Dealing with Retrenchment

A running theme among actors and institutions involved in ‘managing’ war-to-peace transitions is that they typically struggle to meet the requirements of the job. Inadequately supported, struggling with vague mandates, or lacking in capability and capacity, there does not seem to be one institution particularly well configured or able to undertake the difficult challenges of stabilisation and peacebuilding. NATO’s political disunity, consensus-driven approach to decision-making, and limited military capabilities all suggests that this body may not be the right tool for long-term foreign occupation. The US military, largely unsupported by its civilian partners, structured for conventional combat and with few allies to lean upon, has had to struggle to be at all successful in counterinsurgency environments. A cursory glance at recent British operations makes it difficult to see how this old master of counterinsurgency can continue to play a significant role in these operations, given the political commitment and resources now devoted to these efforts. And if this is true for Britain, it is certainly true for less well-equipped European nations, and for the EU as a whole, whose interest and capabilities for counterinsurgency were never really there to begin with.

The same problem affects the United Nations, whose recent expansion in ambition and commitments has brought all sorts of difficulties to the fore. Particularly in relation to the concept and practice of ‘robust peacekeeping’, the organisation often attempts painful compromises, between vague (or wholly over-ambitious) mandates and inadequate capabilities; between commitments to impartiality in doctrine and use of force in theatre; and, sometimes, between ‘peacebuilding’ and ‘statebuilding’. Of course these contradictions are most acute where the country is big, the government not entirely on your side and the security challenges manifold — the types of operations that the UN may in the future seek to avoid. As Richard Gowan writes in a recent article over at World Politics Review:

Some U.N. officials,… talk about Darfur and the Congo as “outlier missions”: too big and too dangerous for the organization to undertake. They point out that, while former Secretary-General Kofi Annan favored sending peacekeepers to Darfur, many of his senior advisers were extremely skeptical… Many officials in New York argue that there must be no more “outlier missions”.

What these actors all face, therefore, is a choice: muddle through and wish it all away; adapt institutionally to the challenges faced in the field; or retrench, opting for a less ambitious list of commitments. Of course, most organisations try to do a little of all three, though the option of muddling through often wins out. A slightly more enlightened response is to limit where and when to commit, to enter a period of retrenchment, borne out of prior miscalculation or, even, some degree of failure. This, however, also raises some tough questions.

Is retrenchment institutionally fatal? Some observers of NATO point to Afghanistan as a ‘do-or-die’ scenario, where ignominious withdrawal will spell the end of the Alliance. Not only does this exaggerate the inevitable ambiguity of end-states — the circumstances of NATO’s eventual withdrawal will be spun, contested and debated for years and decades to come — but it also underestimates the ability of organisations to adapt in the face of setbacks, even severe ones.

Still, retrenchment is likely to come at a cost in terms of profile or prestige. If NATO wants to avoid counterinsurgency in the future, its ground-based operations will be limited to peacekeeping missions, precisely the type of commitment that the Alliance has sought to extricate itself from in the Balkans. If the UN wants to avoid ‘robust peacekeeping’ it means saying no to the most pressing of humanitarian emergencies and concentrating solely on those settings where peace is already firmly established and ‘Blue Helmets’ are unlikely to be resisted; the El Dorado of a benign, permissive and consensual operating environment. This may not be such a bad idea, but it will involve a difficult, some might say unlikely, recalibration of what is expected from the world organisation.

Furthermore, retrenchment is often easier said than done. For the US, the alternative to counterinsurgency is often held to be conventional combat and more traditional assertions of power, yet it is difficult to envisage a major combat operation that would not also involve or lead to more ‘irregular’ challenges — stabilisation, asymmetric threats, urban operations — even if on a smaller scale. This is one reason why, in the US context, previous attempts at retrenchment — the Nixon Doctrine, the Weinberger Doctrine, Clinton’s presidential decision directive in the aftermath of Somalia and George W. Bush’s renunciation of ‘nation-building’ in 2000 — were all eventually ignored or forgotten. In the UN context, countless blue-ribbon panels and think-tanks reports have called for clearer mandates, greater resources and more selective engagement, yet these warnings have not prevented a steady expansion in UN peacekeeping commitments, also to areas where there really is no peace to keep.

Perhaps the freshness of recent disappointments and traumas will ensure stricter adherence to set preconditions, but what will this mean when the next crisis comes along? Back in 1999, Edward Luttwak famously proposed that we ‘give war a chance’, as war, for all its horrors, ‘brings peace’. This may very well be the new slogan for chastened peacekeepers and counterinsurgents, but is it a domestically sellable proposition, in a globalised and mediatised world? Despite all the costs of recent interventions, in the US, the UK and elsewhere, future inaction may also become too costly, at least politically. Indeed, it seems unrealistic that the need to intervene, whether for altruistic reasons, calculations of national security, or political profile, will not again be felt: the next genocide, an uprising against a friendly government, or a peace process on the verge of collapse.

Oddly, this is what makes the lessons learned in recent, highly ambitious operations so relevant for the longer-term, even if such operations, on this scale, are now purposefully avoided. Yet it does raise the question of who, in an age of retrenchment, will be the ‘intervener of last resort’. There simply are no takers: NATO can provide supporting assets to facilitate interventions conducted by others; the UN can consolidate the peace achieved by others; yet locating these ‘others’ will be a more difficult proposition; regional organisations such as the African Union have been found lacking, as has the European Union, despite the wealth of some of its individual members. As far as I can see, this leaves us with two choices: inactivity, or a highly problematic reliance on the US, a nation that day by day is becoming increasingly aware of its own limitations.

Originally published at on July 20, 2010.

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