign policy – suggests that minimal attention is the new normal. U.S. senators’ surprise that there were U.S. forces in Niger is a clear sign that violence management has emerged from public drift and disinterest.

As long as the U.S. government can limit the domestic costs of violence management overseas, few Americans will have incentives to pay attention to these low-level, far-flung wars.

Paul Staniland is associate professor of political science and chair of the Committee on International Relations at the University of Chicago.