Sunday, July 25, 2010

Fighting Insurgents Isn’t The Same As Countering Terrorists, Lessons Learned From Iraq

The 2007 Surge was a sea change in U.S. military policy in Iraq. The Americans went from hunting down insurgents to trying to win over the hearts and minds of the local population. Many of those lessons and tactics are now being implemented in Afghanistan. Three researchers, Eli Berman, Joseph Felter, and Jacob Shapiro, recently looked into one part of this strategy, whether economic development limits militancy.

The researchers began with spending by U.S. forces on local reconstruction projects and violence in Iraq, and found a correlation. The $3.1 billion Commander’s Emergency Response Program (CERP) appeared to reduce violence, most of which happened during the Surge in 2007. Before that period however, CERP didn’t have as much affect. The authors believed that was because the American military wasn’t as focused upon the areas they spent the money in as they were during the Surge. 

The study then looked at the rest of America’s reconstruction work in Iraq. Most of that was spent on large projects, and used private contractors. That didn’t seem to affect violence at all.

A comparison between those two types of spending found that the more local the emphasis, the more effect it had upon violence. The best reconstruction practices were ones that included small projects, good relationships with civilians and officials who were consulted about programs, used local contractors, and was coordinated.

The study also considered whether job creation had an affect upon insurgencies. One theory of counterinsurgency is that providing employment will draw fighters away from militant groups. The assumption is that high unemployment/underemployment provides a pool of men to be recruited by insurgents. The report looked at job rates in Iraq, Afghanistan, and the southern Philippines, and found no real connection. In fact, it found the exact opposite, that when more jobs were provided violence actually increased. Their explanation was that government counterinsurgency programs might promote local employment, but that fighting disrupted the overall economy more so that there was not a real change in the military situation. People might get jobs cleaning up streets, picking up trash, or manning a checkpoint for example, but their pay was probably still low, and the business environment was bad due to instability. 

Another assumption is that development can help prevent terrorism. Studies have shown that many terrorists and their leaders are not poor however. Terrorists also don’t operate like insurgents who depend upon local support and look to hold territory. Terrorists in fact, can operate in areas where they are unpopular. Promoting the economy then isn’t really effective against these groups. What the report found to be of more impact was the quality of governance. Countries that lacked services, were corrupt, and had unpopular leaders were more likely to breed terrorists.

Berman, Joseph and Shapiro’s study came to some surprising conclusions. First, the more local the development spending, the better chance there is to counter insurgencies. Large-scale projects and simply focusing upon jobs however had little impact. The former is a top-down approach that doesn’t create any closer loyalties between the citizens and their government that would make them turn against militants, while the latter doesn’t impact the overall economic situation in the country, which is usually poor due to fighting. Second, counterinsurgency and counterterrorism differ. Fighting insurgencies requires winning hearts and minds and controlling territory. Terrorists on the other hand, don’t depend upon holding any area, and are usually prevalent in countries where the government is considered corrupt and illegitimate. That has important consequences for U.S. policy. It’s much easier to come up with local projects and create community security forces than it is to reform an entire government. That can be seen in the current situation in Iraq. The insurgency has lost most of its popular base, but it still continues because Baghdad is dysfunctional, and militants still consider it a tool of the Americans. That has implications in Afghanistan and Pakistan as well. In the former, the U.S. can probably reduce the insurgency, but not so in the latter because it doesn’t have as much freedom of operation. In both cases, the governments are also unlikely to change, so that terrorism will continue to have an environment to thrive in.


Berman, Eli, Felter, Joseph, and Shapiro, Jacob, “Constructive COIN,” Foreign Affairs, 6/1/10


Anonymous said...

A couple of issues with the study. The primary one is that they used violence data for attacks against US and Iraqi forces only, and neglected the attacks against Iraqi citizens which are at the heart of capturing hearts and minds. They also (admittedly) only account for a small piece, some $3 million of the $54 billion spent on reconstruction.

Joel Wing said...

Anon said:
"The primary one is that they used violence data for attacks against US and Iraqi forces only, and neglected the attacks against Iraqi citizens which are at the heart of capturing hearts and minds."

True. Perhaps the reason was that attacks upon those in authority, the U.S. and government forces, is what an insurgency is about so that's what they chose to look at.

"They also (admittedly) only account for a small piece, some $3 million of the $54 billion spent on reconstruction."

They did focus upon the CERP but then did some more general comparison of that spending to the larger reconstruction effort as well.

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