'Small Footprint' Counterinsurgency Strategies Work Best with Narrow Range of Partners

For Release

February 26, 2014

U.S. efforts to provide counterinsurgency assistance to threatened regimes work best in a relatively narrow range of circumstances, according to a new study from the RAND Corporation.

After more than a decade of war and facing severe fiscal limitations, U.S. policymakers are working to put the nation's defense policy on a sustainable footing. Key to that effort is a commitment to work through partner nations whenever possible, providing support to countries with which the U.S. shares interests or values, while also ensuring that the primary responsibility for these nations' security remains their own.

This policy is commonly known as the “small-footprint” approach and has been touted as a critical tool for protecting U.S. security interests — particularly counterinsurgency policies — in unstable parts of the world.

After analyzing 72 counterinsurgency campaigns that have ended since the end of the Cold War and performing an in-depth analysis of recent U.S. partnerships with the Philippines and Pakistan, RAND researchers found that the cases of a small footprint being successful all occurred in countries approximating a best-case scenario.

These best cases were characterized by governments that were relatively politically inclusive and that possessed substantial ability to provide services to their populations. The majority of insurgencies, however, took place in worst-case environs where the government was supported by a relatively narrow political base and struggled to provide basic services.

“The likelihood that a U.S. small footprint strategy will succeed is inextricably bound with the local context, and in particular, the nature of the partner government,” said Stephen Watts, co-author of the study and a senior political scientist at RAND, a nonprofit research organization. “When planning U.S. security strategy, policymakers need to ask how functional is the partner nation in terms of providing law and order, and basic government services to its citizens?”

Partner nations that meet those criteria tend to adopt the Western-model of counterinsurgency, which focuses on improving security, institution-building and strengthening the partner nation's government so citizens have fewer reasons to back insurgents, according to the report.

Most insurgencies target governments that are weak in inclusion and capacity, and these characteristics typically compel regimes to rely on blunt applications of military force to contain or suppress rebellion. Unfortunately, many of these countries are central to current U.S. counterterrorism and other security goals.

“This doesn't mean that U.S. assistance isn't important, but it highlights the fact that small-footprint U.S. counterinsurgency operations with less-promising partner nations should not be expected to produce anywhere near the same levels of success as say, the U.S. partnership with the Philippines,” Watts said.

However, the U.S. can support difficult partner regimes in exploiting settlement opportunities, improving security force accountability and buttressing more-inclusive successor governments. Given the long duration of most contemporary insurgencies and the length of time it takes to build state capacity or institutionalize mechanisms of political inclusion, most U.S. partnerships will be long-term.

The U.S. also can help difficult partner regimes credibly commit to political compromises with reconcilable elements of the armed opposition through a variety of instruments, including large-scale commitments of foreign aid and, in some cases, international peace operations.

Future U.S. efforts should focus on finding areas of agreement with partner nations and possibly convening networks of people in those nations who can implement changes and then providing the necessary resources and technical expertise.

The study, “Countering Others' Insurgencies: Understanding U.S. Small-Footprint Interventions in Local Context,” can be found at www.rand.org. Other authors are Jason Campbell, Patrick Johnston, Sameer Lalwani and Sarah Bana.

Support for the study was provided by the Smith Richardson Foundation.

The work was conducted within the International Security and Defense Policy Center of the RAND National Security Research division. The division conducts research and analysis on defense and national security topics for the U.S. and allied defense, foreign policy, homeland security and intelligence communities and foundations and other nongovernmental organizations that support defense and national security analysis.

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