Broken Windows and Beating Back al Qaeda

Can President Obama’s counterterrorism partnership plan really work without any attempt at nation building?

As a candidate for president in 2007, Barack Obama vowed to "roll back the tide of helplessness that gives rise to hate" by doubling development assistance to $50 billion a year and by helping build effective and transparent institutions of governance in fragile states. He also proposed a $5 billion Shared Security Program for counterterrorism cooperation with states threatened by terrorism. The ambitious foreign aid program never happened. The counterterrorism partnership fund is what President Obama announced in his West Point speech last week.

One way of describing the steady downward trajectory of the president's ambitions is to measure the gap between the kind of state-building which seeks to establish a foundation for long-term stability and prosperity and the much more narrow counterterrorism effort which helps states suppress and kill the Islamist extremists who threaten the United States and the West. It is the gap between curing a disease and addressing its symptoms. The president has implicitly recognized that, though he has made very little headway in curing the disease, he must do what he can to deal with the consequences.

Afghanistan offers a paradigmatic case. The premise of the counterinsurgency strategy, or COIN, which the president rather reluctantly adopted in 2009 is that, because insurgencies are struggles for the support of the people, the counterinsurgent can win only by providing better governance and more security for ordinary citizens. Tens of billions of dollars of American and international assistance have improved basic social indicators of education and public health, but otherwise have left Afghanistan more corrupt, more dangerous, and only marginally better governed than it was a decade ago. As the United States prepares to withdraw all of its forces at the end of 2016, the centerpiece of the ongoing effort is the training and equipping of Afghan security forces -- counterterrorism, not COIN.

This raises several questions which go to the heart of the president's speech. First, is it futile to train and equip armies in weak states if you cannot address the underlying causes of state weakness? That is, in effect, the progressive critique of counterterrorism, and it is what made COIN so appealing to many people uncomfortable with the use of force. But if institution-building is a "generational" endeavor (to use the current euphemism for "next-to-impossible") then it's a mistake to condition short-term efforts on long-term hopes. What's more, if besieged cities offer any useful analogy to weak states, then the extraordinary success of police forces in New York and other cities in driving down crime without addressing its underlying cause argues that such a tactic can be effective.

The second question is: Can the United States and other actors effectively train militaries in weak states? Afghanistan is not an encouraging example. The United States has spent more than $50 billion on readying the Afghan security forces, yet many military experts worry that those forces are not remotely ready to take on the Taliban by themselves. A recent report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies argues that the training program has been "rushed forward" to meet an artificially-imposed deadline, and that the Afghans may not be ready to stand on their own before 2018.

Well, maybe Afghanistan is a bad example; nothing works in Afghanistan. I spoke earlier this week to Brig. Gen. Guy Cosentino, who was formerly responsible for military training in Iraq and Afghanistan is now commandant of the National War College, and asked if he could point to cases where the train-and-equip mission had worked. He did not suggest Afghanistan or Iraq. "We've made a big difference in the Philippines with a really low footprint and investment," he said. There, he said, "they have the framework of democracy and the rule of law; we're reinforcing success."

Of course, that can't be said of most states in the Middle East and North Africa. However, General Cosentino also said that military assistance to Lebanon, which has totaled about $800 million over the last decade, has helped fortify the one institution in the country which sees itself, and is seen by the Lebanese people, as representing the nation rather than just one of its sectarian groups (though the army is thought to be heavily infiltrated by Hamas). Yemen, unlike Lebanon, ranks at the very top of the Failed States Index; but the Yemeni military has recently made serious inroads against the al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, thanks in part to hundreds of millions of dollars in U.S. equipment and training. Danya Greenfield, a Yemen expert at the Atlantic Council, says that she would like to see U.S. efforts focus less on counterterrorism and especially on drone strikes, and more on citizen security. Nevertheless, she says, many Yemenis have been inspired by the success of their military.

So yes, there is some reason to believe that counterterrorism assistance can work in the absence of governance reform. But the gains are very modest, and very tenuous. The Pentagon has tasked special operations forces with training elite counterterror forces in Mauretania, Mali, Niger Libya, a vast, lawless stretch of desert increasingly ruled by Islamist extremists. These are hapless states, and the effort has been mostly embarrassing. In Libya, militias emptied a warehouse full of American military equipment last summer, bringing the program to an abrupt end. In Mali, army officers trained by the United States deposed a democratically elected president. Robert Perito, head of the Perito Group, which advises on the training of military and police forces, points out that in recent years  nationalist, jihadist, and organized crime groups in the region have begun to blend, producing a transnational threat stoked by "religious zeal, weapons, and money." No one has a good answer to that potent mix.

