Political Officers in Conflict Zones: Public Diplomacy and Counterinsurgency – Part III

The past few posts have focused on the potential role of diplomacy in addressing the complex challenges of counterinsurgency.

Can non-violent approaches to conflict resolution make a difference?

Yes, but it is unlikely that contribution cannot be fully realized under present circumstances.

It is not just that the diplomatic business model has not responded adequately to the challenges of globalization – it hasn’t – or that foreign ministries are underfunded, hierarchic and risk-averse – they are. These features compound the problem, but it is the particular difficulties in the field that define it.

When political officers and aid workers have to spend much of their time cooped up inside heavily guarded compounds or within the premises of provincial reconstruction teams (PRTs), they can’t engender the legitimacy and credibility required for successful cooperation.

Similarly, diplomatic best practices do not typically include by rolling up for a meeting in an intimidating armoured column, or visiting  an important contact in the company of a close protection squad.

In other words, if diplomacy and development activities are framed within a set of mission parameters dominated by the defence component, they will be unable to deliver the results required. Moreover, if foreign troops are seen by the local population to have taken sides in a civil war, or are perceived as an occupying force rather than as liberators, then at a certain point their sheer presence – and in some cases that of their unarmed countrymen – can become an issue.

This combination produces a pernicious form of double jeopardy, with the effect of exacerbating rather than resolving underlying problems.

In treating conflicts based on cultural, religious, clan, tribal or ethnic differences, the use of force is unlikely to prove the best option. A reliance upon impregnable bases, air power and high-tech weaponry may reduce infantry casualties, but it also tends to increase “collateral,” or unintended damage, which fuels feelings of humiliation and resentment and contributes to the intensification of a broader backlash.  When a Predator drone fires on a wedding party, or a taxi driver gets shot for failing to stop when a NATO convoy passes, confidence, trust and respect are quickly replaced by anger and a desire for retribution.

If you fight your enemy where they live, then any victory, especially in the absence of a massive, long-term occupation and immediate, broad-spectrum reconstruction, will be Phyrric.  If you happen to be deployed abroad as what one author has referred to as an “imperial grunt” then you are likely to find yourself in the country of your opponent’s birth, unable to easily distinguish between friend and foe. In wars amongst the people,  the enemy lives there, speaks the language, and is steeped in the culture. As long as the conditions which gave rise to the insurrection persist, the insurgents will have access to an inexhaustible source of new recruits. They will always have better intelligence, and can’t be driven out because they have nowhere else to go.

Western militaries rarely lose battles against an irregular opposition, but that does not mean winning wars.  As the years grind on, the home grown resistance will almost certainly outlast the will of the outsiders, waiting until the accumulation of casualties produces a political crisis at home and the foreign forces are forced to withdraw.

Such  observations  may help to account for ISAF’s ongoing difficulties in making appreciable headway in Afghanistan after almost a decade in theatre. But most of these arguments could have been advanced just as convincingly in 1969, when the military victory over the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese in the wake of the Tet Offensive accelerated political defeat on the home front by giving lie to claims that progress was being made.

Armed force is both too sharp and too dull an international policy instrument to be relied upon in addressing the vexing problems of the globalization age. If, as a last resort, military action is absolutely necessary, then it must be conducted discriminately, and as an integral part of an over-arching strategic framework grounded firmly in a deep understanding of local conditions and long term development challenges.

Otherwise, it’s blowback, redux.

If given the chance, political officers, and perhaps especially those attuned to the ways of guerrilla diplomacy, could contribute  materially to generating that kind of understanding. But to succeed, the diplomats will require not only adequate resources, but also a place in the mainstream, rather than the margins of contemporary thinking about international security.