Shadow boxing with shadow governments: Hizballah, Hamas, other groups will prove elusive adversaries

Shadow boxing with shadow governments: Hizballah, Hamas, other groups will prove elusive adversaries

Engaging in unconventional diplomacy with these actors today could avert unconventional warfare tomorrow.

On Monday, the French general commanding UN peacekeeping forces in Lebanon said, "The disarmament of Hizballah is not the business of UNFIL. This is strictly a Lebanese affair." Washington should take that comment as its cue (if it needs another) to immediately overhaul its strategy for dealing with many nationalist, non-state actors that it considers "illegitimate."

In many places, such groups wield durable de facto power (military and otherwise) that will prove difficult to dismantle. And the groups call the shots on issues ranging from internal investments to foreign policy. The United States needs to understand the basis and extent of non-state actors' considerable political power and refrain from either romanticizing or patronizing them. After all, the distribution of good and evil among sovereign and non-state actors alike is about the same. Engaging in unconventional diplomacy with these actors today could avert unconventional warfare tomorrow.

Despite the contours of conventional debate about democratization in the Middle East, the recent electoral strides by Shi‘a parties in Iraq, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Hamas in Palestine, and Hizballah in Lebanon did not significantly bolster their de facto political power, it merely brought it out of the shadows of unofficial, parallel governance. Before the elections, these parties already wielded significant authority and removing Hizballah or Hamas from their respective government positions would not eliminate, nor even substantially reduce, their power. And warfare with groups such as Hizballah and Hamas necessarily entails significant civilian casualties because of the group's integration into their societies, due to their performance of parallel governance functions-an outcome inconsistent with U.S. counter-terror and other goals.

Washington must, therefore, deign to talk to these "illegitimate" parties rather than once again shuttling the secretary of state, a la Vietnam, between sovereign-state capitals in a fruitless attempt to negotiate the fate of a locally powerful opponent with whom no direct discussions are countenanced.

The bipartisan mantra within the White House and Congress during the latter part of July was that a cease-fire should be delayed until Syria and Iran were convinced to withdraw their support for Hizballah. Yet the cease-fire finally negotiated, with Hizballah's agreement, clearly left it intact as a political (and possibly military) organization. The contrast between Hizballah's rapid humanitarian and reconstruction response and those of the Lebanese government and international aid agencies has much more strategic significance than the number of rockets the group might yet have stockpiled. It should now be clear to almost anyone, even as the Bush Administration refuses to see it, that Washington (or its intermediary) needs to secure the cooperation of Hizballah in order to deliver humanitarian assistance in southern Lebanon and the hardest hit neighborhoods in Beirut. The relief supplies it has promised cannot realistically be distributed without at least the tacit cooperation of Hizballah. If Hizballah is ignored, distribution will be hindered and Israel and the United States will be blamed-while Washington continues to be criticized for its initial refusal to support calls for an immediate ceasefire. It is almost impossible to imagine any outcome worse for the United States.

A Born Identity

Much of Washington's foreign policy establishment subscribes to the theory that non-state actors like Hizballah and Hamas begin as small, dedicated groups of revolutionaries that subsequently provide goods and services in a bid to cynically generate political support-the outside agitator or vanguard-party assumption. Of course, that ascribes a kind of nation-building capacity and civil-operations acumen to these groups that even the world's superpower has been unable to replicate.

These groups are instead usually born of either very traditional or increasingly radicalized populations. This is not to suggest that their power is simply a matter of popular feelings; power is still a function of effective organization and provision of basic public goods and services. Nevertheless, however evil a non-state actor might be, it must meet the immediate survival needs of its political base.

Because societies do not survive without effective governance, ineffective performance by sovereign-state governments is prima facie evidence that unofficial institutions are doing it instead. A fundamental difference between Hizballah and Hamas (with their aggressively Islamist Nationalist objectives) and Al-Qaeda (with its utterly unachievable internationalist objectives) is that the former must perform routine parallel governance functions among their domestic political supporters, while Al-Qaeda does not have such responsibilities. Thus, Hamas, Hizballah, the Muslim Brotherhood, and many other non-state actors in Africa, Asia, and Latin America provide public goods and services ranging from child-care and education, primary and tertiary healthcare, local public works, and emergency food and cash assistance, as well as performing law adjudication and enforcement functions.

Effective parallel governance exists whether or not we like its policies or the "laws" enforced.  The United States pays a heavy price when it adheres to the legal fiction that legitimate political power can be expressed only by sovereign-state governments or, if by non-state actors, only to the extent they conform to the legal or diplomatic framework of the sovereign-state system. Indeed, during the last week of July, ordinary Lebanese interviewed by CNN's Anderson Cooper credited Hizballah with being the only source of local self-defense, war relief and explicit promises to rebuild shattered infrastructure, homes and lives.

To Bomb, or Not to Bomb

The most important difference between the military success of World War II and failures in Vietnam, Algeria, Lebanon in the early ‘80s and Somalia (along with likely failures in Iraq, Lebanon and Gaza) is that in the former case we effectively destroyed pre-existing political societies and physical infrastructure while in the latter, the defined enemy was a subset of broader populations that the military was deployed to support, with the objective of isolating the enemy while simultaneously improving the infrastructure. There is a reason why police, rather than the military, are normally assigned responsibility for keeping the peace within societies. They are expected-and are trained-to use minimal coercive force to protect society against outlaws within it.

