Small Wars Journal


The Marine Corps, Counterinsurgency, and America’s Answer to the French Foreign Legion

Fri, 12/21/2018 - 10:11am
In the 2019 National Defense Authorization Act (Senate Bill 2987), Congress has proposed reorganizing America’s armed forces. Under the new model, the Army will handle conventional warfare, while the Marine Corps will handle counterinsurgencies. This reorganization would benefit all branches by aligning each branch’s culture and mentality with their respective real-world needs. In this essay, we will look at the three branches (Navy, Marine Corps, and Army) and explore how each branch will benefit, individually.

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The Amenas Siege and the Growing Hostage Problem in Africa

Mon, 02/11/2013 - 8:30am

Algeria’s bloody siege of the Amenas facility was a necessary first shot of retaliation in a growing regional problem, as groups both criminal and ideological groups seek sources of income and influence. Out of the instability of Somalia, hostage taking grew as the chosen occupation of pirates in pre-AU offensive Somalia. As regional instability increases and piracy grows in the Gulf of Guinea, hostage taking could become the tactic du jour of many groups due to long-established profitability. The Amenas episode will stand as a strategic success in helping limit the nature of the coming conflicts growing from regional instability.

To contrast the brutal decisiveness of the Amenas siege, a tragedy of the commons sustained Somalia’s prolonged hostage problem. States’ non-negotiation policies were defeated by corporations incentivizing hostage-tactics through negotiation with pirates. The state policy of containment rather than roll-back allowed corporations the legal ability and time window necessary to arrange and execute the unintended subsidy. That combination of negotiation and containment failed; land engagements by AU troops finally wiped out the sea-supporting shore infrastructure and power vacuum that pirates had filled. Amenas differs slightly in that militants may have intended to execute their prey and destroy the Amenas facility. However, swift military action still prevented the incentivization of hostage-taking by removing the opportunity for militants to establish a political narrative via protracted stand-off. It also robbed the militants of the time necessary to turn the facility into a maze of deadly traps. The immediate bloodbath is far outweighed by the long-term strategic message that hostages are liabilities and hostage takers mark themselves for death. It is more important than ever that this message is repeated; the tropical depressions of West African conflict may soon combine into a hurricane.

While West Africa appears to move beyond its chaotic past, resurgent militancy and instability are joined by trends of piracy in the Gulf of Guinea. Western observers have paid particular attention to the sudden and dramatic collapse of Mali into an unpleasant froth of civil war and Islamic extremism, Boko Haram has risen as a force to be reckoned with in Africa’s most populous nation. Boko Haram has trained with militants in Mali and their leadership has also been reported operating with groups in the region. Militants in Algeria, Nigeria, and Mali gain connectivity while the low-hanging fruit of potential mariner hostages tempt in the Gulf of Guinea. States have this opportunity at the outset to establish rules of engagement and public expectations. Hostage-taking will not be the sole tactic of pirates and militants. However, at least that protracted and damaging tactic can be discouraged by establishing norms early.  Namely, hostage taking will never meet with payment; it will be met with immediate and brutal precision by law enforcement and military. While collateral damage should be avoided where practical, the state must not be held in thrall by tactical blackmail.  

Although many will find the strategic disregard for hostages heartless, it must be by design. That heart, a willingness to engage in protracted negotiation for political and financial resources with hostage-takers, is what gives value to the hostage-taking tactic. Financial motivations aside, negotiations also give hostage-takers who are politically oriented time to communicate with the media, establish narratives, and use their position as a pulpit for their cause. Using their human shields to defy the law also gives hostage-takers an exaggerated image of strength to exploit. Negotiations give those whose objective is terror the opportunity to set traps, publicly execute hostages, and otherwise cause mayhem on world-wide media. Ransom, political grandstanding, and intimidation are all possible scenarios and must be dealt with as swiftly and as brutally as the gas-field scenario in Algeria.

