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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.