The Costs of Intervention

In Iraq and Afghanistan, U.S. and NATO forces have few good options. A rapid military withdrawal from either country is likely to result in civil violence. Yet increasing the number of foreign troops will not necessarily speed political agreement among political factions in Iraq or Afghanistan.

This dilemma has a historical parallel in the 1920s, when U.S. Marines were sent to Nicaragua under the banner of restoring order and building institutions to foster democracy. The Marines set about training a Guardia Nacional to strengthen internal order. In 1927, President Coolidge sent his personal envoy Henry Stimson to broker an agreement between warring political factions. Nationalist Augusto Sandino and his followers rejected the American- brokered settlement and drew U.S. Marines into a protracted guerrilla struggle. By the time the Marines left the country in 1933, Sandino was still at large, but the national guard had come under the control of Anastasio Somoza. Somoza then used this armed force to eliminate Sandino and establish a corrupt ruling dynasty.

It appears highly unlikely that the insurgencies of Iraq or the resurgent Taliban in Afghanistan will be defeated any time soon. At the same time, the national armies we are training could end up being used to impose an order that disenfranchises important political or ethnic groups. The Somoza dictatorship achieved political order, but in the long run no amount of U.S. backing could protect Somoza from the backlash of his own people. In 1979, the Sandinistas toppled the Somoza clan, and a new period of bloody conflict ensued.

The U.S. intervention in Nicaragua illustrates the risks of creating an instrument of coercion in a politically unstable environment. Somoza used the national guard to defeat Sandino and establish order, but that did not ensure long-term stability. The United States got what it wanted in the short run – an anti-communist regime – but the oppressiveness of the Somoza clan laid the basis for future turmoil.

The United States and NATO have few good options in Iraq and Afghanistan. A rapid departure from either country after training and equipping new armies is likely to have negative consequences. At the same time, we cannot manufacture the consensus necessary for a democratic political order. That must come from the Iraqi and Afghan people themselves. The Bush administrations call for a short-term surge of troops in Iraq may or may not contribute to stability. What is certain is that a political agreement among Kurds, Shia and Sunnis will take years to work out.

John R. Bawen is a Ph.D. candidate in history at the University of California-Riverside and a writer for the History News Service.

January, 2007