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Archive for March, 2013

Africa: We Need More Context Before We Set US Interests, Policy, Strategy, Priorities, Involvement

Tuesday, March 26th, 2013

There have been so many indications over the past two years that our nation needs much more data to have sufficient basic information and context about Africa. We have to figure out how to obtain the data, and create the information and knowledge and understanding before we can make sensible policy, strategy, priority or involvement decisions and launch into planning and missions. Just a couple of examples of this today, and I have 2-3 more notes planned for later this week.

I see that the Syrian Opposition Leader resigned. According to the Wall Street Journal today, “Syria’s interim government-in-exile was in disarray on Sunday after its leader resigned and the main rebel fighting force declined to recognize its prime minister days after he was elected…..Ahmad Moaz al-Khatib, a former cleric from Damascus who draws support from Western powers and is popular among the more moderate opposition factions, said he stepped down due to deepening divisions within the Syrian National Council, the opposition coalition…..A united opposition is regarded as a crucial precursor to securing international funding, legal recognition and arms from major Western powers.”  Everyone agrees on the need to end the Assad regime, but what will take its place? Second example: The hunt for Joseph Kony and the LRA continues. He’s a bad man who is doing bad things. But, what do we get when he is gone? Does that leave some number of trained fighters at loose ends without his coalescing leadership? Are we likely to see a more dynamic, complex, dangerous humanitarian situation?  Would we be better off with him in place, pulling all the LRA fighters together, so we have a better likelihood of knowing where they are and what they are doing, and instead focusing international efforts on modifying the environment to reduce the LRA’s ability to do bad things?

Lots of questions that have many possible answers, and they are at the center of our nation’s need to establish our national interests relative to Africa, then policy, then strategy, then the roles of each component of an all-of-government plan.

The Day After Assad: What to Expect Based on Events in Post-Saddam Iraq

By Robert Tollast and Nathaniel Rosenblatt

Small Wars Journal Article

March 14 2013

“Early signs of reconciliation?

RT: An early harbinger of how dangerous Iraq would become occurred in 2003 when Sayyid Abdul Majid al-Khoie travelled to Najaf with a wish to start national reconciliation, having remarked “”We are looking for a new Iraq in which everyone has a share… we want to forget the past and shake the hand of everyone.” But at the Shrine of Iman Ali, the very people who should have listened to this message took part in a deranged attack on his group. Much more horror followed across Iraq, fuelling a terrifying civil war. In Syria however, despite the shocking bloodshed we already have the offer of peace talks. Compared to the sentiment of so many Shia Iraqis toward Baathists, this looks very hopeful (an offer of talks to Saddam would have been unimaginable in the event of a successful anti Baathist uprising, although Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani was willing to deal with him.) But is the offer of talks really a sign of hope or is reconciliation going to be a much tougher challenge?

NR – Sayyid Abdul Majid al-Khoie’s death was less a story about revenge killings that led to sectarianism than it was a tragedy of the chaos and violence that ensued in Iraq after Saddam Hussein. The Iraqi opposition had relatively less interest in negotiating with the Ba’athists because they had a much stronger hand – the US was essentially going to fight their battle for them. They didn’t need to consider coming to the table. The Syrian opposition doesn’t have the luxury of US support, and so must more seriously consider the option of talks.

Moreover, I don’t think the offer of talks is necessarily a “sign of hope,” but another fracture point between opposition groups who call for negotiations and those who urge armed groups on the ground to keep up the fight. For the Syrian Opposition Coalition, this will be a particularly dangerous balance to strike and will require very accurate reporting from their connections on the ground in order to try to effectively represent the sentiment of those who support them. One potentially ugly scenario is if the opposition strikes a deal with the regime that local anti-Assad militia groups reject on the ground.

Above all else, I would just underscore the takeaway lesson from Sayyid al-Khoie’s death: that prominent advocates for non-violence are often targets in intense, ungoverned conflicts. Sayyid al-Khoie was irreplaceable, and you have to be very concerned when prominent Syrians put their lives on the line to help resolve conflicts, such as with long-time respected dissident Michel Kilo in Ras al-Ayn.

A paramilitary security solution?

