Minimalist International Interventions

For Stabilization Missions, Small Budgets Produce Limited Results

By Stephen Watts

Stephen Watts is a political scientist at the RAND Corporation whose work has focused on stability and peace operations, insurgency and counterinsurgency, coalition diplomacy, and political development in the wake of civil wars, particularly in Afghanistan, the Balkans, and Africa.

"Minimalist stabilization" missions, or small-scale interventions to stabilize a partner government engaged in violent conflict, could become the rule rather than the exception for U.S. military forces, given likely defense budget cuts. Limited missions such as these do not greatly increase a partner government's odds of victory in a counterinsurgency campaign, but they do dramatically reduce that government's probability of defeat — by degrading rebel capabilities and making it unlikely that they can topple the government.

Typically, such missions do not alter the underlying structure of a conflict, foster major political reforms in a partner government, or cut insurgents off from their resource bases. Usually, the gains can be converted into strategic success only if the underlying political or international structure of the conflict can be altered. Military power plays a role, but it is more about creating the framework within which a political process can operate.

In some cases, such modest results will be adequate. In other cases, they will not. In still others, the under-resourcing of interventions may have catastrophic results. The odds of success might be improved by three means: choosing carefully the circumstances in which minimalist interventions are launched, combining military operations with nonmilitary instruments, and committing to stabilizing the eventual peace.

How small is small enough to be considered "minimalist"? As a rule of thumb, "minimalist" operations deploy less than one-tenth of the doctrinally accepted force-to-population ratio of 20 security personnel per 1,000 inhabitants — that is, fewer than 2 security personnel for every 1,000 residents. In practice, these operations tend to emphasize two features. First, they normally accept and work within existing local power structures rather than pursuing any broader transformative agendas. Second, they typically emphasize rapid development of the host nation's own security forces so that responsibility for the partner's security can be handed over as quickly as possible.

  • Members of El Salvador's Atlacatl Battalion conduct a sweep against leftist guerrillas.
  • Amphibious craft from the USS Fort McHenry storm a Philippine beach.
  • French Foreign Legionnaires help people board a plane going to Libreville, Gabon.


Left to right: Members of El Salvador's Atlacatl Battalion conduct a sweep against leftist guerrillas on August 2, 1984, three years after their training by U.S. Green Berets. Amphibious craft from the USS Fort McHenry storm a Philippine beach on March 1, 2004, in an exercise to help the Philippines fight Muslim and Communist insurgencies. French Foreign Legionnaires help people board a plane going to Libreville, Gabon, during the last day of civilian evacuation of Brazzaville, Congo, on June 15, 1997, amid fears that the French pullout would plunge the central African capital back into chaos.

It may well be that the unintended effects of an intervention are worse than the crisis that motivated it.

Fiscal Debate

The enormous costs of the U.S. interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan have sparked a backlash against military interventions generally, especially as the magnitude of the U.S. fiscal crisis has become apparent. While many critics of "nation-building" argue that the United States should abandon military interventions altogether, others continue to accept that such interventions may be necessary to secure U.S. interests. Where the United States went wrong, the latter contend, is in the scale of its ambitions and the concomitant ways and means adopted to achieve them. They argue that, rather than seeking to transform the domestic politics of foreign countries — a utopian or at least prohibitively costly goal — the United States should commit only the minimum resources necessary to stabilize the target states. Such small-scale interventions supposedly offer the opportunity to secure core U.S. interests at vastly less cost than larger nation-building missions.

Despite the enormous stakes involved in this debate, including present-day choices about U.S. force reductions, there is little empirical evidence to corroborate many of the claims on either side. In fact, the record of 22 small-scale military interventions over the past four decades reveals their seemingly paradoxical results: While not contributing greatly to a partner government's success, they do help such a government avoid defeat. This apparent contradiction is explained by the increasing number of indeterminate outcomes — cases in which conflicts become mired in stalemate or terminate with negotiated settlements that concede considerable political and security rights to the insurgents (see the pie charts).

Minimalist Stabilization Missions Have Produced a Dramatic Increase in Indeterminate Outcomes

Minimalist Stabilization Missions Have Produced a Dramatic Increase in Indeterminate Outcomes
SOURCE: The Uses and Limits of Small-Scale Military Interventions, 2012.
NOTE: The data represent 54 cases of no intervention (left pie) and 22 cases of minimalist intervention (right pie) since 1970.

Minimalist stabilization typically contributes to significant operational successes (such as degrading insurgent capabilities) but not to decisive gains. In the case of U.S. operations in Colombia over the past decade, for instance, insurgents have experienced a number of significant setbacks, but the government appears to be nearing a "floor" beneath which it is difficult to continue reducing the number of insurgents. Likewise, in El Salvador in the late Cold War period, U.S. assistance ensured that the government would not fall to Communist forces, but it was incapable of bringing the conflict to an end. Instead, the war became bogged down in a bloody, prolonged draw. In the case of French intervention on behalf of the government of the Central African Republic in the 1990s, a number of coup attempts were thwarted — but they resumed almost as soon as international forces departed, leading to the overthrow of the government within two years. These cases suggest that only with a more fundamental change in the politics or international context of a conflict does decisive success become likely.

These findings do not yield simple policy prescriptions. They do, however, caution against viewing minimalist stabilization as a panacea. Modest resource commitments generally yield modest results.

Worth the Trouble, Sometimes

What is the value of minimalist intervention if it can improve the odds of avoiding defeat but can seldom secure victory? The answer depends on the objectives and on the context of the intervention. As for the objectives, there are four rules of thumb.