Obama's proposal last week, like the one he made in 2007, depends on enhancing the capacity of local partners rather than, as in Afghanistan or Yemen, a made-in-America model. That is a bow to financial and political reality, and to the truth that neighbors and even former colonial partners like France are better positioned than Washington to help repair fragile states. In the Central African Republic (CAR), for example, a U.S. airlift helped bring African Union (AU) troops to fight alongside French forces to prevent a genocide. American trainers have worked extensively with the AU both on "stability operations" like the one in CAR and on efforts like the (so far unsuccessful) hunt for Joseph Kony, head of the Lord's Resistance Army.

General Cosentino says that the most effective programs in Africa have been with the militaries of relatively stable nations like Ghana or Liberia, who are "preventing the contagion from coming across their own border and working with the AU to help at-risk countries." He also notes that while U.S. Special Forces, which have done the bulk of the training, are now overstretched, Congress recently authorized conventional forces to engage in training abroad.

Cosentino says that he does not know the answer to the "chicken-and-egg" problem of whether you need security first, or decent governance first, but he still believes in making what gains you can on the security front. New York City has proved over the last 20 years that gains in security can lead to economic development and overall revitalization -- that the relationship can flow in either direction. That's fortuitous, since producing good governance in Afghanistan or Mali seems to be largely beyond the capacity of outsiders.

Americans have learned a great deal over the last decade about unavailing interventions abroad, military and otherwise. We have, in reaction, scaled down our expectations to zero. That is a terrible mistake which I wish Obama would confront much more boldly and eloquently than he has. He has, at least, proposed a modest program to work with others to do what can be done. To which I say, two cheers.

Majid Saeedi/Getty Images


Why Are Africa's Militaries So Disappointingly Bad?

How history, greed, and nepotism are preventing the continent from securing itself against al-Shabab, Boko Haram, and other threats.

The optimistic "Africa Rising" slogan has been looking a little tired of late, as its critics point out that higher growth rates do not necessarily deliver either jobs or poverty alleviation. There's been less focus on another area where the "Africa Rising" narrative also seems to be failing to deliver: improved security for the continent's 1.1 billion inhabitants.

The last year has seen a spate of high-profile, hugely embarrassing domestic-security lapses in two of sub-Saharan Africa's key economies, each regarded in the West as trusted partners and regional anchor states. The notion that the continent was growing increasingly capable of policing itself took a knock during the Westgate siege in Kenya last September, in which 67 people died. More recently, Nigeria's armed forces have been publicly humiliated by the failure to free more than 200 schoolgirls taken hostage by Boko Haram militants and a series of escalating attacks in that seizure's wake.

What's striking about both episodes, on opposite sides of the continent, is that they have involved national armies ordinarily regarded as amongst the continent's best. In the wake of the 1994 Rwandan genocide, Africans were determined to take responsibility for their own security by gradually phasing out reliance on armed interventions paid for and mounted by the West. Nigeria and Kenya are seen as crucial in that effort.

Nigeria, which recently supplanted South Africa as the continent's biggest economy, has long provided the muscle for regional interventions blessed by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), serving in both Liberia and Sierra Leone. Its Joint Task Force (JTF) has contributed to international peacekeeping operations in the former Yugoslavia and East Timor, and dispatched soldiers to Somalia, Darfur, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Mali. Meanwhile, the Kenya Defence Forces (KDF), widely attributed with having held the country together after elections in 2007 exploded into ethnic factionalism, are viewed in Washington as a vital East African bulwark against al-Shabab infiltration from the north. The KDF currently has more than 3,000 men deployed in southern Somalia.

Yet both armies have botched key domestic interventions when crises hit, exposing weaknesses that raise fundamental question marks about operational reliability.

When Islamic terrorists attacked the Westgate shopping mall in central Nairobi last September, KDF troops actually shot members of the elite counter-intelligence paramilitary unit that had already secured the area; a row over jurisdiction suddenly took precedence over securing the area. The KDF then devoted much of the four-day siege that followed to shooting open shop owners' safes, emptying fridges of beer and looting designer outlets -- removing men's suits, jewelry, mobile phones, and frilly underwear as survivors cowered in toilets, waiting to be freed.

All this was done in the heart of Nairobi, just meters from where the world's media stood watching and waiting. If the KDF behaved like this at home, what, wondered many Kenyans, did it get up to when no prying eyes were around? A simultaneously draconian and sloppily executed roundup of thousands of Somalis suspected of living illicitly in Nairobi's Eastleigh district, ordered at the beginning of April by the government, has since probably done more to radicalize Kenya's Muslim community, human rights groups say, than al-Shabab ever achieved.

