Hope and Hype: Advising Foreign Forces in the Middle of a Counterinsurgency Campaign


Walter C. Ladwig III, The Forgotten Front: Patron Client Relations in Counterinsurgency (Cambridge University Press, 2017) – Available in paperback with a 20% discount.


There is a bit of nervous excitement when one is sent to partner and advise a host nation government and its security officials. Sure, you know that thousands of veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan struggled mightily in such endeavors, but, hell, that was them and you’re possibly a latter-day Lawrence of Arabia or, better yet, the next Edward Lansdale. Unlike your predecessors you took arduous notes when reading FM 3-24. Further, you ate other plates at the counterinsurgency buffet: John Nagl’s Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife, David Kilcullen’s Accidental Guerrilla, Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom, and David Galula’s Counterinsurgency Warfare. You know the difference between Galula’s and Roger Trinquier’s thoughts on population-centric counterinsurgency and remember when fourth-generation warfare was all the rage. You even paid attention during your language lessons.

You arrived in country, and your predecessor criticized your pending partner repeatedly. He is “corrupt” and “talks with the Taliban” and he is also “lazy and only sits on his base.” However, you can spot the bias in these comments. Never mind that your partner spends half his pay on kickbacks, or that he has good friends and family who have grown wary of America’s presence in the Hindu Kush, well into its second decade. You’re also aware that you’re the umpteenth advisor to arrive in country promising success if only he follows you. Regardless of his negativity, you plow ahead and begin the process of finding common ground with your new advisee. You drink the tea, inhale those awful pine cigarettes, and eat enough naan to feed an infantry battalion. You don’t start talking about business right away. Sometimes you’ll spend hours just talking about your family. You’ve picked up enough of the language to exchange pleasantries and ask about his family. You get it. You understand.

That only lasts a little while, though. At some point, you have to get results from your partner, and although leadership briefed you repeatedly that “Afghan/Iraq good enough” should be your mantra, you’re still held accountable for your counterpart’s performance. You cajole. You stroke your partner’s ego. You explain in excruciating details all the benefits to achieving the stated coalition goal of a stable, secure and democratic Iraq/Afghanistan. However, at the end of the day, all the cups of tea and long talks can’t change one underlying truth: You might be partners, but you both have vastly different incentives that propel you towards your own goals. You are from Mars, and he is from Venus.

This reality has befallen thousands of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans. This predicament is the focal point of Walter C. Ladwig’s important new book, The Forgotten Front: Patron-Client Relationships in Counterinsurgency. The King’s College London professor takes direct aim at Field Manual 3-24, Insurgencies and Counterinsurgencies, and the West’s thinking on counterinsurgency, specifically its naiveté that the patron and client will share common political goals if the patron is doling out large sums of cash to the client. Utilizing case studies of America’s involvement in the Hukbalahap insurgency in the Philippines, its early foray into Vietnam from 1957 to 1964, and its mission in El Salvador from 1979 to 1992, Ladwig shows that partners in these countries more often bent to Washington’s wishes when American aid and assistance had conditions that were consistently applied. However, when the United States tried to induce its partners with an open checkbook or inconsistently applied conditions, the partners’ behavior often did not change for the better.

Ladwig’s book primarily focuses on the United States’ strategic partnership with its allies and doesn’t often delve into operational or tactical work. Regardless, there is much to glean from his work for current and future counterinsurgency practitioners. Veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan who toiled with their partners will likely nod their heads in agreement with Ladwig’s broadside against FM 3-24. Even more readers will cheer his observation that opening up the spigots for your partners will not guarantee better behavior. Many commanders’ performance reports boasted of spending millions on refurbishments or reconstruction projects. However, it was dubious to connect these dollars with changed behavior.

My first deployment on a police transition team in 2006 certainly cemented that conclusion. Spending a moderate amount of money on one of our Iraqi police colonel’s pet projects didn’t stop him from routinely abusing his prisoners or working actively with Muqtada al-Sadr’s Jaysh al-Mahdi. The same held true in Afghanistan during my three deployments. After a district chief of police or district governor got the money he wanted for the project he wanted, he rarely realigned his goals and policies in the way we wanted to see. Unfortunately, on only a handful of occasions throughout my three years in Afghanistan were conditions placed on aid and assistance. It always seemed like the five-meter target superseded the long-term goal of ensuring that our partners’ goals aligned with our own.

Ladwig’s thesis is reminiscent of Stathis Kalyvas’ in The Logic of Violence in Civil War, as both smack of common sense but also push back against the idea of inducing partners or civilians into better behavior. Ladwig highlights the logical nature of such disagreements, as reforms are likely to erode the indigenous government’s power base or empower the military who have often upended their governments after receiving Western assistance. For Kalyvas, his analysis showed that a civilian’s desire to avoid violent repercussions drove their behavior in civil wars instead of their prior ideological preferences. Reading Kalyvas in Kandahar in 2012 ruined my hopes that our valley would stay “pro-government” upon our pending departure. Less than two years later, that district, along with many in northern Kandahar, would fall — yet again — to the Taliban. If the insurgents maintained a near-total control of an area, then civilians would follow their rules. The maxim also held true for the government. In the middle, fence-sitters would hedge between the two in reaction to violence used by both sides.

