Too-quick Reaction Force?

Some of you blog-frequenters may have seen these posts by Edward Carpenter at the Duck of Minerva over the past week or so. I read it, expecting some really interesting commentary on the way that recent conflicts in the Middle East and Africa have been waged tactically and operationally. I got a bit of that, but mainly, I found a rather blunt and frankly worrying proposal for a standing Quick Reaction Force (QRF) to stage “short-term, limited intervention[s] on the side of existing governmental bodies,” or “prop-up and mop-up” campaigns in the face of networked insurgencies seeking to overthrow the government. To recap Carpenter’s major points: existing governments may be bad, but the insurgencies and civil wars that strive to overthrow them, and often the new regimes that take their place, are a lot worse. Regional bodies are generally unable to effectively counter these insurgent movements or stop the civil wars. We need a standing plan and a ready force to make these interventions, otherwise the international community will sit on its hands waiting for something to happen. We need to have a widely-known and accepted “trigger” for when to intervene. The QRF can provide air-ground coordination, which is often lacking in the afflicted countries, as well as communication, transportation, munitions, reconnaissance, engineers, and military police. And finally, this could be a really good thing for the international community, because Russia and China are so unwilling to intervene in support of movements to overthrow autocrats that they just may be willing to participate in operations to prop those autocrats up.


French troops prepare to board a transport plane in N'Djamena, Chad, in this photo released by the French Army Communications Audiovisual office (ECPAD) on January 12, 2013. REUTERS/ECPAD/Adj. Nicolas Richard/Handout

French troops board a transport plane in Chad, en route to Mali. Source: Reuters

I’m not a huge fan of this plan. I can see some virtue in it, and parts of why he believes it could work. It may be desirable from a policy standpoint, as the existing governments are generally known quantities in the way that the insurgencies are not. We can’t predict who the rebels are, or who will be in charge when the conflict is over — Syria and Libya are two recent examples. However, this type of intervention puts a lot of skin in the status quo game. For most of these countries, the interventions would support autocratic or only nominally democratic regimes, where there is often no possibility of real change while the current regime is in power. Rights won’t be extended, the system will not liberalize, while the government stands. So while it may be easy enough to weigh in on the side of stability, it would also be a point in favor of authoritarianism. Not just this particular authoritarian regime at this one time, but for a much longer period of time, as it sets a precedent for defending illiberal governments.**

Another point on which Carpenter’s plan should be questioned is the matter of the outbreak of the conflict. In Syria, it started after the Assad regime cracked down on protests, which sparked a movement to overthrow him, which has since devolved into a multi-sided civil war, complete with foreign fighters and international “hidden hands.” There is a point in which intervention on the side of Assad would have meant crushing an opposition movement that was fighting active repression. Now, though we are surely far, far beyond the “trigger” point, it means trying to stop several rebel groups, many of whom are fighting against each other and within their own ranks. It would just be supporting Assad and his people. Those who began the violence in the first place. It seems like a tough sell at best. Does it matter who the different sides are? It seems like Carpenter would say “no,” that a quick intervention should be executed to keep the government in power and restore stability, to stop the violence, and to transition to a UN peacekeeping force. But does the end, a semblance of stability and a questionably effective peacekeeping mission, justify the means, quashing an uprising that may have begun in self-defense?

This seems to miss the whole reason for groups resorting to violence. When marginalized groups or radical political groups sense that they cannot benefit from the current system, that they cannot be successful in the existing political regime, they may turn to violence in order to assert themselves as a dominant opposition force, to win supporters, and to bluntly remove the regime itself, if possible. They may do so to defend themselves in the face of repression, sectarian violence, or possibly even genocide. Of course not all insurgent or revolutionary groups will have this type of moral high ground, but the point is that it’s highly subjective. Carpenter is suggesting grouping all of these together into the undesirable and unstable transition category.

A final major point: what does the aftermath of these interventions look like? Carpenter suggests a UN peacekeeping operation. Of course this is possible, and of course it could either succeed or fail. UN operations have done both. I would argue that these interventions could spawn even more networked insurgent reactions against the regime, and likely led by more radicalized and anti-West or anti-UN groups. If the regime can’t stand on its own without third-party support, rebel groups may sense an opportunity to attack after they’ve had the chance to regroup, particularly if it looks like the West wouldn’t be willing to go in again. These interventions signal the weakness of the regime, and if revolutionary groups do reform and reengage against the government, it also indicates the weakness of the intervention plan. Robert Pape’s 2012 International Security article, “When Duty Calls: A Pragmatic Standard of Humanitarian Intervention,” makes a key point that needs to be addressed here. Pape is primarily addressing the requirements for intervention against a regime perpetrating mass killings or crimes against humanity, so it does not directly speak to Carpenter’s main point. However, one of Pape’s suggested requirements for a “pragmatic intervention” has to do with what comes afterward: “a workable strategy for creating lasting local security, so that saving lives in the short term does not lead to open-ended chaos in which many more are killed in the long term” (43). Regardless of your thoughts on Pape’s argument as a whole, this key criterion for intervention seems to be common sense. Carpenter’s argument for pro-regime interventions has not yet met the requirement of lasting local security. The outlook for these regimes in incredibly uncertain, even if the initial QRF succeeds in propping up the government and stopping the sustained insurgent attacks.

While Carpenter puts forth interesting ideas, particularly about the nature of recent insurgent warfare, his policy prescriptions warrant serious discussion about the efficacy and legitimacy of pro-regime interventions. More thought needs to go into the “trigger,” the cause of the conflicts that merit intervention, and the aftermath of the interventions. I’d love to hear some thoughts on this, as it’s a pretty thorny issue with a lot of different issues at stake.

** However, the case could be made that these interventions could allow for the West to put pressure on the regimes to democratize, which may or may not be approved by Russia and China. Furthermore, a regime leader who does not feel that his life is threatened by his exit from power may be willing to lead a transition in exchange for continued support. If someone out there’s interested in writing it, I’d be all ears for this response.

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