In Nigeria, a fortnight later, scores of parents of the kidnapped girls became so exasperated by army assurances that the situation was in hand, they resorted themselves to exploring the Sambisa forest where Boko Haram were believed to be hiding the children. Anti-government demonstrations in Abuja are getting angrier, Twitter campaigns and denunciations of the government and military elite ever more vocal -- but reports continue to stream in of soldiers either fleeing when Boko Haram fighters attack or failing to deploy in the first place.  

Experts say too that the JTF played a part in creating the current crisis. Back in 2009, when Boko Haram took far less radical a form, the army handed over its captured spiritual leader Mohammed Yusuf to police, who summarily executed him. The JTF has since alienated the Muslim community of northeastern Nigeria with the indiscriminate detention of hundreds of locals.

Why are two key African forces proving so disappointing? And what do their failings signal for the African Union's long-touted ambition of using regional troops to stop genocide, hunt down jihadists, and neutralize pirates, among other things, while reducing Africa's reliance on the U.N. and the militaries of friendly former colonial powers?

The answers, unfortunately, offer little cause for optimism. 


Africa's relationship to its military could be defined as one of long-standing, uneasy intimacy. First-time Western visitors are often struck by two things: how much camouflage they see around them, and local inhabitants' knee-jerk response to men in uniform, who are viewed not as reassuring symbols of law and order but as potential predators.

Such attitudes stem from the post-independence era, when the military coup became a standard method for alternating executive power. The new nation states were weak, inexperienced political parties squabbling, and institutions embryonic. The African armies established by France, Britain, and Portugal, which the colonial powers had used as fodder during the two World Wars, easily came to dominate their societies, representing both possible threats and vested interests clamoring for attention.

"The West has this model of a disciplined, neutral army that stands on the sidelines,  independent of domestic politics," explains Jakkie Cilliers of the Pretoria-based Institute for Strategic Studies (ISS). "But the African model is of a military that is used internally and is part and parcel of domestic politics and resource allocation."

Presidents like Zaire's Mobutu Sese Seko, who himself staged two successful coups, warded off likely repeats by deliberately keeping national armies divided and faction-ridden. Mobutu was a great believer in building up and then running down competing elite forces, relying in a real crisis on Western paratroopers and white mercenaries to do his fighting for him.

Elsewhere on the continent, fragile, twitchy civilian governments often encouraged the generals they feared to become de facto businessmen, with foreign sorties seen as particularly lucrative forms of distraction. None of this encouraged discipline, nor was it healthy for rank-and-file morale.

During its intervention in Liberia in the 1990s, for instance, Nigeria's army became firmly associated with diamond smuggling and drug trafficking. After coming to the rescue of Laurent Kabila in 1998, Zimbabwe's generals became deeply embroiled in the Democratic Republic of Congo's diamond and gold mining.

These scenarios are dated now. Today, the AU does not look kindly on putschists, regional powers have turned concerted cold shoulders on juntas, and coup leaders swiftly learn to embrace the rhetoric of multiparty democracy. But many scars remain, explaining what can seem like baffling levels of confusion and incompetence in the continent's security forces.

 "One of the legacies of the 1960s and 1970s in many African countries is: to what extent can you trust your military not to threaten the government?" says Knox Chitiyo, an associate fellow at Chatham House's Africa program.


Nigeria's history of military coups stretches back to 1966, two years after independence from Britain. It only ended in 1999 with the election of President Olusegun Obasanjo. One of Obasanjo's first moves was to try and render the army coup-proof by retiring 400 senior officers deemed more interested in politics than military campaigns, bringing the armed forces back under civilian command.

That history renders the civilian government's reluctance to meet generals' demands for new kit -- the reason, many officers now claim, for its inability to bring Boko Haram to heel -- thoroughly comprehensible. "The army has been a massive factor in Nigeria," says Cilliers, "and if it's too well run and effective, there's the danger it becomes a big problem at home."

Some military experts argue that it's easy to underestimate the logistical challenges facing troops trying to locate the kidnapped girls. "The three states that Boko Haram has attacked most frequently cover a geographical area more than five times bigger than Switzerland," says Max Siollun, a Nigerian military historian. "The Sambisa forest is also vast. It would be difficult for any army to track schoolgirls in a forest twice the size of Belgium."

Unnerved by the ruthlessness of the radicalism they are encountering, soldiers feel under siege. "It is likely that Boko Haram has been more adept at infiltrating the security forces than the other way around. There is frustration in some units that soldiers are being picked off by seemingly invisible Boko Haram fighters who have a suspiciously good knowledge of the military's movements," Siollun says.

Others dismiss these as excuses, placing the emphasis for the army's failures on decades of budgetary "leakage" in a country routinely ranked as one of the world's most venal. Even before the kidnapping placed Boko Haram on Michelle Obama's radar, the Nigerian media were recounting how unpaid allowances, miserly rations, and Spartan living conditions were undermining morale among soldiers -- who complained militants went into battle far better equipped than they.

