In today’s news: the Kenyan army is going after El Shabab, the Somali extremist group. The United States is deploying 100 troops to search for Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) leader Joseph Kony. It is a good time to have a look at how to deal with non-state armed groups (NSAGs in governmentese), the subject of a new report from the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR).
Of course there are many other examples besides these two most recent ones of armed groups that present big problems in today’s world, even though they belong to no state. Think Taliban, Hizbollah, Al Qaeda in its several franchises, and Hamas (at least before it took over governance in Gaza). Think Mexican drug cartels, Burmese insurgents, the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement, the Irish Republican Army, Algeria’s Armed Islamic Group, Afghan mujahideen, Maoist insurgents in Nepal, Naxalites in India…
How should states deal with this alphabet soup of armed groups pursuing through violence freedom, justice, dignity, equity, utopia, money, power, God’s kingdom on earth? Those we like we call freedom fighters (Kosovo Liberation Army, Libyan National Transitional Council) and provide weapons and other assistance. The conventional American approach to those we don’t like is to declare them outside the pale, refuse to talk with them (especially if they are labeled terrorist) and go after them with military and police forces. That’s what the Kenyans and Americans are doing today with al Shabab and the LRA. Sometimes this works, at least partially. More often, there is eventually a political settlement.
Political settlements require dialogue, talks, negotiations. That’s where the CFR report comes in. It makes an effort to define why, when and how the United States should “engage” with NSAGs. Let’s be clear: though the report is prepared by an active-duty Foreign Service officer, it is courageously proposing something that has heretofore generally been regarded as heresy, except in specific instances.
That said, Payton Knopf takes an orthodox approach:
- Analyze: leadership, military effectiveness, constituency, territorial control, platform, sponsors, needs.
- Define the U.S. objective: conflict prevention, humanitarian access, intel collection, regime change, reform, weakening the NSAG, encourage moderation, reach a peace agreement, block spoilers.
- Weigh costs and benefits.
The benefits may include preventing, helping an NSAG or a sponsor we like, bolstering the U.S. image, facilitating peace negotiations, gaining intelligence, mitigating violence, empowering more pragmatic factions. Costs can include conferring legitimacy where we prefer not to, undermining a state, taking sides in a conflict, encouraging violence, providing time for an NSAG to prepare for more violence, and triggering domestic U.S. opposition.
This kind of rational, long-term approach to dealing with NSAGs is not, however, what we generally do today, as Knopf points out. Instead we jump on opportunities in the short term when there is no viable alternative, not too much domestic resistance and some reason to hope that things might work out.
Nor are we well-organized or well-staffed for this kind of work. Knopf goes easy on the State Department but makes it clear that its staff is not trained to engage with NSAGs or to do conflict management work in general. He is correct. Nor are the regional bureaus, whose embassies must necessarily regard government officials in the host countries as their primary interlocutors, likely to take up engagement with NSAGs, except in rare instances. The responsibility might appropriately fall to nongovernmental groups, but legal restrictions and a Supreme Court decision have made that problematic.
This leaves us with international organizations–the UN, the International Red Cross, some regional organizations–as vital players in engaging NSAGs. The CFR report does not address this option, but it has done a great service in calmly raising the issues in the American context and placing the heresy of engaging with NSAGs in an orthodox cost/benefit framework.