Despite The Forgotten Front’s value in highlighting a major hole in COIN scholarship, there are some issues. First, the author’s selection of his cases — the Philippines, Vietnam, and El Salvador — raises some concerns. Although they are geographically diverse and analyze different client leaders, the United States is the only patron and all of these wars took place against the backdrop of the Cold War and against leftist insurgencies. This naturally raises questions about the validity of Ladwig’s conclusions in relation to other cases. He should have considered including other cases with rich lessons to offer: For example, analyzing the Soviet Union’s troubles with its Afghan allies in the late 1970s and 1980s may well have bolstered his argument. Indeed, recent books have highlighted the problems the Soviets had in dealing with their internecine Afghan partners, who begged for more money but were often more concerned with battling rival communist party factions than the mujahedeen. A case study dealing with an Islamic insurgency would add more breadth to the book.

Second, as Ladwig only briefly mentions, a patron’s ability to apply conditions to its aid will weaken if the client has multiple patrons to negotiate with. For example, the Filipinos in the Hukbalahap insurgency only had one patron: the United States. Accordingly, it was easier for Washington to apply consistent, uniformed conditions on its aid because the Filipinos couldn’t offset these constrictions through another patron. The reverse holds true with America’s relationship with Pakistan. There are frequent calls to get tough with Pakistan due to its support for numerous insurgent groups in Afghanistan. However, until recently, the United States tempered such calls. One of those reasons was the fear of losing Pakistan to China. Indeed, is the United States willing to lose influence with the Pakistanis due to their behavior in Afghanistan? As the Trump administration ponders its Afghanistan strategy, it will be interesting to see if it goes with a conditions-based approach for aid or if it reverts back to opening the spigots to alter Pakistan’s behavior. If it does the latter, according Ladwig, the behavior will not change.

Ladwig’s argument also has implications for coalitions conducting counterinsurgency. Again, Ladwig only briefly mentions this, but the United States’ penchant for fighting in alliances likely negates its ability to apply conditions to its clients. Indeed, how can the United States apply conditions to its aid when it is just one of scores of nations assisting a client in a campaign? American veterans of the war in Afghanistan who served alongside their European allies will undoubtedly find salience in the professor’s passing comment. In fact, in Kunduz alone, nearly six countries were engaging with various levels of the Afghan provincial government during my short stint there in 2012. This doesn’t include the vast array of non-governmental organizations acting independently. As many an Afghan informed me, if relations with one patron soured, they would simply go to another European nation and ask for the same thing until somebody said yes. The shortened tours and frequent command changes aided this too. Further, with constant operational rotations throughout the alliance combined with new European leaders, applying consistent, uniformed conditions on aid and assistance to the Afghan government proved a heavy lift. Ironically, the lack of alternative allies in Iraq may have supported the United States’ ability to pressure then-Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki to accept the Awakening movement.

Moreover, this multipolar environment has significant effects on the ground. For example, Afghan tribes are less hierarchical than Iraqi tribes. An agreement with an Iraqi tribal confederation leader carries more heft and is more likely to be enacted than in Afghanistan. Accordingly, because the Afghan tribes are geographically dispersed and could woo other patrons (i.e., the neo-Taliban insurgency), the United States and its coalition allies found it difficult to apply pressure consistently to Afghan tribal leaders. If one commander is applying pressure to a Durrani Popalzai elder in one district and another commander in the district next door is attempting to induce that tribal elder into cooperating, then how can consistent, uniformed pressure be applied in such a kaleidoscope of actors? Add in Kalyvas’ theory on the importance of levels of control and the difficulty is multiplied. Indeed, the Soviet Union struggled mightily too in its attempts to peel off mujahedeen commanders because of the diffusive nature of the insurgent groups they were attempting to woo.

Lastly, lost in Ladwig’s book are some fascinating examples of cognitive dissonance. For example, Ladwig shows that Edward Landsdale’s work with Philippine general turned president Ramon Magsaysay boosted the Filipino’s success in defeating the Hukbalahap insurgency since the United States placed uniformed and consistent conditions on aid. However, in Vietnam, Lansdale, according to Ludwig’s research, did not favor putting conditions on aid to South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem. Moreover, Robert Komer, who led development efforts in Vietnam under the Civil Operations and Revolutionary Development Support program, likely witnessed firsthand the downside of inducing better behavior from a client. However, as Under Secretary of Defense in the Carter administration, he argued forcefully against tying aid or assistance to human rights issues in El Salvador. In short, these lessons, like many throughout history, are often lost even by those who have experienced them firsthand.

As the allure of counterinsurgency fades after its apogee in the mid-2000s, further refinements and critiques of the United States’ practice of population-centric counterinsurgency will continue. This is a healthy course correction for military and defense intellectuals. Ladwig’s important book is the latest in that course correction, without some of the vitriol that has often plagued the debate over counterinsurgency. Indeed, if population-centric counterinsurgency advocates were too optimistic during the success of the surge, then critics have been hyperbolic in their takedown of counterinsurgency enthusiasts. Ladwig shines a bright light on some of the deficiencies in counterinsurgency literature and the United States’ naiveté about its relationship with its clients. His goal is to improve the West’s performance in future counterinsurgency battles. Although the focus inside the Department of Defense has returned to the conventional fight against near-peer competitors, Ladwig is correct to assume the United States will find itself in another counterinsurgency campaign in the not-too-distant future.

Major Will Selber is a former Afghan Hand and a USAF CENTCOM FAO. He deployed to Afghanistan as part of a Provincial Reconstruction Team, as a governance advisor conducting Village Stability Operations in Kandahar, and as a Senior Advisor to the Afghan Ministry of Interior.  He is a distinguished graduate of Air Command and Staff College and a recent graduate of the School for Advanced Military Studies.


Image: U.S. Army Center of Military History