The Problems of Occupying Another Country

(This is a current extract from the Patterns of Power Repository.  An archived copy of this page is held at http://www.patternsofpower.org/edition02/7414.htm)

Following any intervention in the affairs of another country, there is a need to re-stabilise it, but there has been a very low success rate in reconstruction:

“…the record of U.S.-led reconstructions has been mixed at best. For every West Germany or Japan, there is a Cuba, Haiti, Somalia, or Vietnam, and more recently, Afghanistan and Iraq.” [1]

There are several reasons why long-term peacekeeping forces are likely to encounter military problems:

·      Insurrections against an invader are likely to be perceived as legitimate.[2]  Locals join efforts to repel the invaders.[3] 

·      Time is on the side of the people who live in a territory.  The invaders want to go home as soon as possible, whereas local people can afford to be patient whilst making the invader suffer and lose patience – a declared Al-Qaeda strategy which has been shown to work.[4] 

·      Whilst public support remains strong for overseas wars that have a clear legitimacy, it gradually evaporates if there is a steady stream of casualties returning home in body bags and if the war seems to be making little progress (6.3.6).  It is politically inevitable that the invader has to retreat in the end.

If foreign wars are not to be extended indefinitely, it is essential to have an exit strategy.  And it has been persuasively argued that this should be prepared at the outset.[5]  Without it, the utility of military force is further diminished.

© PatternsofPower.org, 2014                                                 

[1] Christopher J. Coyne commented on the uncertainty of success in the reconstruction of a country after it had suffered military defeat, in his book After War.  The quoted extract comes from the book’s press release, which was available in May 2014 at http://www.ccoyne.com/Coyne_Press_Release_-_Final.pdf.

Ferdinand Mount made similar observations in an article entitled Lost legitimacy, which was published by Prospect in January 2007 and was available in May 2014 at http://www.prospectmagazine.co.uk/2007/01/lostlegitimacy/:

“Millions died in Korea, Vietnam, Cambodia, Indonesia, Afghanistan, Iran and Iraq…..

…..In how many of these peripheral wars did the west both prevail and leave behind a well-functioning democracy? In Malaysia, and half of Korea (but look at the other half). Elsewhere the results of western intervention ranged from messy to disastrous.”

[2] The Ferdinand Mount article Lost legitimacy, referred to in the previous note, commented on resistance to invasion:

“However tepid people’s adherence to the prevailing local ideology, they will fight to keep out invaders…. A national will to resist, scarcely guessed at by the natives themselves, is forged by the invasion and is strengthened by the grief and rage generated by the death and destruction.”

[3] David Kilcullen, in his book The Accidental Guerrilla, described why local people tend to join an insurgency against an invader.  Laura Miller wrote an article about this book, entitled Meet the accidental guerrillas, which was published on Salon.com on 11 March 2009 and was available in May 2014 at http://www.salon.com/2009/03/11/kilcullen/.

[4] Richard English, in his book Terrorism: How to Respond, quoted Osama bin Laden's statement in 2004 (as quoted by Kydd and Walter, Strategies of Terrorism, p. 63):

"We gained experience in guerrilla and attritional warfare in our struggle [in Afghanistan] against the great oppressive superpower, Russia, in which we and the mujahidin ground it down for 10 years until it went bankrupt, and decided to withdraw in defeat…. We are continuing to make America bleed to the point of bankruptcy." (pp. 45-6)

This quotation also appears (on p.19 of the PDF file) in The Weaponization of Oil in the Messages of Osama Bin Laden, by Mark S. Williams and Paul Williams, which was published in the Journal of Military and Strategic Studies, Winter 2007-08, Vol. 10, Issue 2 and was available in January 2013 at http://www.jmss.org/jmss/index.php/jmss/article/download/91/101.

[5] Professor Richard Caplan pointed out the value of having an initial exit strategy in his lecture on 4 October 2011 at the LSE on Exit Strategies and Lessons Learned: from the Balkans to Afghanistan; this was available as either video or audio in May 2014 at http://www2.lse.ac.uk/newsAndMedia/videoAndAudio/channels/publicLecturesAndEvents/player.aspx?id=1160.