The Layman’s Guide to State-Backed Insurgencies

The Layman’s Guide to State-Backed Insurgencies

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Sarah Warren, Foreign Policy Contributor

Opinion-- It is not uncommon to hear about rebellions and coups that are backed by other countries. It is, however, uncommon to hear why countries choose to support some rebellions – the United States, for example, works with Saudi Arabia to arm and train Syrian rebels – while others – such as the Turkish coup d'état attempt – are met with global condemnation. The chaotic and bloody nature of civil unrest means that national powers must be careful when publicly supporting one side or the other. Political differences within countries complicate this and it is not unheard of for a supporting country to switch sides after a political power shift.

State sponsorship of rebellions became common practice during the Cold War, when the United States, Russia, and other regional powers used arms, finances, military presence, and/or political pressure to back their favorite proxies. Post-Cold War, the practice stuck. Increasingly complex global networks of common allies, enemies, and interests mean that many countries have or perceive a vested interest in the outcome of civil disputes. Often, this manifests in two ways: ideological interest (e.g. Westernization, democratization, nation building, etc.) or tangible interest (e.g. backing major trade partners, vested economic interest in the stability of the nation, national security concerns, and the like.) Often, the two intermingle. We see this even outside of state-supported insurgencies. The United States’ biggest trade partners are also free or somewhat free market economies. Of course, the United States has other important security and trade relationships with non-market economies—China, for example—but often these countries share an enemy or ally that makes a warm relationship mutually advantageous.

When laid out so cleanly, it may seem that every American should understand with whom the U.S. is engaged and why. However, with power changing hands, renegotiation of deals, and open-ended military operations, it can be difficult to remember where our troops and ambassadors are and what they’re doing there.

The latter is true of U.S. involvement in Afghanistan. The U.S. has been involved in Afghanistan for sixteen years and, according to the President, we have no intentions of leaving yet. The U.S. became involved in the region shortly after 9/11 with the goal of ousting Al Qaeda and the Taliban. 2,200 American casualties, 90,000 leaked documents, and one trillion dollars later, Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden is dead and yet American troops remain in Afghanistan with more on their way. Despite the stated goal of U.S. operations in Afghanistan being somewhat complete, complications have presented themselves, new conflicts have become heated, and vague terms like “nation building” and “democratization” dominate the discussion. Thus, what appeared to be a clearly-defined mission became a messy military occupation and a political bargaining chip for both republicans and democrats.

Foreign conflict, unlike political rhetoric, is not black and white. Understanding the jobs and incentives of all parties involved – legislators, generals, the President, and civilians in both nations – is the only way to truly understand foreign conflict.

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