May 1, 2010  

America’s third war

Counterinsurgency tactics are needed much closer to home

Well, of course it’s insurgency.

From the Andean Ridge through Colombian jungles and Mexican drug routes and into the streets and neighborhoods of America — including the town you live in, dear reader — a sophisticated network of drug-trafficking organizations is undermining governments, attacking armies and terrorizing populations with for-profit kidnapping, murder, extortion and mind-altering drugs pushed onto ever-younger kids.

In Venezuela, the Chavez government and its Iranian and Hezbollah allies are engaged in corrupting Venezuelan democracy and perpetuating Hugo Chavez as president-for-life, and they are also deeply engaged with the Mexican drug gangs and supporting the FARC narco-guerrilla movement against Colombia, a democratic ally of the U.S. In Central America, drug gangs challenge local democratic governments and support gang warfare in the U.S. In Mexico, thousands have died — the latest estimate is about 18,000 since 2006 — as the Mexican cartels take on each other and the Mexican Army, recently attacking an army garrison and regularly ambushing troops on patrol.

Yet in ways eerily like the self-deception of the early Iraq war, “insurgency” doesn’t seem to be on the radar scope. At a recent Defense Department conference on Mexico’s war, a U.S. four-star general and various academics around the room all denied that the hemisphere is experiencing a criminally motivated insurgency. “They’re not trying to take over the government,” was one Ph.D.’s lame excuse.

For the record, the Army/Marine Corps counterinsurgency manual says that an insurgency is “an organized, protracted politico-military struggle designed to weaken the control and legitimacy of an established government, occupying power, or other political power while increasing insurgent control.”

But events have moved beyond academic hanky-snaps over definitions. The cartels are here; they are a reality. They are the networked, transnational threats that theorists were writing about a decade ago. The future of warfare has arrived. The new condition of this warfare is that the cartel networks generally aren’t after government; to them, government is irrelevant unless it tries to exercise its normal functions — namely, to enforce the laws. In that case, they attack with terrorism, buy-outs, bribes, “bought” elections and eventually with a takeover, as was the case with the FARC attempt in Colombia and is the case today in several Mexican states. In Colombia and Mexico, they are fighting to hold ground and controlling — or terrorizing — populations. That’s not insurgency?

One reason that our judgment may be a little clouded is that we may have learned too much from recent experience. It took a long time for American defense leaders to recognize and admit that we faced an insurgency in Iraq and, later, in Afghanistan; perhaps part of the reason was the heavy U.S. intellectual and structural investment in high-tech, rapid, decisive operations. Once we recognized the problem, though, we painfully relearned counterinsurgency lessons from decades ago, wrote new doctrine and applied it with a vengeance, first in Iraq and now today in Afghanistan.


The question now is whether we can shift from our present intellectual investment in Afghanistan-style counterinsurgency to a higher level. The challenge in the Western Hemisphere differs from the war in Afghanistan, and the de-escalating war in Iraq, in at least four particulars.

First, this is a criminally motivated insurgency, as different from our recent experience with sectarian motivations as today’s religious conflicts are from our previous experience with ideologically based ones. The money from illicit drugs is the “religion” or “ideology” of the current war.

Second, the “battlefield” is huge and enormously complex, from the Andean Ridge to the Canadian treeline, and with many varieties of adversaries; they include at least one corrupt nation; a cocaine-trading narco-guerrilla movement in Colombia; highly complex, networked and totally ruthless Mexican drug-trafficking organizations whose operations extend into American cities; and their local gang accomplices who terrorize American streets.

Third, the U.S. already has deployed considerable forces: maritime interdiction vessels, FBI and drug enforcement agents, customs and border patrols, special operations advisers (in Colombia) and thousands of other agents and operatives. Our local police forces — the cops on the beat in our hometowns — are key players, as police always are in any counterinsurgency strategy. The problem is, though, that the focus is off. The center of effort at present is decreasing the flow of illicit drugs into the U.S. It should be on the whole scope of counterinsurgency doctrine, starting with attacking and destroying the insurgent networks in our country and throughout the hemisphere. Through hard, dangerous work and dedicated people, we have won some battles, but by any measure, we are losing the war.

Finally, this cannot be a DoD-led effort. Aside from the political realities of our complex relationships with countries in Latin America, most of this fight is theirs, not ours. The Special Forces watchwords of “by, with and through” have never been more important. Plan Colombia has shown that direct U.S. involvement need not be necessary in states where civic institutions are salvageable, though each country will be a separate case. At present, and in keeping with the drug-control orientation of the “war on drugs,” eight Cabinet-level departments and agencies share responsibility for counternarcotics operations. That may work against drugs —– though actually, it’s not working — but it’s no way to run counterinsurgency. AFJ

COL. BOB KILLEBREW is a retired Army infantryman and former Army War College instructor.