RT: One of the biggest concerns in a post Assad Syria is security. In Iraq we saw time and time again how a lack of security hampered and decimated often badly thought out reconstruction projects. These projects might have been able to fumble along if there had been peace on the streets, but with the growing crime/ looting/ insurgency they often went nowhere fast, wasting billions in reconstruction funds.

The Day After Project mentions the threat of a security vacuum and wisely calls for a plans to secure documents in ministries- key for reconstruction and reconciliation, as well as securing key infrastructure and prisons. This would have been a great move in 2003, but the coalition did not have the troop numbers and often did not think to secure vital areas, amazingly including huge arms dumps! Vital documents like payrolls and lists of Ba’athists were stolen or burned, further slowing transition. In Basra, a British officer found a resourceful policeman who had made copies of his staff roster and working together, the two men made a temporary security force that proved very effective until the CPA shut it down, saying essentially the new state has monopoly on violence, not militias.

There then followed some years of fumbling trying to build a competent ISF, and only much later during the surge, the Sahwa militias proved to be Iraq’s best force multiplier in reducing violence. But that has not come without problems that we increasingly see today- the government do not trust them. Hastily assembled militia forces could be hard to control and dangerous, but I feel in the short term they might be the only option for Syria until a new army/police are constructed with a solid code of ethics and national loyalty. What kind of dangers do you see with transitional security provided by paramilitaries in a post Assad Syria? The obvious danger is perhaps infiltration by extremists among local transitional security forces, or the risk that some of these groups may completely reject government initiatives and make their own laws…

NR- It seems like the security sector reform solution in Syria has to be somewhere to the right of Libya’s in terms of building stronger central government control over the “monopoly on violence” without being so ideologically committed to the concept that it ends up hurting rather than helping the reconstruction process. In theory this should be possible: Syria is much smaller and more densely populated than Libya (four times as many people in a country a tenth of Libya’s size), so the country should be more easily governable. In practice, however, there are tremendously complex problems associated with this process. Let’s look at three major ones:

First, we are already seeing divisions emerge between local groups that had participated in the armed opposition at a very early stage and larger governance structures. It is easier to fight than it is to govern: the bigger challenge will not be using the militias of the Free Syrian Army to fight the regime but forcing them to make the necessary compromises in peacetime.

If foreign-based members of the Syrian Opposition Coalition become key leaders in the transitional government, their demands for disarming militias that participated in the uprising will seem ludicrous because they didn’t participate in the fighting. In that light, they will have no choice but to work with these militia groups to remain popular and effective, but once you give these groups power it is hard to take it back.

Second, which militias do you empower? There is a growing lawlessness in Syria perpetrated by armed gangs who steal to make a living. Will the post-Assad state prosecute them? How will they divide those gangs that steal from those that sell sheet metal confiscated from an Aleppo factory in order to buy bullets to fight the regime? How will it distinguish those groups from ones that haven’t taken anything? What will they do when they realize that many of the ones with the “cleanest” record are the extremist groups? The transitional government will have to build an adaptive approach to dealing with these militias while still building local faith in the fairness of the new system.

Third and finally is the challenge of foreign influence. In Libya, foreign countries pay and train their own extragovernmental tribal militias. In Syria today, militia groups are for sale. This has created armed factions that respond to foreign government agendas rather than a local or national one. The transitional government in a post-Assad Syria will have to contend with militant groups that respond to foreign government agendas. Syrian political parties post-Assad will be armed.

These problems are of course interrelated: a transitional government will need legitimacy if it is to carry out unpopular demobilization reforms of militant groups that fought in the revolution. They will also need to make compromises with foreign powers to bring them and their militias to the table. But there are other complicating factors: Syrians have a strong suspicion of western countries, particularly should they attempt to assert their authority in security sector reform and demobilization efforts. The problem is that there is a lot of expertise in these developed countries, but a strong disinterest within Syria to incorporate their potentially useful lessons learned and best practices. Also, unlike Iraq and Libya, Syria has very little natural resource wealth. They have a destroyed economy that will not recover quickly. They cannot afford to fix the problem with money: when there are problems in the security sector in Iraq or Libya, they raise salaries and pension benefits. Syria literally cannot afford this option.