We do not generally allow the police to call in an air strike against a bank in which robbers and their hostages have been cornered. Clearly, any effective intervention directed at isolating or destroying certain groups, like the various insurgent groups in Iraq, requires a clear assessment of how, and the extent to which, they are embedded within their respective societies.

In the case of Hizballah and Hamas, the situation is more like Vietnam and less like Iraq. The problem during the immediate post-invasion period in Iraq was not so much insufficient conventional military forces as it was the absence of an effective police force with good intelligence about both incipient insurgent and criminal elements within that country. There was a reasonable chance that the early detection and challenge of the ad hoc leadership and organization of various insurgent and militia groups could have prevented the unmanageable conditions existing there today.

In Lebanon and Gaza, the problem is that the "enemy" is an organic part of a broader society within which it performs critical governance functions, even as it also commits violent. It is too facile to dismiss the presence of Hamas and Hizballah among women and children as a cynical tactic. Gaza and Lebanon are among the most densely populated places in the world; all maneuverable ground is effectively occupied by homes, schools, hospitals, businesses and public places.  That is a considerable problem for any military force operating in those areas-whether it be Israel's, Hamas' or Hizballah's. 

We really cannot have it both ways. Are we prepared to reduce the societies that support Hamas and Hizballah to the circumstances of German and Japanese societies at the end of World War II? This is what conventional military forces a la the Powell Doctrine are equipped and trained to accomplish, the existence of limited-war doctrines and counter-insurgency manuals notwithstanding. Or do we accept that groups such as Hamas and Hizballah represent a reality, however hostile, that must be engaged directly through diplomacy if we are to avoid either the elimination, or ever-lasting enmity, of the broader societies within which they exist?

We should return military strategy to the place it occupied during most of the Cold War; i.e., a credible threat of substantial devastation to hostile states or non-state actors who endanger our vital national interests. And effective diplomacy, even when backed by the threat of military force, requires engagement directly with actual opponents, rather than their official but often powerless proxies.

The "Hearts and Minds" Mirage

In recognizing that insurgents require political support among the people to survive, U.S. counter-terror strategists have emphasized the importance of "winning hearts and minds" while simultaneously eliminating the enemy's organizational infrastructure. Although there is some wisdom in that approach, those strategists make three important miscalculations.  First, "the people" are an abstraction almost never of one mind. Second, effective insurgent or terrorist organizations are able to draw on reservoirs of support to replenish leadership, cadres, and foot soldiers; so neither targeted assassinations or the perceived destruction of insurgent military supplies or personnel are conclusive over the long-term. Third, hearts and minds cannot be bought. Individuals do not simply offer loyalty to the most effective provider of public goods and services. For many people, who provides things and how they are provided matter.

In the 2005 edition of a popular American government textbook, an American Marine dressed in combat uniform is shown in an Iraqi school handing out "supplies and gifts to Iraqi students"; all of whom are pre-adolescent girls. Imagine your reaction to essentially the same scene, but with Iraqis in military uniforms holding AK-47s in an elementary school near you. Iraqi parents no more want foreign troops with weapons in their children's schools than do American parents, even if the purpose of the visit is to pass out free soccer balls.

A clearing for Foggy Bottom

Washington cannot ignore the long-standing, parallel governance functions of Hizballah and Hamas. But its recognition of those groups should be only part of an immediate strategic reorientation. Non-formal governance systems have long contributed to the economic, political, and cultural survival of large numbers of people throughout much of Africa, Asia and Latin America. Effectively addressing, influencing and, when necessary, negotiating with non-state actors is preferable to simply leaving them to morph into locally legitimate, but dogmatically hostile, parallel governance systems.

The United States needs to systematically engage a wide range of clans, tribal groups and indigenous communities. Washington should also focus on the achievement of objectives, rather than commitments to particular actors-whether sovereign or not.  Commitments should be to what rather than who.

Unfortunately, the long-term pay-off from this recommended approach would  not be fully realized for at least a decade. We need to unlearn as much as we learn. In the meantime, we should inject some humility into our foreign policy by reacting to what we must and avoiding armed conflict or intemperate rhetoric when we can. Given the urgency, we must begin now. If the importance of parallel governance had been recognized as recently as 1996, a new policy and the capacity to implement it would already be in place.

Jerry Mark Silverman was a consultant to USAID's Iraq Democracy and Governance Program from 2003 to 2004, where he observed attempts by U.S. NGOs to work with pre-existing de facto leadership on the ground, while military and civilian contractors were tasked with working with "local government" overseen by more formally recognized agencies in Baghdad. He began his work in the field in Vietnam in 1967 as a USAID Foreign Service Officer assigned to the Military Assistance Command's civil operations, where he witnessed the tightly knit "Montagnards" govern themselves in the midst of a civil war. He has also worked in various capacities in Southeast Asia, South Asia, Africa and Latin America with USAID, the Ford Foundation, and the World Bank. He is currently Visiting Professor of Political Science at Savannah State University and teaches a course at Armstrong Atlantic State University in Savannah, Georgia. He can be reached at [email protected].