At one barracks in Maiduguri, a flashpoint for Boko Haram attacks, soldiers mutinied twice in May alone, with recruits on one occasion opening fire on a major general's car.

Observers say soldiers manning road blocks often lack radios that would allow them to communicate with colleagues, and the JTF lack the capacity to air lift forces to conflict zones, dooming troops to days of travel to even reach Nigeria's northeast.

"We spend billions of pounds a year on the Nigerian army, but you have to bribe the armory to get a round for your AK47," Nigerian blogger Kayode Ogundamisi told an audience at London's Frontline club this week. "Corruption, let's be frank, is at the core of this issue."

In Kenya, by contrast, the armed forces have long been respected for their apolitical stance and operational efficiency. But analysts say that professionalism was slowly eaten away by a pattern of ethnic appointments under President Daniel arap Moi, an ethnic Kalenjin, and then his successor, President Mwai Kibaki, an ethnic Kikuyu. "After 2007, Kibaki made sure that every strategic post, all the top jobs, rested in Kikuyu hands," says a Nairobi-based security analyst who prefers to remain anonymous.

Giant procurement scandals such as the recent $1 billion Anglo Leasing scam, which involved 18 bloated military and security contracts signed off on by Kibaki's ministers, also bled the state treasury of funds while doing nothing to provide armed forces with the equipment required for modern warfare. "If you're going into action with junk equipment, and you know that your fat general is sitting at his desk having made a nice profit from buying that junk, well, that's not very motivating, now, is it?" says the security analyst. (Two of the firms involved in Anglo Leasing were recently paid off by the government after going to court, a bitter irony for Kenyans who feel security in key cities has never been worse.)

In an echo of previous African conflicts, the KDF today also stands accused by a U.N. monitoring group of becoming invested in charcoal trading in Somalia -- a business which, ironically, benefits the very al-Shabab militants the KDF is fighting.

Another issue that has surfaced is the state of Kenya's domestic police, corroded by decades of systemic sleaze and ethnic favoritism. A good police force is the interface between a state's security apparatus and the public, providing it with the data that allows effective grass roots monitoring of communities. But in Kenya, roadblocks are used primarily to extract bribes, not information.

One of the characteristics of the Westgate siege, some security experts say, was the absence of any prior intelligence indicating imminent attack. This was a sign not only that intelligence systems had failed, but that the country's network of immigration posts and police stations were functionally useless.

"You could make the case that Africa doesn't need militaries, it needs gendarmeries," says Cilliers. "But we've got into this pattern in which the army is called in automatically, because no one trusts the police."


For his part, Chatham House's Knox Chitiyo believes a more fundamental problem has recently been exposed: The changing nature of today's security challenges are catching off guard what, at heart, are old-fashioned former colonial armies, set up and trained on traditional lines. "These armies are good at handling either conventional warfare or counterinsurgency," Chitiyo says. "But now, you have a new dynamic, a nexus of domestic terrorism -- rural and urban -- coming together with counterinsurgency, and they are not equipped to deal with that new type of warfare."

Both Westgate and the school kidnapping, he argues, highlight the growing need for African special forces, boasting sophisticated skills in hostage negotiations and extraction. At the moment, these skills often come from abroad: Nigeria, for instance, accepted them after an international meeting hosted in Paris by President Francois Hollande. Anti-terror experts and specialists in hostage negotiation from France, Britain, and the United States are reported to be in Nigeria now, using aerial and other surveillance to try and locate the girls.

But such cooperation raises the risk of prolonging the continent's continuing dependency. "Are African governments going to have to rely on the West again, and for how long?" asks Chitiyo, warning of "delicate sovereignty issues."

The AU has plans for a 25,000-person African Standby Force, meant to fill the role of, variously, U.N. and American, French, and British forces. It will be based on existing national forces, and despite recent debacles at home, incompetence abroad by African troops is by no means assured. When airlifted to an African crisis zone by the U.N. and provided with Western salaries, decent kit, sophisticated intelligence backup, and clear lines of command, blue-helmeted African forces can dramatically raise their games. Uganda's generals, for example, have been accused of needlessly prolonging the war on the Lord's Resistance Army in the north of their own country, the better to pocket ghost salaries, run hotels, and engage in the timber trade. But the army's performance in Somalia as part of the AU mission in Somalia has been exemplary.

Still, the Nigerian and Kenyan episodes clearly do not bode well for AU strategists. (The launch of the standby force has been delayed to 2015 after repeated reschedulings.) "If you have problems associated with underfunding, low morale, and corruption in a national force, it washes across everything else," Cilliers says. "Anyone thinking of pulling together a peacekeeping operation in Africa should be seriously concerned about what's happened in these two countries."

Victor Ulasi/AFP/Getty Images