Top down or bottom up?

RT: After the fall of Saddam, the CPA focused on a number of national level projects: privatising industry, putting a transitional assembly together and de- Baathification to name a few. Eventually the CPA became bogged down in minutiae like a new traffic law and re-decorating Baghdad airport as the situation deteriorated and Bremer was rapidly swamped by crisis. At the same time, local security was looked after by contractors and coalition partners who were rapidly recruiting police and trying to train a new army, with an emphasis on numbers.

Only years later, it had become apparent that rapidly recruited (and therefore not properly vetted) security forces were carrying out mass violence on a sectarian basis or failing to secure neighbourhoods because of poor training. This has been characterized as a “top down” approach, one focused heavily on the national level- a national army, police force and ultimately what Toby Dodge has characterised as “an elite bargain.” Much later it became clear that a lot of the best solutions in Iraq were at the local level, provided by local tribal leaders who were able to provide security, root out terrorists from their communities and oversee reconstruction projects by taking on the role of contractor.

The Day After Project focuses very much on the local: Rule of law monitors and committees, economic regeneration in the hands of local actors, and interim security in the hands of transitional local forces prior to their being reintegrated into a new security force or civilian society. On the one hand I can see how this local approach makes sense: in the absence of a state (and in the presence of conflict) power melts away from the centre and into the hands of tribal leaders or resistance leaders, and this was the case in Iraq where opportunists made money from smuggling like Sheik Sattar Abu Risha or the famous “Prince of the Marshes,” Abu Hatem.

But the coalition soon learned that local actors also had immense capacity for corruption, while others wavered in their commitment to the government, or worse became sidelined by the leaders in Baghdad. This has sometimes been as damaging as the severe corruption at the government level. In my opinion, despite the corruption of some of these local actors, a local focus would still have been preferable because at the national level a lot of the politicians (and coalition civilians) gradually became detached from the growing, dangerous problems on the Iraqi street.  With the Syrian National Council saying they need $60 billion for reconstruction, do you think the localised focus is the best opportunity for Syria, or should the immediate focus be at the government level- getting a national dialogue going on and rebuilding ministries etc. The hardest and best approach would perhaps be a combination…

NR- Libya is a great example of the challenges to this “bottom up” approach to security. The Libyan National Transitional Council – the first post-Gaddafi interim government – was so unwilling to force a nation-wide agenda without an elected mandate that they effectively subcontracted out security to local militias. Even the Tripoli airport was guarded by a tribal militia! After forming a government several months following the summer 2012 elections, the General National Congress (GNC) has consequently been at a distinct disadvantage. So powerless are they in exerting authority that since February 2013 injured revolutionary fighters have occupied the parliament in Tripoli demanding better pensions. Now they’ve had to suspend parliamentary activity because armed groups concerned with the influence of former Gaddafi officials in the current government kicked them out of their temporary offices (a Tripoli hotel). These groups even fired at President Mohamed Magarief’s convoy as it fled the protests.

There is great appeal to the localized approach: it is flexible and responsive. Caerus Associates’ recent study of governance in Syria even suggests that at present there is not enough capacity to manage a national portfolio. In our study we found that 50,000 is a magic number: any area more populated than that and governance structures really struggle to meet resident needs. In that light, not only is hyper-local governance the preferable solution, but the only manageable one at present.

But, as we’ve seen in Libya, authority is hard to bestow and even harder to take back. Local actors do not have national-level institutional development goals and are much more susceptible to control by interest groups. Benghazi, for example, is essentially run by armed gangs. Criminality is rife. In the past several months alone these armed gangs have killed dozens of national police officers and security officers. Some security challenges are too great for these “bottom-up” local actors to solve on their own.

Information is the key to building durable local-national relationships in such a complicated environment. The Day After Project’s intent to develop hyper-local monitors and committees that can sense what specific communities need is important, what remains to be seen is how willing a central authority will be to a) protect these community monitors, b) read their reports, and c) be interested in/able to implement their recommendations. This said, The Day After (TDA) project advisors have told me they are working hard on this, which they call “phase two” – or the implementation of their concepts. In the past few weeks, they have signed a memorandum of understanding with the Syrian Opposition Coalition that will allow them to begin working on technical assistance for reconstruction issues like Rule of Law, Security Sector Reform, and Transitional Justice. There will be a lot more action from TDA in the coming months.

