The Lesser Evil: When does it make sense to intervene on behalf of incumbents?

17 Aug

*This piece was first published in the SSR Resource Centre’s The Hub and is republished with permission from the Centre for Security Governance.

A few weeks ago, Edward H. Carpenter came out with two compelling posts (here and here) in the Duck of Minerva. In his first article, he notes that the Islamic State’s (IS) advance in Syria and Iraq is only one example of recent victories by mobile, non-state Islamic fundamentalist groups organized as networks. In his second, he argues that while the governments these insurgencies seek to topple may not meet international standards of good governance:

“No population has benefited from the long-running civil wars or instability that has resulted from an existing state government being overthrown by networked opposition elements; and few regional governments are able to beat these networks quickly and decisively on their own. Thus, the West should consider making short-term, limited intervention on the side of existing governmental bodies the norm.”

These interventions, Carpenter writes, would combine airstrikes and ground forces comprised of government and international troops. Interventions would only occur when a conflict meets a threshold of a few pre-determined conditions, “Such a threshold would probably need to specify level and pace of conflict, presence (or lack) of diplomatic avenues of resolution, and several other measures beyond a simple casualty count.”

In response to Carpenter’s article, Rachel Strohm wrote a response piece teasing out some of the argument’s problems. Strohm uses the Rwandan Genocide as an example of a case when a state’s violent overthrow led to an improvement in the lives of its citizens. Because it is hard not to improve on a regime that kills a huge percentage of its population, there is a good argument that when a state is that brutal, seeking to crush any armed resistance will only allow the state to continue attacks on civilians.

Strohm’s point is a good one, and gets at something Carpenter’s argument seems to imply, but does not come out and say. The issue is not really with network insurgencies in general, but their relative capability to create a new stable new government. The ability of violent groups to create positive and intentional change is frequently overstated, and only in rare cases of extreme states weakness or government brutality does a rebel group’s ascent to power potentially offer a less violent future.

Determining when this is the case is difficult, but Carpenter’s own analysis of the nature of insurgent groups offers one potential avenue. He notes that they tend to be organized in networks rather than hierarchies, allowing for battlefield success. However, networks are less effective in performing governance than hierarchies because they lack the centralization and chain of command necessary to perform activities like tax collection, consistent law enforcement, and paying civil servants. As Weinstein argues, when commanders lack control over their soldiers, these soldiers are more likely to abuse civilians. Therefore, one metric for determining whether or not to support a non-state actor is their level of hierarchal organization in comparison to the state’s. In Rwanda, the state’s devolution of violent power to the Interahamwe, a non-state actor, meant it more closely resembled a network than the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) rebels.

Following up on Strohm’s post, I see five additional implications of Carpenter’s argument that are worth fleshing out. First, Carpenter’s proposed interventions would follow the example of the French intervention in Mali, where superior airpower and ground troops were able to halt the insurgents’ advance. Carpenter hints that a similar policy would have been the right choice in Libya. However, these two countries share two characteristics that most others lack. Libya and Mali contain huge swathes of desert between cities and a correspondingly low population density. Rebels wishing to overthrow the state must traverse these areas, and in the process, become easy targets for a competent air force.

In many other countries this isn’t the case. In Syria, which Carpenter also mentions, putting down the rebels early would have required significant numbers of international ground troops due to western Syria’s population density. Assad has already tried, and failed, to crush the rebellion with superior airpower. While there is a good argument that Carpenter’s template approach would work against IS, there are many other insurgencies around the world where it would not.

Second, Carpenter doesn’t fully account for the possibility of failed interventions, which could happen in several ways. Had an international coalition attempted to intervene in Syria for example, its probable failure to crush rebel forces would have likely entrenched the conflict even more rapidly. Additionally, even if responses are pre-planned in the way Carpenter envisions, they may suffer from poor coordination, or a lack of financial and human resources. If the intervention fails to crush the rebels quickly, they may end up prolonging the conflict and supporting an abusive government.

Third, a norm that provides for consistent international military support of incumbents would provide abusive regimes with perverse incentives. Leaders wishing to crush a rival or gain domestic support could provoke a violent confrontation with opponents, leading to an international intervention in the incumbent’s favor. For states like Sudan that chronically make war against internal opponents, consistent international support for incumbents against military challengers could encourage persistent aggressive behavior.

Fourth, Carpenter perhaps underestimates the enormity of the normative shift that he prescribes. Widespread international armed support for incumbent regimes would effectively de-legitimize armed resistance as a way to force concessions or overthrow oppressive authorities. Subsequently, it would bring states closer together by putting each one, regardless of its behavior, on equal footing. While decreasing the overall legitimacy of armed challenges to states would likely be a positive development, the few potential exceptions outlined above stand out clearly. It would also be very difficult to convince powerful states to work together to defeat all armed insurgents. Powerful states are not the ones that tend to face armed challengers, while various non-state armed groups often further their interests. Therefore, it is highly unlikely the norm would be enforced consistently, even if this isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

Finally, the de-legitimization of armed struggle that would occur through Carpenter’s proposal would mean a likely increase in the number of nonviolent insurrections against incumbents. As Maria Stephan and Erica Chenoweth have shown, nonviolent campaigns that overthrow the government lead to more stable and more democratic subsequent governments, so this change would be unquestionably positive.

Carpenter’s argument has its merits, and his somewhat controversial support for incumbents makes sense in some circumstances. However, before taking the proposal seriously, as I hope some policymakers will, it makes sense to give the argument a stronger theoretical background and identify exceptions. Doing so might lead to an exceptionally promising if somewhat unconventional way to think about international violence prevention.

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