The recent spate of terrorist incidents in Western countries highlights the painful truth that defeating militant non-state threats requires direct involvement in foreign nations to counter terrorist and criminal networks at their source. In the post 9/11-environment, Western governments initiated large-scale counterinsurgency campaigns to squeeze the life out of militant organizations. By contrast, the current model of “small-footprint interventions” seeks to manage these threats based on the belief that the global order is moving beyond Westphalian foundations. International forces face a new reality when sent abroad today. Instead of fighting for victory, traditionally defined, they must manage the fallout of failed interventions past.
After a period of uncertainty regarding specific missions in Afghanistan and Iraq, the international forces settled into counterinsurgency campaigns focused on building states that were resistant to the influence of militant Islamic ideology. As time demonstrated the immense difficulty of this task, expectations were lowered. Instead, the coalition aimed to build states capable of providing their own security with minimal outside help. Both campaigns proved immensely costly and, as the recent advances of the Islamic State in Iraq and the stubborn perseverance of the Taliban in Afghanistan demonstrated, were not altogether effective. This resulted in the rise of the light-footprint model of counterinsurgency.
Spearheaded by United States Special Forces, the light-footprint model advocates a leaner response to the problems posed by insurgencies. The light-footprint model doesn’t engage in large-scale nation-building efforts. Instead, it bypasses the local population by focusing on precision strikes by special forces or drones, and prioritizes the training of local security forces to take the fight to the enemy on the ground. The inspiration for this model came from the work of U.S. Special Operations Command in Afghanistan and Iraq. While applying a version of the light-footprint model in Iraq in 2006, members from the secretive Joint Special Operations Command succeeded in defeating much of Al Qaeda in Iraq. In Afghanistan in 2001, a small team of paramilitary CIA officers and special forces similarly succeeded in rallying the Northern Alliance to march on Kabul and send much of the Taliban fleeing into Pakistan.
The shift from large- to small-footprint models is more than just a response to the immense burdens that large-scale counterinsurgency demands. As the interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan demonstrated, state-centric strategies are no longer appropriate. The light-footprint model signifies an acceptance by the United States and its coalition partners that certain fundamental truths of the global order have changed, and with them traditional notions of security, war, and peace. Most important, the state-ordered system codified at Westphalia in 1648 has given way to a “new medievalism,” as Professor Hedley Bull of Australian National University termed it. In this modern-day medieval environment, interconnected and localized forms of power reduce the state to just another actor among many, rendering the state no longer the sole anchor of security and order it once was.
The transition from state-security security to new medievalism has not been peaceful. The breakup of the state-led system in many parts of the world led to intra-state violence involving a broad tapestry of rebels, militias, terrorist organizations, and sectarian actors. Globalization gave this new landscape its contemporary edge and crafted an international security environment characterized by a fluid, multi-dimensional nature—and an attendant lack of regard for national boundaries. Where the absence of traditional state control grew, new pillars of power organized around the non-state actors who rose to stake their claim in the emerging post-Westphalian order.
The light-footprint model demonstrates an acceptance of this “coming anarchy”, as described by Robert Kaplan in his book of the same title. By adopting this model, the West has adapted to this increasingly complex and fluid environment operating without the constraints of state-based controls. Furthermore, this acceptance has necessitated an acknowledgment that war and peace are now increasingly indistinguishable. Outright victory in such conflicts is unlikely, if not impossible. Instead of defeating adversaries, states see conflict management as the best approach, in essence signalling the intent to police this new environment rather than fight it.
With a focus now on policing threats, states recognize the need to perpetually engage across the globe and across the full spectrum of conflict. This led to the current covert wars being fought in Somalia, Yemen and the Pakistani frontier provinces, regions where U.S. forces are not technically at war but still operate in support of vital national security concerns. This new focus also brought forth U.S. military engagement in areas that exist in several different places on the spectrum of conflict owing to absence of state control and the fluid nature of globalized threats. These areas include parts of Africa such as Mali, Nigeria, Libya, and Uganda, and parts of the Middle East, including the Sinai Peninsula and the Palestinian territories. Admiral McRaven, seeking to appropriately posture U.S. Special Forces, consequently set about dispersing forces globally. In these pre-war “shaping” operations, special forces operate somewhere between peace and war, focusing on potential future battlegrounds by fostering local relationships, training potential allies, and claiming the legal right to strike any future enemies that might appear.
While proclamations that the Westphalian order has ended are not new, the recent response to this emerging new global environment charts a course of permanent military engagement throughout the globe.
Stephen Hindes currently works for the Australian government and recently graduated from Macquarie University with a Double Masters in Policing, Intelligence and Counter-terrorism and International Security Studies.