RT: Some opposition leaders have pledged to protect religious sites. Any attacks on religious sites are of course inflammatory, but for many people an attack on the Sayyidah Zainab shrine is the nightmare scenario, evoking the horror in Iraq after the al-Askari shrine attack in Iraq. Do you see any way this site could be protected in the coming months, perhaps a greater commitment from Syrian opposition that these sites will be secured?

NR- Of all the things that really resonated with Iraqis that I met while living there was the bitter memory of the looting and the attacks directed at religious sites. There are certain things that cannot be replaced, and there will be spoilers in Syria who seek to destroy these cultural artefacts to inflame local frustrations or sow intercommunal tensions. The question is who should be held responsible to protect them during and after the conflict.

Telling armed combatants to mind UNESCO heritage sites is like advising race car drivers not to get into accidents: almost everyone wants to avoid them, but some destruction will happen in an increasingly violent conflict. Even if groups recognize their importance there’s no guarantee they’ll avoid them. These are the key issues that the international community can really get behind and support vigorously. The destruction of Aleppo’s souqs is a worldwide tragedy. No one wants Syria’s rich heritage to be a victim of the conflict. I would also add here that educational initiatives are another neglected but highly important issue that the international community should vigorously support. Protect Syria’s physical heritage and nurture its future, these could be ways the international community could support the reconstruction and win points with Syrians.

RT: The Day After Project mentions stopping regime elements wanted for crimes against humanity from leaving Syria, but there is not an emphasis on securing Syria’s borders which have been penetrated by fanatical fighters not only of the Salafi jihadi variety, but also by numerous Shia groups from Lebanon, Iraq and Iran. Considering where the various rebel groups are located and their allegiance, how hard do you think it will be for a transitional force to secure Syria’s border region? Perhaps close cooperation with neighbouring countries such as Iraq would be a priority, to stop the transit of AQ and other groups…

NR-The border issue is going to be extremely challenging for two basic reasons (though there are many):

1) There are highly evolved smuggling routes across all of Syria’s borders that will be impossible to shut down for the foreseeable future. Right now, the Jordanian and Iraqi borders are probably the most permeable because they are the largest and least governable. But this can be addressed with better border monitoring technology that can effectively police borders that are, effectively large unpopulated swaths of flat desert.

The Lebanese and Turkish borders are much more challenging in the long term because they are rugged. There are old and intricate smuggling routes across those borders and will be nearly impossible to monitor even with high tech equipment and training.

2) In some cases, Syria’s neighbors do not necessarily share a common regional interest in policing these borders. Iraqis know that the Syrians long allowed safe passage for the jihadist groups that still plague their country. The Lebanese, Turkish, and Jordanian governments likewise will be driven by prevailing national interests. The Lebanese, for example, through Hezbollah’s smuggling networks in the Beka’a Valley, will be key for Iran to be able to support its constituencies in Syria.

The short answer is that, both because of the very evolved nature of the smuggling networks and the divergent interests among Syria’s neighbors, if you want to get something or someone into Syria, chances are it or they will get in.

RT: How wide is the appeal of groups like the Muhajireen Group and Jabhat al Nusra among Syria’s Sunnis? My sense is that if they start imposing strict Islamic law, most people will ultimately reject it, as we saw eventually in Iraq at the beginning of the Sahwa movement against AQI.

NR-These Islamist Jihadist groups are well respected by Syrians for their fighting prowess and their discipline. They confront the Syrian army on the front lines of some of the most visible and important conflicts. Moreover, where other armed groups might steal community resources for funding, Islamist groups like Nusra (they are of course very diverse, Nusra is shorthand) generally doesn’t because they are disciplined and well-funded. The longer the conflict goes on, the more popular groups like Nusra will become.

