Why Fighting Through Auxiliaries Usually Fails

These are the top reasons enlisting auxiliaries to fight for us doesn't usually turn out well...

The crisis over the so-called Islamic State (or, ISIS) has once again led policy makers and the national-security community to think very hard about relying on auxiliary forces, either paramilitary forces such as the Syrian Kurds’ People’s Protection Units (YPG) or regional actors ranging from Turkey to Jordan (even the Assad regime or Iran), to deal with intricate challenges.

This is not surprising. While ISIS presents a challenge to the regional security and may potentially emerge as a breeding ground for terrorists with intentions to strike the West, the actual and potential costs of putting U.S. troops on the ground would be tremendous, not to mention a difficult sell to the domestic audiences in the aftermath of Afghanistan and Iraq.

What is surprising is that the Western analysts and policy makers, even after so many experiences gone bad, keep convincing themselves that relying on and/or empowering local actors can help the United States and its allies avoid costly options, while at the same time solving the problem in the way they want it solved.

Take, for example, Afghanistan. As any fan of Sylvester Stallone’s Rambo 3 can tell us, the United States empowered the local “freedom fighters” in their struggle against the Soviet Union and then watched them emerge as the Taliban. To defeat the Taliban, the United States made heavy use of the so-called Northern Alliance, which in turn did as much damage as good to the long-term stability of the country. (By the way, why the Taliban is no longer running the country, it is still alive and kicking.)

In Iraq, the United States was able to energize the Sunni tribes, the so-called “Sons of Iraq,” in its struggle with Al Qaeda’s Iraqi branch (AQI), only to see AQI evolve into something much more dangerous: ISIS, an organization that now draws its strength from numerous Sunni tribes that fought AQI only a few years ago.

What about Libya, or even pre-ISIS Syria? Providing material and air support was often applauded as a “smart” strategy that would lead to quick and cheap victories, only to turn sour down the road, usually with unintended consequences.

Two questions arise. First, why do policy makers and analysts, time after time, succeed in convincing themselves what usually does not work out will actually work out this time? Second, more importantly, why does fighting through auxiliaries usually fail?

The answer to the first question is three-fold. First, faced with the difficult choice of embarking a costly and risky strategy, policy makers and analysts want to believe that there is a cheap solution to be worked through local actors. Second, there is the discourse of “this matters more to the local actors, so they should bear the burden.” Third, this “cheap” method to deal with an intractable challenge usually appears to work in the short run.

So, why do such arrangements usually lead to long-term strategic failures? There are three answers, each following from the misleading assumptions strategists make to convince themselves and others that fighting through intermediaries is the way to go.

First, projecting military power can in fact be a cheap and effective method, but usually for imperial governance, not for the kind of state-building exercises that are often necessitated by the military interventions targeting insurgencies and terrorists. Second, local actors have not only their own incentives, but also conflicts amongst each other, a situation that then leads to outcomes not in line with the interests of the “donor” states. Third, fighting through auxiliaries causes a sudden and significant change in the balance of power in the relevant regions by empowering some local actors at the expense of others, setting the stage for long-term instability. 

The first point is rarely taken into consideration. In the past, empires from the Ottomans to the British Empire effectively projected power and governed vast spaces by drawing on local intermediaries for centuries. They were able to do so for three reasons. First, before the spread of industrialization and the information revolution, it was simply easier to do so. Second, formal empires of the past were not ashamed of acting in imperial terms and committed centrally funded military forces to the areas they ruled for the long haul, which helped them keep rebellions and intracommunal violence in check. Third, they were not trying to build modern states; such empires only wanted to rule on the cheap.

Ruling on the cheap is not what the United States and its allies want. They simply want to degrade and destroy an unrelenting enemy—in this case ISIS—and move on. The only problem with such an objective is that ISIS is a problem that cannot easily be divorced from the regional crisis that gave birth to it. ISIS was born out of civil war in Syria and failing state institutions in Iraq, not to mention the associated sectarian tensions. Dealing with the ISIS crisis requires not only destroying ISIS, but also addressing state failure in these two states, which is not a cheap task. Destroy ISIS today without addressing the crisis that has been empowering it and tomorrow you will be facing a new, and probably more “evolved,” enemy that feeds off of the same crisis. The evolution of AQI into ISIS is a case in point.