Monday, August 21, 2006

Iraq: Policing instead of Warmaking?

Today’s New York Times (NYT) includes an opinion piece calling for legislation to create a paramilitary “police” force that would conduct counter-insurgency operations rather than sending regular combat troops into what are essentially civil conflicts.

The author justified his recommendation on the basis of the traditional mismatch between mission training for regular military forces – to kill people and destroy things – and the requirement to invest the time and the resources to develop enough trust with a population to help win over and maintain their allegiance to a government rather than to presumably undemocratic insurgents. However, because only the Department of Defense is designed to train and equip security-oriented units on a large scale, when it comes to the United States, the writer sees no alternative to placing paramilitary formations in the Department of Defense under the Assistant Secretary for Special Operations and Low Intensity Combat.

This is not the first call for the U.S. to participate in creating some sort of quasi-military organization that would engage in what George Bush, in the 2000 presidential campaign, derided as “nation building” – a mission to which he has committed the U.S. military in Afghanistan and Iraq. With the post-Cold War explosion in the number of United Nations peacekeeping and even peace-making operations authorized by the Security Council, a growing number of national security experts in think tanks, in government, and in the UN have pushed for the creation of some type of standing organization (multinational) able to respond (or intervene) quickly to help prevent or tamp down armed conflict before it spirals out of control into a full blown insurgency (civil war). An alternative or complementary mission would assign to this standing organization many of the police advisory and training activities currently performed by international police volunteers working under the aegis of the UN.

What is different about the latest proposal is the creation of a unilateral U.S. paramilitary-style police force organized, equipped, and trained more along the lines of a super SWAT (Special Weapons And Tactics) team or carabiniere augmented by special reconnaissance and surveillance platforms, interrogation and intelligence analysis capabilities, and air-transportable equipment to permit rapid movement after arrival in the country requesting assistance.

Curiously, the proposal suggests that, if the program were transparent and fully explained to the U.S. Congress and public, it would be accepted fully – and thus would be less controversial than the relatively similar Vietnam-era Phoenix program initially run by the CIA and later by the Civil Operations and Revolutionary Development Support (COORDS) organization. (A few commentators have suggested integrating paramilitaries with Homeland Security, but considering the Department’s inability to handle the agencies it already has, this does not seem likely.)

As with any new concept, “field testing” by troops representing those types of units expected to implement the mandate of the organization would be required. But the overall mandate that the NYT opinion author suggests as necessary to defeat a nascent insurgency would have to include enforceable curbs on basic liberties such as unannounced or unprogrammed random searches of domiciles and businesses, mandatory national identity cards with photo and personal information, warrantless telephone taps and wireless intercepts, and unlimited preventive detention of “uncharged and unindicted” suspects

Even more problematical is the unambiguous assumption that those living in the strife-torn country will be willing to surrender their civil liberties – or perhaps their remaining civil rights, if any – to a government that might abrogate them arbitrarily or to a “liberator-turned-occupier.”

The problem, in one way, is quite straightforward. As the NYT writer notes, in Vietnam the Phoenix program was supposed to be secret (ostensibly to protect sources and methods), so officially it could not be disclosed to the U.S. public; to the South Vietnamese public, many of whom had first-hand experience and victims of “enforcers”; or (obviously) to the North Vietnamese, who also knew all about it. But as reports of atrocities began to leak out and the U.S. public realized they were the only ones in the dark, the program lost any possible support it might have had, even within the U.S. military.

This points to another drawback of unilateralism. It is all to easy, when any single nation reserves to itself the prerogative to decide when an emergent armed conflict is being waged to re-secure “inalienable rights” and the rule of law or is nothing more than an illegitimate effort to overthrow a regime attempting to guarantee these rights, for self-interest to subvert objectivity.

Thus in the first instance, it is not so much the make-up of the intervening force that must be determined but whether the emerging insurgency has legitimate grievances ignored by the regime or even made more onerous because of non-violent resistance by citizens. The nature of the ruling regime – either as victim or as oppressor – is a significant in determining the possible responses of the international community. Should the regime in question be the source of the injustice, it is unlikely that it would invite UN police – or any other quasi-international UN-led force – onto its territory.

Once the scope of the dispute and any special circumstances have been identified, the best reaction may be to do nothing other than to work with the two sides to find a non-violent resolution of outstanding grievances. What the antagonists might regard as a win-lose proposition can, through the participation of international or regional representatives, become less confrontational even to the point where both sides can point to sufficient “achievements” to defuse the immediate dispute.

One can envision situations where the availability of a civilian-led rapid-reaction paramilitary police force might be the difference between a skirmish and an all-out war. For these times when a “presence” could be mounted within one to two days and be sufficiently empowered to step in and maintain “separation of forces,” thereby avoiding the ladder of escalating violence, the lives saved and the treasure not wasted on war would be well worth the cost of maintaining a standing international police paramilitary capability.


Anonymous Soosan Kirbawy said...

Thank you for your article. I am relieved to hear a sane opinion. I had come to the same conclusion by asking myself how we deal with conflicts on a
smaller scale to avoid escalation. As a mother and a teacher I don't allow violence as a solution, why should the rules change when the stakes are higher? At school there are times when
the councellor, the principal, lawyers,or the police have to step in.

International law, and the ability to enforce it is what the United Nations needs to encompass. Rather than berate the U.N. we need to improve it and give it the clout it needs.

3:01 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

What about military police as a starting point or a combination of FBI and MPs. The difficultly is jurisdiction. The Caribenari have civilian and military jursidiction and train through practicing domestically "real time" then transfer that experienec to operational theatres.

7:31 AM  

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