Will the Syrians reject their extremist ideology? That is one of the biggest questions in the conflict. It can still go either way at this point – but there is clear evidence that groups like Nusra are trying to learn their lessons from their failure in Iraq, the question of how well they can implement them will be key in determining whether they will become spoilers or political power brokers in the post-Assad Syria.”

About the Authors

Robert Tollast

Robert Tollast is an occasional contributor to The Small Wars Journal. He writes Mesopotamia Monthly, a monthly Iraq update for the Global Politics journal, as well as having written for the Defence Management Journal. He lives and works in London.

Nathaniel Rosenblatt

Nathaniel Rosenblatt leads Caerus’s research and analysis initiatives focusing on the Middle East and Northern Africa. Prior to joining Caerus, Nate spent three years developing research capacity at The American University of Iraq, Sulaimani (AUIS). He received his MA in International Relations with a Middle East concentration from Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), where he wrote his dissertation on opposition politics in Syria. In addition to working at the university, Nate participated as an international elections observer in Iraq’s national elections in March 2010 and co-edited a journal on the impact of the Arab Spring in November 2011. A Middle Eastern food junkie, Nate is on a constant, world-wide search for authentic kibbeh.

Your thoughts are always welcome.  Send me a note at, and I’ll share with our readers.



Arab Spring, Syria, Mali: Who Does the US Support? “Supporting Rebels: Three Conditions for Success”

Monday, March 11th, 2013

Like many of you, I’ve spent a bit of time over the last couple of years wondering how all those Middle Eastern and African nations undergoing a change in governance/government would “turn out”. How do we know all of the options and answers to all of the variables and dynamics that go into making the right decisions…….in an environment with many variables and factions interacting in very complex and dynamic ways about which we may not have anything close to perfect knowledge.

A start is having a framework for an approach to trying to gather the information and get to the understanding that can provide some level of insight into options and answers, as well as point out important facts not know and the risks involved.

One approach is described in the following article.

Supporting Rebels: Three Conditions for Success

By David Sterman

Small Wars Journal Article | Feb 28 2013

American policymakers’ interest in supporting rebels as a means of achieving strategic objectives or humanitarian goals has recently increased. The concept enjoyed a heyday during the Reagan administration when the Reagan Doctrine called for support to anti-Communist rebels including the Contras in Nicaragua, the Mujahedeen in Afghanistan, and UNITA and RENAMO in Africa among others. Following the end of the Cold War, support for aiding rebels declined, replaced by increased reliance upon multilateral interventions by the United Nations or regional organizations. However, the concept did not disappear, and during the Kosovo intervention Senators Mitch McConnell and Joseph Lieberman proposed legislation to arm the Kosovo Liberation Army.[1] The fallout from the intervention in Iraq and counterinsurgency in Afghanistan has returned the concept to the spotlight as a potential means of pursuing American interests and humanitarian objectives with a lighter footprint, for example in Syria.

The return of aiding rebels as a potential policy option mandates that attention be turned to if, when, and how supporting rebels can further a nation’s interests without producing instability and increased human rights abuses. The lack of attention to these questions played a part in the disastrous lead up to the war in Iraq. The war followed a decade in which American policy hoped for a coup or revolt against Saddam Hussein without significant attention to how one might be supported and war planning that did not include briefings on alternative courses including supporting guerrilla war.[2] Here I argue that three conditions should be met if aid is to be provided to rebels:

1. Rebel factions are unified before aid is provided.

2. Only one source of support exists.

3. The targeted state lacks the capability to draw on substantial external aid.

I will support these conditions for success with a short review of the theoretical literature on rebellion and external support for rebellion as well as an examination of four cases of states aiding rebels.

The Theoretical Basis for the Three Conditions of Success

The three conditions for success draw upon the existing theoretical literature on rebellion and external support for rebellion. The condition that rebels should be unified before aid is given has two justifications. First, if there are competing rebel groups, they are likely to fight amongst each other as well as against the target of the rebellion. Infighting threatens to increase the risk of instability and makes successful coordinated action more difficult. Second, rebellions in which there are multiple factions tend to overproduce terrorism as a way for one faction to score political points vis-à-vis another faction rather than for strategic reasons, as Andrew Kydd and Barbara Walter have argued and as Mia Bloom documented among Palestinian militant groups.[3]

The second condition is based in the danger that multiple sources of support can encourage the growth of multiple factions competing for power. Daniel Byman suggests that the civil war among Palestinian factions in Jordan may have been a result of factions receiving support from states with divergent interests and goals.[4] The existence of multiple sources of support also diminishes the capability of a provider of support to make demands regarding the conduct of the supported group. The group will be less reliant upon its benefactor because alternative sources of support will provide continued funding if one supporter cuts its support.

