Small Wars

This Week at War, No. 8

What the four-stars are reading -- a weekly column from Small Wars Journal.

Mexico's troubles: a crime problem or a war?

Some critics of the Bush administration maintained that the proper solution to terrorism was law enforcement, characterized by investigations, arrests, and prosecutions rather than wide-ranging military operations. Observers of the rapid acceleration in violence in Mexico will now get another chance to ponder this question.

There is no doubt that the violent chaos generated by Mexico's drug cartels has spilled over into the United States. On Feb. 25, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder revealed Operation Xcellerator, a 21-month multiagency investigation that has targeted the Sinaloa cartel's operations inside the United States. Holder stated that this operation has resulted in the arrest of 755 people in the United States, the seizure of thousands of pounds of illegal drugs, and the confiscation of scores of vehicles and weapons.

The U.S. Department of State has its view of Mexico's problems: On Feb 20, it issued a travel alert to U.S. citizens, warning them about small-unit combat, large firefights, and public shootouts during daylight hours in Mexican cities along the U.S. border. According to the State Department, since January 2008 there have been 1,800 killings in Jurez, a border city with a population of 1.6 million.

Does Mexico have a really bad crime problem? Or is Mexico at war with itself and at risk of sudden societal collapse? To answer this question, we should look not just at quantitative measures of the violence (as grim as they are), but also qualitative factors.

War is a political process. The U.S. Defense Department defines irregular warfare as, a violent struggle among stateand non-state actors for legitimacy and influence over the relevant populations. Has Mexico's drug violence transformed from solely criminal activity into a violent political struggle for legitimacy and influence? (Christian Brose, my colleague at Foreign Policy, recently pondered this question.)

Mexican President Felipe Caldern has accelerated the state's actions against the drug cartels. According to a Feb. 21 Wall Street Journal article, there were nearly 10 times as many clashes between the Mexican Army and the drug cartels during the first three years of Caldern's term as there were during the six years of his predecessor, Vicente Fox.

Caldern has chosen to send in the Army, rather than carry on with a live-and-let-live approach. He must have made this decision to defend against encroachment from the cartels on the state's monopoly on the legitimate use of force. By his actions, Caldern views the struggle against the cartels as a violent struggle among state and nonstate actors for legitimacy and influence over the relevant populations.

Do the cartels' leaders also see things this way? According to the Wall Street Journal article, the cartels have organized street protests in Monterrey against the Mexican Army's intervention in the drug war. And in January, the Washington Post reported on the intimidation inflicted on a local television news office in Monterrey -- by both sides in the conflict. This indicates that both sides see information operations directed at the relevant populations and aimed at winning over the hearts and minds of the population as important pieces of each side's strategies.

Thus, Mexico's struggle against the drug cartels seems more like a counterinsurgency campaign than a fight against crime. According to the Wall Street Journal, the cartels control 200 counties in Mexico, including much of the U.S. border; generate more than $10 billion in annual revenue; and can muster thousands of gunmen, including defectors from Mexico's Army Special Forces. With much of the police suborned, Caldern has now deployed the Army, exposing its soldiers to the same corruption. The outcome of this campaign remains unknown, as are its consequences for the United States.

The U.S. Government Counterinsurgency Guide -- a cookbook for conquest?

This week, the U.S. State Department released the U.S. Government Counterinsurgency Guide. The guide is the product of nine U.S. government agencies, with special thanks on the acknowledgments page given to Small Wars Journal contributor David Kilcullen. Quoting from the preface: This Guide, the first of its kind in almost half a century, distills the best of contemporary thought, historical knowledge, and hard-won practice. It is the best kind of doctrinal work: intellectually rigorous, yet practical.

But practical for what purpose? The guide appears to be a cookbook for organizing a counterinsurgency campaign. There are chapters on counterinsurgency (COIN) theories and principles; COIN strategy; actors in a COIN campaign; and COIN assessment and planning. After gaining practical experience in Afghanistan and Iraq, the U.S. government has now distilled the lessons of those efforts. The guide seems to lay out the practical steps for what to do after the U.S. military has removed a regime from power and replaced it with a new regime friendly to U.S. interests. Does this make the guide a cookbook for conquest?

Not so fast. In the first chapter, the guide warns that COIN

is an extremely difficult undertaking, is often highly controversial politically, involves a series of ambiguous events that are extremely difficult to interpret, and often requires vastly more resources and time than initially anticipated. In particular, governments that embark upon COIN campaigns often severely underestimate the requirement for a very long-duration, relatively high-cost commitment (in terms of financial cost, political capital, military resources and human life). [emphasis in original]

More such warnings are scattered through the document. Given Kilcullen's special contribution to its preparation, these warnings should not come as a surprise. In 2002, Kilcullen made similar warnings about the impending U.S. intervention in Iraq, warnings which later proved accurate.

In the preface, Eliot Cohen, then counselor of the State Department asserts, Whether the United States should engage in any particular counterinsurgency is a matter of political choice, but that it will engage in such conflicts during the decades to come is a near certainty.

The U.S. Government Counterinsurgency Guide accepts that premise, but not too eagerly.

Previous issues:

This Week at War, No. 7 (Feb. 20, 2009)
This Week at War, No. 6 (Feb. 13, 2009)
This Week at War, No. 5
(Feb. 6, 2009)
This Week at War, No. 4
(Jan. 30, 2009)
This Week at War, No. 3
(Jan. 23, 2009)
This Week at War, No. 2 (Jan. 16, 2009)
This Week at War, No. 1
(Jan. 9, 2009)

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