Hostage taking is  a gangrenous wound. The longer the trend is allowed to fester, the greater the damage that must be done to halt it. When the trend is immediately sterilized and stitched, one decreases the need to cut large pieces of flesh to stop the infection. Somalia and Algeria illustrate opposing methods to deal with the different stripes of hostage-taker. In Somalia, hostage-taking received only surface bandages, festering until billions of dollars were lost to ransom, untold opportunities were lost to instability, and countless lives lost both physically and metaphorically. With time, it sapped the chances to rebuild legitimacy and ever decreased stability. The Algerian solution, although not long enough past to show trending results, should drastically changes the hostage calculus. The message in Algeria is unquestioningly clear: hostage takers die swiftly. If governments from the Guinea Coast to the Mediterranean expect to deter future hostage taking, they must echo the Algerian message and resist the urge to match failed western policies in Somalia.

50 Years after Algeria: America’s Endgame in Afghanistan

Thu, 07/05/2012 - 1:53am

THIS JULY 5th, France and Algeria marked the fiftieth anniversary of the latter’s independence. An inglorious seven-year war against a nationalist insurgency was brought to a close by President Charles de Gaulle, and with it, the last significant chapter of Western colonialism in the Arab world.

French efforts to “pacify” Algeria were politically doomed despite growing military successes on the ground. Four long years before the 1962 Evian Accords were signed with the Front de Libération Nationale (FLN), the incumbent de Gaulle had concluded that the costs of maintaining the colony had come to outweigh the benefits to Metropolitan France. The war had been socially divisive (leading to a coup against the Fourth Republic), geopolitically counterproductive (isolating France from her NATO allies while creating enmity in the Arab world), and economically disastrous.

De Gaulle wished for a “responsible” pull-out. Subject to a popular referendum, Algeria would be granted its independence in exchange for the promise that France would continue to have access to the naval installations, nuclear sites and gas fields she had invested in there, and that the former colony would not turn into a Soviet proxy-state.

Fifty years later, the United States, which had once been very critical of French objectives in Algeria, would yearn for an analogous conclusion to her own protracted war in Afghanistan.

The general impression of the Algerian War today is that the French lost their colony because the indigenous population kicked them out. The plain truth, however, is that the French were not ousted from Algeria, anymore than the Americans were ousted from Iraq, or will soon be “ousted” from Afghanistan.

Setting the conditions for a “responsible” exit from Algeria in 1962 had required the French to bleed soldiers and treasury for years after the political decision had been made to withdraw. We are seeing the same eerie phenomenon repeat itself in Afghanistan. There, the irony of fighting against insurgencies abroad is emerging in full force; the counterinsurgent’s exit hinges on negotiating with the insurgent he continues to fight.

De Gaulle had negotiated with the FLN from a position of relative weakness; for despite France’s military successes on the ground, her political desire to withdraw was well known to all. The United States is confronted with a similar weakness in Afghanistan. Insurgent groups – the Taliban especially – have capitalized on NATO’s urgency to leave. The Taliban have come to realize that intransigence (to the point of killing negotiators – a recurring theme in Afghan history) will offer the better long-term yield. The more the Taliban wait, the more U.S.–NATO position will become desperate.

One hopes that the difference between Algeria and Afghanistan will lie in the degree to which the insurgent accedes to power in the aftermath of the foreign power’s withdrawal. In Algeria, despite promises of constitutional elections, the FLN had been allowed to achieve quasi-dictatorial control over the entire country following the French pull-out. The repercussions of a similar scenario being repeated in Afghanistan could be worse still. The Taliban’s record of governance offers bleak prospects for Afghanistan's sectarian stability, and more broadly, for the stability of Pakistan and the entire region. The tragedy of such an endgame would lie in the amount of blood and tears spilt by all sides only to yield results that could have been obtained – it will seem in hindsight – without paying such a tribute.

In Afghanistan, it remains to be seen whether the population will muster the strength to reject Taliban rule in the South on the morrow of an American withdrawal, or whether it will cave to the terror and fanaticism imposed by a few, thereby remaining cut-off from the rest of the world.

When national security imperatives or humanitarian concerns justify the toppling of a regime in the future, it is hoped that all efforts towards achieving a revolution from within will first be exhausted prior to contemplating an invasion. Otherwise, the insurgents, regardless of the merits of their banner-cause, will encounter no shortage of recruits to fight against the foreign occupiers of their lands and the perceived domestic lackeys they support.