How times change. Yemen has fallen to the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels and the situation on the Arabian Peninsula’s more uncertain than ever. Just a few months ago, President Obama was touting the success of the US–Yemen partnership as a ‘model’ for fighting terrorism. This sudden reversal has caused some analysts—like Max Boot—to draw a set of premature and extreme conclusions about the efficacy of so-called ‘small-footprint’ interventions. But we should beware throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Better we understand first what’s involved in a small-footprint approach, the limitations of the model, and possible flaws in the Obama administration’s application of it.
In its most recent iteration, the small-footprint approach typically appears as part of the ‘lessons learned’ from Iraq and Afghanistan. But it’s not new though. Small-footprint approaches were far more the norm than the exception throughout the Cold War and even in the post-Cold War period. In such cases, the US and other allies—including Australia—provided assistance to countries fighting insurgencies. Yet the success of those approaches has been overshadowed by the mixed outcomes of large-scale counterinsurgency campaigns in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan.
The US, Australia, Britain and France all once used the more technical term for small-footprint approaches, foreign internal defence (FID). Unfortunately, that term has fallen out of favour. FID involves the participation by civilian and military agencies of one government in efforts undertaken by another to free and protect its society from subversion, lawlessness and insurgency. In short, rather than fight someone else’s counterinsurgency campaign, we provide assistance and advice to a host government and let the host country do most of the actual fighting. Conceptually, it isn’t rocket science. But it’s a difficult strategy to construct and implement. That’s because it’s an indirect approach to strategy that relies heavily on partners who may not be everything we wished they were. It relies on host country leadership and organisations whose interests and politics may diverge from our own.
Still, those small-footprint approaches are both the right way and the only way to counter the threat of radical Islam. They’re the right approach given the strategic context of the threat. That point’s made effectively in a recent ASPI Strategic Insights paper by Peter Leahy. In Leahy’s assessment there’s little the West can do in these political conflicts within the Islamic world, like the power struggle in Yemen. What we can do is lend support to those governments that want to counter radical Islamist groups.
A recent RAND Corporation report on the subject exposes some of the limitations and risks involved in using small-footprint approaches. According to the study, the effectiveness of such approaches improves when the host government is politically inclusive and has the capacity to fulfil core civil and security functions. That means places like Yemen have the odds stacked against them and aren’t likely to see success anytime in the near future. While the West can help build state capacity in the civil and security sectors, fostering political inclusiveness is something that requires host government leadership. ‘Incentivizing’ a host government toward security-sector reforms and inclusiveness is a difficult prospect at the best of times.
All that’s not to say that there aren’t real problems with the implementation of the small-footprint approach as conceived by the Obama administration. Even though it’s an indirect approach that shouldn’t preclude direct action where necessary and effective. When defending its ‘Yemen model’ the Obama administration uses the rhetoric of a false dichotomy between an indirect, small footprint, like Yemen, or a direct approach with a heavy footprint like a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan. That’s a phony choice. Military operations with troops on the ground can be short and decisive in creating space and time for the building of host-nation capacity. Recent French operations in Mali provide one example of coming in heavy and transitioning. Raids by military forces can be effective in destroying or denying a resource base for an insurgent group, especially when that group’s in firm control of territory. When building state capacity, foreign advisors accompanying the units they’ve mentored can also improve the chances of success. A strategy can be mostly indirect while still relying on direct actions as shaping operations. But the administration’s taken all those options off the table.
Small-footprint approaches don’t have to mean restricting the use of foreign combat forces. A better version of this approach is one where, as General Martin Dempsey said, all the options are on the table. While a more detailed assessment of US efforts in Yemen needs to be made, it’s a mistake to rush to hasty conclusions. It’s not the size of the footprint that matters, it’s what you’re willing and able to do with it.
Lieutenant Colonel Jan K. Gleiman is an active duty US Army officer and a visiting fellow at ASPI from United States Pacific Command. These are his personal views. Image courtesy of Flickr use US Army.