First, avoiding defeat may secure at least minimal U.S. objectives if the loyalty of the partner government is of greatest concern. In El Salvador, for instance, the greatest concern was avoiding the fall of another Central American country to Communism. It is debatable whether such an outcome was worth the costs of the conflict or whether such assistance could have been sustained indefinitely had the Soviet Union not collapsed, but the United States did achieve its core objective.

Second, minimalist intervention may secure U.S. interests if the United States is not opposed to a compromise that would offer the insurgents real political power and security guarantees. Insurgents typically will have to be convinced, before they will be willing to negotiate, that they cannot achieve military victory, and minimalist interventions can help to convince them of the necessity of compromise.

Third, minimalist stabilization may be a useful instrument of foreign policy if a prolonged period of low-level violence is an acceptable outcome. The critical question is whether an insurgency, once degraded and contained, will stay degraded and contained. If not, minimalist intervention may become an indefinite commitment.

Fourth, minimalist stabilization may be appropriate if there is little concern about the "externalities" of prolonged conflict. Civil wars are associated with refugee flows, the spread of disease, depressed licit economic activity in neighboring states, the flourishing of transnational criminal networks, the incubation of transnational terrorist movements, the spread of instability and conflict into neighboring countries, and a variety of other ills. It may well be that the unintended effects of an intervention are worse than the crisis that motivated it.

As for the context of the intervention, there are at least three contexts in which minimalist stabilization appears to be particularly effective. One is when both the partner government and the insurgents are weak: In such cases, small forces from outside may be enough to tip the balance decisively. Another appropriate context is when there is a realistic opportunity to interdict insurgents' resource streams; in most cases, however, such interdiction is difficult or impossible, as the examples of Colombia and Afghanistan attest. A third useful context is when a realistic path to a negotiated settlement is visible but requires outside intervention, such as a peacekeeping force, to secure.

  • U.S. General Richard Myers appears with Colombia's military chiefs.
  • A Uruguayan United Nations peacekeeper looks through the window of a church near an encampment in Kimua.
  • British soldiers and a United Nations peacekeeper deploy in Freetown, Sierra Leone.


Left to right: U.S. General Richard Myers appears with Colombia's military chiefs on August 12, 2003, after meeting with them to discuss progress in battling a four-decade-old insurgency fueled by drug trafficking. A Uruguayan United Nations peacekeeper looks through the window of a church near an encampment in Kimua, a Democratic Republic of the Congo village in the heart of territory controlled by Rwandan Hutu rebels, on October 2, 2009. British soldiers and a United Nations peacekeeper, left, deploy in Freetown, Sierra Leone, to aid in evacuating British nationals on May 8, 2000.

Beyond Military Means

The odds of success might also be improved by combining minimalist operations with nonmilitary instruments. First and foremost are financial instruments. Many insurgencies have ended rapidly — and the post-conflict periods have remained highly stable — when insurgents have lost outside state financial sponsorship. Such a path to conflict termination usually requires a diplomatic process in which the external powers with an interest in the conflict are able to secure their core interests in a negotiated settlement.

The other potentially crucial role for nonmilitary instruments is to bind partner governments to critical reforms. Foreign assistance may provide a government with enough resources to alleviate internal pressures for reform but too few resources to enable fundamental changes. The result would be stagnation — a phenomenon commonly observed and criticized within the development community. A number of instruments have been devised to try to tie assistance more closely to reform efforts, such as embedding foreign personnel within the partner state's government, setting up trust funds or other financial instruments that require certain standards to be met before money is disbursed, and so on. Perhaps most critical, however, is the credibility of the intervening state's threat to "walk away" if key conditions are not met.

One promising model is the "hybrid" approach used in Sierra Leone and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Finally, the odds of a successful outcome might be improved by long-term security commitments to the partner state. The fact that most minimalist interventions lead to stalemate or negotiated settlements — outcomes that are historically precarious and frequently lead to renewed fighting — suggests that the need for stabilization missions does not end immediately after the conflict but rather endures well into the post-conflict period. Such peace operations, however, are being almost completely ignored in the current debates.

Partners Wanted

Because lengthy stabilization missions can place tremendous stress on U.S. forces, the United States should seek to enlist other partners in such missions whenever possible. One promising model is the "hybrid" approach used in Sierra Leone and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. In these missions, a large number of mostly lower-quality forces in United Nations peace operations were combined with a small number of forces from Great Britain or France. The higher-quality NATO troops served as a "maneuver force" capable of interceding in high-risk flashpoints or helping to organize local forces to do the same, while the remainder of the international troops provided the "holding forces" to stabilize other parts of the country. Such a model would reduce the expense of long-term, large-scale stabilizing missions and lessen the stress on U.S. forces.

Any time the United States helps to build the military capacity of other countries, it is critical that it put in place safeguards to ensure, as much as possible, that its assistance is not abused. U.S. support may embolden partner governments to take inadvisable risks, as arguably was the case in the Georgian confrontation with Russia in 2008. Partner governments may also use their military capabilities for repression and even genocide, as was the case with the Hutu government of Rwanda, which had received French military assistance for many years. In interventions in which large numbers of U.S. ground forces are present, such risks can be reduced. But in minimalist interventions, these risks are elevated. The United States should establish unmistakable "red lines" in such cases and make clear that there are extremely serious repercussions for violations of those limits.

Minimalist stabilization operations yield a reasonable chance of modest success for a modest cost. But there are definite limits to what minimalist stabilization can accomplish. Those waging the contemporary defense debates in the United States should be cognizant of these limitations and avoid the tendency — evident in history — to escape the mistakes of large interventions only by expecting too much of small ones. square