The Common Lessons of Benghazi, Algeria, Mali, Tunisia, Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the Arab Spring

We are only beginning to adjust to the reality that we face following at least a decade of constant upheavals in the Islamic world; it is clear that it will take at least that long to end in some form of stability given the underlying mix of failed secular regimes, weak economies and poor income distribution, demographic pressures, religious struggles within Islam, social change, and internal tensions specific to given countries. This means that the United States and its allies must seek to influence a series of conflicts and political struggles that will extend from Morocco to the Philippines which will reshape the entire Islamic world and will require years of consistent effort to have any chance of success.

A Decade or More of Struggles for Change and Stability

It will be a struggle to help nations deal with the broad range of forces that are currently causing so much instability in the Arab world, to modernize and evolve where they can, and to help the new political factions that take power move forward quickly and with as little violence as possible. The end result will not be a war on terrorism, although it will involve many extremists and terrorist elements; it will be dealing with a clash within Islam rather than a clash between civilizations.

The United States will have to deal with a kaleidoscope of shifting governments, factions, and ideologies. There will be many more cases where seemingly stable regimes implode and find themselves dealing with extremists, terrorists, civil conflicts, and failed or failing leaders and governments. At the same time, the United States will have to deal with governments that may share a common cause in fighting extremists but are corrupt, repressive, and fail to meet many of the most urgent needs of their people. In many cases, there will be no “good” and “bad” guys, only the “least bad” or “most expedient” state or non-state actor to work with.

In many, probably most, cases, the United States, with limited influence, will only able to make slow, evolutionary progress toward stability. The United States can prioritize by country and plan to deal with the continuing threat of both internal and international extremism and terrorism in the process. However, history warns that many states will fail to take the necessary steps to bring stability and states that go through revolutions rarely achieve stability or any form of consistent leadership in less than half a decade. Internal and regional dynamics will dominate, and even in the more successful cases there will be some form of internal violence. The challenge will be both civil and military, with the mix constantly varying by country and changing over time. The United States will also often lack the resources, access, and leverage carry out effective stability efforts at the civil level, military level or both. It will have to work with friendly, largely Islamic states, and let other allies take the lead.

There will be many unavoidable failures and relapses at the national level as given states go through a long struggle to find some stability. Promising starts will sometimes have bloody finishes the United States cannot help avoid and tragedies will unfold with tragic humanitarian costs that we cannot credibly intervene in. Internal struggles will sometimes have to be left to fester to the point where they burn out through exhaustion.

The Problem of Triage

That being said, the United States must do the best it can. Even if the United States could ignore the human consequences, the threat of inaction is simply too great. The United States must look beyond the huge differences in the crisis in countries like Libya, Algeria, Mali, Tunisia, Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Afghanistan, and Pakistan and see that they do pose common lessons that the United States must learn to apply as it goes forward.

The sheer number of problems and limits to U.S. resources highlights one key lesson of these cases and others throughout Asia and Africa: the United States will have to go through a process of “triage.” It will have to focus carefully on those cases that are most important and where the United States can do the most good. It will have to ration diplomatic, foreign aid, and military resources with great care but never hesitate to use them when there is a clear need that serves its national interest or meets vital humanitarian needs.

This means avoiding self-destructive over-engagement on the scale that took place in Iraq and Afghanistan. It means accepting slow and partial progress on the terms that a given nation can credibly achieve. It means temporarily sacrificing part of our values to achieve progress in others on the terms that can actually work in given countries and crises. It also means the United States must stand aside and/or rely on containment in some cases. The United States must avoid promises it cannot actually keep and turning today’s problems into lasting moral crusades. It must accept how often a realistic assessment of the situation will show that the United States can do very little and must wait for better opportunities to do anything beyond diplomacy.

It means being objective in assessing what level of action or intervention, if any, a given country can respond to and absorb. As the United States should have learned over the last quarter century, being ruthless and realistic in assessing the “threat” posed by those it might seek to help is even more important than focusing on easily identifiable enemies. The United States will have to become involved in some form of nation building in case after case, but it must never again repeat the fantasies that it indulged in with Afghanistan and Iraq. In most cases, successful triage will mean that if the nations involved can’t do it their way, there is no way we should attempt to make them do it our way.

Americans do not readily accept the fact that history actually takes time and progress is always hard and uncertain. Nevertheless, they must learn strategic patience and to accept progress at an evolutionary pace. There will be few or no cases where the United State can achieve broad lasting progress quickly.

Working With and Relying On Key “Traditional” Allies

A second lesson is that the United States must be much more careful in dealing with its traditional allies; it should accept the fact that it should never again build up “coalitions of the willing” by seeking as many nominal allies as possible.

Even bilateral intervention and assistance can double the bureaucratic and coordination problems involved. Afghanistan, Iraq, and the Balkans all warn that national caveats, redlines, refusals to go into harm’s way, and insistence on uncoordinated national aid efforts are the price of including as many countries as possible rather than focusing on the much smaller number of countries that will actually do the job. Even NATO will at best be little more than a cover for allied action than a reality. Most NATO countries will rarely, if ever, act outside Europe. This means the United States needs to do a far better job of working directly with those remaining traditional allies that can still credibly project power and have the willing to do so. The list is small and often uncertain. It includes nations like Britain, France, Italy, Turkey, and Australia.

It does not make sense to ask allies that face even more serious budget problems than the United States to replicate U.S. capabilities; it makes far better sense to help them shape their forces so they can be fully interoperable with those assets they cannot afford. As we have seen in Mali, we need to be willing and able to quickly support nations like France with airlift and the full range of high technology, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance assets. In some cases, the United States will also need to provide sustainable air attack capabilities, specialized land/air/sea elements, and bring in operational intelligence elements and tools.