The third condition is based in the strong evidence that external support for rebel movements increases the level of violence by provoking an escalation dynamic. Ted Gurr notes that external support for rebels has been shown to increase the level of violence in large-n studies, and explains that states facing externally supported rebellion are likely to have their own supporters who will help fund their counterinsurgency producing a growing cycle of violence.[5] In cases with fewer limits on external support for the state facing rebellion, there is a greater risk of escalation.

Cases of Failure: Cuba in Guatemala, the United States and the Mujahedeen

Having laid out the theoretical basis for the three conditions, I will now examine two cases of support for rebels where the three conditions were not met.

The Cuban provision of aid to Guatemalan rebels in the 1960s failed to meet the three conditions. The Guatemalan rebels lacked unity. Two competing rebel groups existed, the MR-13 and the Guatemalan Worker’s Party (PGT). Despite a short period of unification, the rebel groups soon split into three factions, the Edgar Ibarra Guerrilla Front (FGEI), MR-13, and the PGT, over the question of whether to participate in elections.[6] Though Cuba was the only available external supporter, it used its support and influence to split the rebel groups furthering disunity.[7] Finally, the Guatemalan government was able to draw upon extensive American military support to confront the specter of Cuban sponsored Communist revolution.[8]

The result was disastrous. Cuba did not achieve its goal of a successful revolution, and from 1966 to 1968 between 2,800 and 8,000 people were killed in a brutal counterinsurgency.[9] Timothy Wickham-Crowley wrote that it clearly stands out as the most brutal regime of terror imposed upon a peasantry”[10] in the 1950s and 1960s. The increase in American support to counter the Cuban supported rebellion laid the basis for the clash between a strengthened counterinsurgency state and disorganized guerrillas in the 1970s and 1980s.[11] That clash resulted in 150,000 deaths far exceeding the toll of nearby El Salvador’s civil war.[12]

The failure of the 1960s rebels can be traced in large part to their lack of unity. In interviews Jorge Dominguez conducted, Cuban officials said Cuba’s use of its influence to split the movement harmed the prospects for revolution.[13] Suzanne Jonas writes, that the guerrillas “were plagued by serious internal divisions which were more fatal than the lack of experience.”[14] George Black argues a similar point in his examination of the rebellion, writing “there was never the degree of unification necessary to co-ordinate the struggle effectively,”[15] and James Dunkerley also notes the role of disunity in preventing effective resistance to the counterinsurgency.[16] As Suzanne Jonas has pointed out, the rebels who emerged in the 1970s shared these criticisms of disunity as hindering rebel effectiveness, and in particular noted the role of splits over whether to engage in elections.[17]

American support for the Mujahedeen provides a similar case. The Mujahedeen were not unified, consisting of at least six major groups, some with multiple leaders, backed by external supporters with diverse interests and ideologies including the Muslim Brotherhood, Pakistani and Saudi Intelligence, the CIA, Bin Laden, and Iran.[18] The groups would often receive aid from more than one of these sources, and sometimes from sources with extremely divergent interests.[19] The Mujahedeen also faced a superpower, the Soviet Union, determined to maintain its power.

Again, the result was disastrous. The Russians were forced out, but left a pro-Soviet regime that continued to be viable until the collapse of the Soviet Union removed its external support. A million Afghans died during the war against the Soviet Union.[20] The various competing mujahedeen groups proceeded to fight a civil war that decimated Afghan society. Between April 1992 and April 1993, 30,000 inhabitants of Kabul were killed in the fighting.[21] The resulting instability allowed the Taliban to come to power backed by Pakistan, and provided Bin Laden, one of the competing funders of rebellion against the Soviet Union, a base from which to attack the United States.

