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Interventions must have political goals

 Interventions must have political goals

·         Published: 20/06/2014 at 12:52 AM

·         Newspaper section: News

Military interventions all over the world are invariably easier to go into than to get out of. In many large-scale military operations, entry points quickly warp into elusive and murky exit plans as the fog of war sets in. Only with clear and realistic political objectives can military interventions succeed in their stated aims. Many cases abroad are instructive for Thailand’s experience at home.

Shia volunteers train at a military base south of Baghdad to fight Sunni insurgents. Iraq is struggling with bloody wars and political chaos that followed the US military invasion a decade ago. The US is weighing if it should intervene again, and how. (AP photo)

Ghastly as it may sound, "total wars" are the clearest kind of conflicts for militaries. The political objective of annihilating the enemy government ruling an opposing state into surrender and submission is lucid and all-encompassing. All necessary strategies and tactics and other means are fair game. Either win it or risk defeat, without much in between.

In the last century, the two world wars were fought in totality. The advent of nuclear weapons has so far precluded total wars since the 1940s. Moreover, nowadays the enemy is often no longer an opposing government of another state but stateless entities and even environmental degradation. Short of total wars, militaries are challenged in tricky and nuanced ways.

The most glaring contemporary cases of military intervention involve the global superpowers, almost in equal measure. The United States’ involvement in Vietnam and the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan both failed for similar reasons. Both conflicts were over a decade long. Both became quagmires, ostensibly fought for liberation with the US trying to keep South Vietnam free from communism and the Soviet Union liberating Afghanistan for communist rule. Both superpowers possessed overwhelming force and faced rugged insurgencies engaging in guerrilla warfare that exploited familiar terrain and local resources.

In the end, both occupational militaries confronted unwinnable wars and were defeated by determined local populations who outlasted them. The people’s insurgencies, in short, overcame the superpowers’ wars.

More recently, the US invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq offer immediate lessons, especially in view of Iraq’s potential disintegration and division at the hands of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (Isil, also known as Isis).

The terrorist attacks against the United States on 11 Sept 2001 provided the casus belli, or the war justification, for the American invasion of Afghanistan. But the Afghan war was easy going in, though much harder getting out, as the US is still trying to withdraw completely from the country.

Political objectives became hazy after the invasion. Initially, it was to strike at the heart of the al-Qaeda terrorist movement and its Taliban partners and to eliminate the threat posed by Osama bin Laden. Al-Qaeda was eventually sapped, but still operational, and it took one long decade before bin Laden was captured and killed. In the interim, the American objective became democracy promotion, but the elected government of President Hamid Karzai is beset with incompetence and corruption. The Afghan political outlook is unpromising, and it is uncertain how much safer Americans are more than a dozen years later.

The Iraqi invasion in March 2003 was worse. It was premised on two bogus justifications that then-president Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction and that he was connected to al-Qaeda. The implication was that terrorists could get their hands on WMD, and thus Saddam was a global threat.

In fact, getting rid of Saddam was unfinished business from a prequel invasion of Iraq in 1991 after he invaded Kuwait a year earlier. Ultimately, Saddam suffered a similar fate to bin Laden, captured within three years and executed after a quick trial. But the American occupation of Iraq became morally vacuous and twisted into a campaign to make democracies out of the Middle East.

More than a decade later, Iraq is a massive and urgent mess, dramatically unravelling and posing instability for the entire region. After a decade, America’s original war aims are blurry. What was the Iraqi invasion all about? Saddam was a brutal despot but what did his removal achieve?

Military history is strewn with misadventures and disastrous results. Good and even just intentions can lead to very bad outcomes. Unless political objectives are clear and realistic, military interventions are like a minefield for their commanders and decision-makers for several reasons.

First, the goalposts keep shifting. In the field of battle, the original aims of militaries have a tendency to change. It could be this today, that tomorrow and something else the next day. Militaries have to be adaptable, but the goals have to be clearly set out. For Thailand’s latest military intervention in domestic politics, the stated aim of putting a stop to violence, restoring love and solidarity and reforming politics, the economy and society is very ambitious. It may soon appear open-ended and change into very different aims than originally intended. The focus on clear and realistic objectives is thus critical.

Second, militaries are frequently tempted to do it right by doing it again, to settle matters once and for all by having a war that ends all wars. This was the case with the second Iraq invasion. The flipside is that militaries can also be dissuaded from repeating previous disasters, as was the case with Vietnam for the Americans, whose latent "Vietnam syndrome" makes them reluctant to put "boots on the ground" in foreign lands. Militaries are like machines that are trained to think and act at the same time. But action overwhelms thought on battlefields, and thus the highest commanders of successful militaries tend to be civilians. If it is left to generals, wars may go on indefinitely because of the belief they can still win.

Third, militaries are trained to fight the last war by correcting and preparing from the past and readying for a future showdown. But the past is often not applicable to the future. Training for future wars by extrapolating from the past has limitations. For Thailand, the latest intervention is unlike its immediate precursors in 1991 and 2006, harking back to older eras when military interventions were more heavy-handed and decisive in setting political matters. There is learning by doing in not repeating the interventionist ways of 1991 and 2006, but the requirements and complexities of 2014 and beyond may well test the aims and abilities of the Thai military.

Fourth, militaries operate in industrial complexes, with vested interests driving conflict and warfare. And this military-industrial complex exists in the domestic sphere. Military interventions can be a different kind of business with attendant benefits for many.

The chief challenge for the Thai military now is to keep these vested interests at bay by setting good examples and delineating clear parameters. Few impediments corrode interventionist justifications and authority more than corruption and graft on the one hand and hypocrisy and nepotism on the other.

Finally, militaries sometimes find it hard to get out because of what they would have to leave behind. Afghanistan and Iraq can end up as hotbeds that breed future terrorists. The Americans have a moral responsibility and also practical necessities of seeing to it that these places do not spawn the kinds of terrorists they came to extinguish in the first place. In other words, occupying forces are afraid of retribution after departure, and thus their stay can become sticky.

For Thailand, once the military intervenes in politics, it will want to leave in ways that ensure safety and security. Getting out and leaving politics for the Thai people will later require compromises that reassure the generals after departure, yet satisfy non-military stakeholders. What the people and the military do not want is to end up in a situation where both will ask in wonderment what the military intervention on 22 May, 2014 was all about.

Thitinan Pongsudhirak is associate professor and director of the Institute of Security and International Studies, Faculty of Political Science, Chulalongkorn University.


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