Members of Congress, think tankers, and other armchair strategists will also need to stop mindless political sloganeering about “leading from behind” and insisting on doing it our way. The United States should let the best partner lead when other countries can do the best job in any given case. It should empower its allies, let them visibly take the lead, and give them full credit.

Working with Regional and Host Country Partners

The third lesson is that in most cases the United States will find that the key partner will not be a European ally but either a regional partner or the host country itself. The internal dynamics of the host country that will determine what real world opportunities exist at what mix of costs and benefits. If the host country lacks the willingness and absorption capability to use U.S. and allied aid, the default setting should be containment not intervention. It is a grim reality that regardless of the humanitarian cost, there is little point in trying to help countries that cannot help themselves and creating a culture of dependence that shifts that responsibility to the United States or some outside power.

More broadly, the United States should learn that it needs to work through local governments on their terms and rely on local allies that share a common religion and value system with the host or target country. This is particularly true because much of the reason for the rebirth of religious values throughout the Islamic world has come from the failure of secular governance. U.S. strengths consist of helping nations and nonstate actors deal with secular problems and needs, but the United States will always face major obstacles when it comes to dealing with Islam and different cultural values. This is why allies like the southern Gulf states, Arab states, Turkey and other states with largely Islamic populations will be key partners at both the regional and national level. They can act in ways the United States and other outside powers cannot. They do not bring the burden of western secularism, ties to Israel, or the history of European colonialism to a given problem. They also do not bring the baggage of intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan or the war on terrorism.

Moreover, such partnerships are necessary because the United States must also work with its regional allies to help them to maintain or achieve their own internal stability and to limit the risk of the political upheavals that are underway in so many states. Patient diplomatic and advisory efforts to help allied and friendly countries make their own reforms in areas like economics and governance will be key sources of stability and evolutionary change. So will assistance in creating effective counterterrorism forces and internal security efforts, as will support to regional security structures like the Gulf Cooperation Council.

If the United States cannot work with regional allies on a basis that accepts that they have different values and priorities, do not want to become mirror images of the United States, and that they are not going to suddenly change their system of government it will not bring reform but failure.

Focusing on Integrated Civil-Military Efforts

Every national case provides another lesson: counterterrorism, counterinsurgency, and the use of military force are, at best, only half of the toolbox. The failure to learn this lesson has been the most critical operational failure in Afghanistan and Iraq. Neither military nor civil efforts can function effectively without the other. Security efforts that do not deal with the failures in the state at best are temporary brute force solutions. Civil efforts that ignore extremism and violence are equally pointless. The United States now needs to fully integrate our own security, diplomatic, and aid efforts and end the disastrous conflicting and poorly coordinated civil-military efforts that have been so wasteful and self-destructive in Afghanistan and Iraq. The United States must never allow a focus on security assistance that does not examine civil assistance or a military focus on tactics and the security dimension that ignores the civil dimension.

The United States needs to force all the elements of the foreign policy and national security structure to create strategies and plans that cut across agencies and look at broad regional and sometimes global trends. At the same time, most problems are ultimately solved one country at a time and need to be solved based on in-country expertise. The United States needs to stop concentrating decision-making in Washington when real success is measured by how successful the United States is in given nation states. It needs to focus on creating strong, proactive, and fully integrated country teams that have clearly defined plans for action, justified expenditure plans, and measures of effectiveness.

However, the United States also needs to force coordination throughout the government by requiring the preparation of integrated country plans and budget submissions that provide an integrated net assessment of the situation and recommended action. These plans should include the kind of cost-benefit analysis that ties together all of the elements of activity in given countries to an integrated budget request. They should be formally submitted in classified and unclassified form to Congress so that that each relevant congressional committee can review an entire country plan.

Such plans do not have to be ambitious or overly complex. The result will often be a plan for low-level U.S. advisory activity. In others, it will mean coordinating significant amounts of military and civil aid, and in others it will mean dealing with violence and civil conflict. What such plans should always mean is that no element of the U.S. government can act or get funding on its own, that the entire request for resources must be coordinated at the country level where expertise really lies, and that the plan explicitly focuses on the trade-offs between U.S. politics, economic, and security activity and within the broad structure of civil military operations.

Making International Cooperation in Civil-Military and Aid Efforts More Effective

Finally, in those cases where high levels of civil and military aid are needed, the United States should seek to create integrated civil-military and aid activity with its key allies. The United States should seek to build on the best examples of the provincial reconstruction team (PRT) efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan and bring key allied aid teams into an integrated effort with U.S. military and civil aid teams. The United States will also need to work with its allies so that all the personnel involved have longer periods of service in country and all agree to use planning and management tools that develop meaningful coordination and continuity of aid efforts. In some cases, this will mean deliberately excluding those countries (as well as members of NGOs and international organizations) that insist on unilateral approaches or are simply ineffective. The United States should never repeat the massive waste, duplication, and failures in the international civil and military aid efforts seen in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The United States should also work more closely with real economic power blocs like the EU to use of tools like sanctions and economic and governance aid. Similarly, the World Bank may be able to play a key role in developing coordinated plans and analysis. However, the United States should take a very hard look at repeating more than cosmetic reliance on the UN. UNAMA has failed to provide meaningful coordination activity over more than a decade, and the UN effort never took hold in Iraq. So far efforts at relying on the UN or an “international community” with no known address seem to be as dysfunctional as they are politically correct.

Anthony Cordesman is Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at CSIS.

Commentary isproduced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

© 2013 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.

Anthony H. Cordesman

Anthony H. Cordesman

Former Emeritus Chair in Strategy