Cases of Success: Cuba in El Salvador, the United States and the Northern Alliance

Where support for rebels has met the three conditions, the results have been more promising. Cuban support for rebellion in El Salvador was explicitly conditioned on rebel unity.[22] Cuba was the only state actively supporting rebellion. Other states’ contributions were routed through Cuba. Cuba actively mediated disputes between rebel factions and played an essential role in unifying the factions.[23] Finally, support for the Salvadoran government was limited by American restrictions to ensure human rights.[24]

Following the provision of Cuban aid in late 1980, casualties dropped.

Maximum and Minimum Losses of Civilians and Fighters

Seligson and McElhinny

Based on field studies, Elisabeth Wood classified the rebels’ use of violence as “unusually restrained.”[25] This restraint and the decrease in casualties can be partially explained by the development of a unified front backed with Cuban arms and training capable of sustaining a stalemate with the Salvadoran government, in contrast to the Guatemalan case, as well as by American-imposed limitations on Salvadoran violence. Cuban support played an important role in training the rebels and building a disciplined and professional army.[26] The training Salvadoran rebels received institutionalized codes of conduct regarding the treatment of civilians.[27] Cuba also exercised control over rebel actions intervening to force them to accept negotiations and discouraging strategies that might result in broad escalation.[28]

Cuba did not achieve its objective of successful revolution. However, such a measure may be inadequate to assess Cuban success, as the Cuban objective changed to maintaining rebel capability in order to use El Salvador as a bargaining chip with the United States but avoiding a revolution that might result in retaliation against the Sandinistas in Nicaragua.[29] Fidel Castro signaled the change in a September 1981 speech.[30] Cuba was successful in this more limited objective of maintaining the rebel capability.

American support for the Northern Alliance following the 9/11 attacks provides another example of support for rebels that met the three conditions. Opposition to Taliban rule had united previously warring groups.[31] The potential for competing supporters of rebellion and external support for the Taliban was almost non-existent in the immediate post-9/11 era. The United States had made it clear to Pakistan that opposing US policy would result in war.[32] No state dared openly defy the United States in its response at that moment.

The result was that a force consisting of Northern Alliance rebels on horseback with the support of 500 CIA and Special Operation Forces members and American air power swiftly defeated Taliban forces.[33] There were a few setbacks including the escape of Taliban and Al Qaeda leaders into Pakistan.[34] However, American support for rebels achieved the objective of removing the Taliban from power at an extraordinarily low cost in American lives and treasure.


The positing of the three conditions for success and the comparison of Cuban support in Guatemala and El Salvador and American support for the Mujahedeen and the Northern Alliance teaches three important lessons for those considering support for rebels as a policy option. First, contrary to the pessimists and much scholarly work, support can be provided to rebels in ways that do not encourage and may even reduce instability and human rights abuses. Neither American support for the Northern Alliance nor Cuban support for the Salvadoran rebels produced extensive human rights violations. The commonly cited cases where support for rebels has produced instability and extensive human rights violations are cases where the three conditions were not met, for example American support for the Mujahedeen or for the Contras.

A second lesson is that support for rebels can effectively achieve strategic objectives. Cuba succeeded in achieving its limited aims in El Salvador by supporting a unified rebel front in a context that lacked competing sources of aid and restricted the level of support for the Salvadoran government. The United States achieved its objective in Afghanistan when it supported a unified Northern Alliance without interference from competing powers. However the cases where supporting rebels have successfully achieved strategic objectives without encouraging instability and human rights abuses have been in contexts where the three conditions for success apply. Many, if not most, cases in which policymakers will want to support rebels will not share these conditions.

A third lesson is that support for rebels can be successful in achieving strategic objectives without producing humanitarian catastrophes even in cases in which the support does not lead to early war termination. The Cuban support for the Salvadoran rebels achieved Cuba’s limited objectives and corresponded with a decrease in the level of violence despite resulting in a decade of stalemate. It follows that support for rebels may have a place in wars with limited aims or as a way of protecting vulnerable civilian populations without threatening the survival of the regime being rebelled against.

Laying out the conditions under which supporting rebels can be successful and exploring the historical cases of success and failure is an important task that will benefit policymakers assessing the usefulness of support for rebels in the wake of the intervention in Iraq and the surge in Afghanistan. It will also aid in the evaluation of plans for conventional wars by providing better-understood proposals regarding alternative courses to war. Finally, it will aid analysts studying states supporting terrorist movements and rebels that challenge American interests by elucidating what objectives support for rebels can achieve and under what conditions.

Let me know your views, and I will share them with our 8,000+ readers. Send me a note at, or leave a note at the Roundtable, at

Your Recommendations: Great Books From the Beach

Thursday, March 7th, 2013

“An interesting item attached from O-Dark-Thirty, the literary journal of the Veterans Writing Project It can all seem pretty technical and detached, but these young people make what they go through and what they have to live with afterwards very real.”
Mike Decker

“McChrystal’s My Share of the Task”
Louis Tucker

“Who Stole the American Dream, by Hendrick Smith”
Clayton DePue

“Just read Surprise Attack. Lots of good examples, lots of good info. “Deep” in points, but I really learned a lot about how and why we are so often surprised. Lots of factors here, not just A or B.”
Jim Howcroft

“It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided with the New Politics of Extremism” by Thomas E. Mann, Norman J. Ornstein


“The Washington Rules” by Andrew Bacevich
Chris Bott

“Brute” and “First to Fight”…good perspective on Marine Corps. Brute is the Biography of LtGen Victor “Brute” Krulak. “First to Fight” is written by LtGen Krulak…..he wrote the book on COIN to be employed in SEA.
Also if you have not already read it “The World is Flat” by Tom Friedman and “The Pentagon’s New Map” by Thomas P.M. Barnett.
Scott Jack

“The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail – but Some Don’t
by Dan Silver”
Collin Agee

“I talked to BG Ian Rigden from the UK and he gave me a wonderful model for how an operating environment is formed and evolves:

Geography shapes culture. Culture defines institutions. Technology drives change.

Simple, but so insightful.”
Gary Phillips

More recommendations to follow, so send me your favorite books in a note to


Great Books From the Beach

Sunday, March 3rd, 2013

I got to read some great books over the last couple of weeks.  Recommend each one of them to you.

Little America: The War Within the War For Afghanistan; Rajiv Chandrasekaran.  A wonderful, detailed chronicle and thoughtful examination of a small slice of the war in Afghanistan, written by a Washington Post reporter.

The Revenge of Geography: What the Map Tells Us About Coming Conflicts and the Battle Against Fate; by Robert Kaplan.  All those pesky human and geography phenomena we don’t consider, but ought to.

How to Look For Trouble: A StratFor Guide to Protective Intelligence; by Scott Stewart and Fred Burton.  Reporting and perspectives on a number of case study incidents 

The Price of Inequality: How Today’s Divided Society Endangers Our Future; by Joseph Stiglitz.  The more you concentrate wealth, and the power that goes with it, and the greater the chasm between the have’s and have not’s, the more likely becomes the kinds of unrest we see around the world.

The Counterinsurgency Challenge: A Parable of lLeadership and Decision making in Modern Conflict; by Christopher Kolenda.  A wonderfully-written, very detailed role-play approach to taking the reader through the necessity for expert critical thinking, sensemaking and development of understanding that has to happen before good planning and effective operations can take place in the kinds of very complex and dynamic engagements we are finding are the majority of our military and intelligence activities.

Surprise Attack: The Victim’s Perspective; by Ephraim Kam.  Why are we surprised by events that, with more thoughtfulness and an anticipatory approach to building an understanding of the circumstances and dynamics, might be more predictable or avoidable.

And I re-read two great books about the Vietnam war:

The Village War: Vietnamese Communist Revolutionary Activities in Dinh Tuong Province, 1960-1964; by William R. Andrews.

Silence Was a Weapon: The Vietnam War in the Villages; by Stuart Herrigton.

These are two great cook-books for how to effectively wage COIN and CT on the required local basis.

Got some great books that you would recommend?  Let me know, and I’ll pass your recommendations on to our readers.  Send me a note at



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