2.2 Choosing your partners: marginalising spoilers, supporting change agents
Most of the handbooks, doctrine, and tactical guidance implicitly assume that host governments, both national and local, have the overall national interest at heart: they want to implement the reforms that are needed, and could do so if they had the technical assistance, additional resources, and other capacity building measures to assist them. Unfortunately, in many countries that find themselves captured in constant cycles of violence, those running the government do not seek to legitimatise themselves beyond what is absolutely necessary, and can indeed benefit more from an insecure environment in which they control access to power and resources.
Studies of security assistance, especially train-and-equip programmes conducted and funded by the US, identified divergence of interests as a key reason for failure. Provision of resources and unit training will not increase an ally’s effectiveness if these resources are used for different purposes, such as maintaining patronage networks or equipping a military to support a particular political faction. Convergence in interests between the donor and the recipient should thus not be assumed, but rather investigated as part of programme design and decision-making.
Shared goals and host nation involvement in the planning and implementation of security assistance programmes make it more likely that the host nation will be willing to introduce changes necessary to absorb advice, training and equipment. Security assistance programmes can also set standards partner institutions can aspire to, and to provide political cover for change agents wishing to overhaul defence and security institutions. Tangible resources can thus be less crucial than the institutional change they can precipitate.
In the initial stage of an operation, commanders and other mission personnel may find they have no other option but to deal with local warlords and powerbrokers to gain access and information in a chaotic environment. Local powerbrokers may be the only people able to deliver on logistics, security, and intelligence, and they frequently also control access to vital land, buildings, airfields, and key terrain. However, there should be a plan and timeline for moving the mission away from powerbrokers, as well as plans to marginalise or incentivise them towards reform.
At the very least, missions should strive not to strengthen existing networks, for example through injection of resources through contracts or through overt, unconditional political support. In the longer term, it is important to choose partners who show willingness to become part of the legitimate economic and political systems. They might not have perfect integrity records: conflict, systemic corruption and state capture often leave little room for individuals to resist participating in corrupt schemes, especially if obtaining jobs, services or contracts depends on bribes.
Many economies, especially in fragile areas, are highly informal, even in peacetime. This should not necessarily be construed as spoiler behaviour, or participation in criminal or corrupt practices. Staying away from the formal, state-registered economic activity could equally be about barriers to entry, or mistrust that formalised participation in the economy would deliver any benefits in exchange for taxes and fees paid. In some cases, business registration could even expose owners to extortion or blackmail, with courts unable to protect them.
To support integrity-based behaviours and deter corruption, interveners might need to apply a mixture of support and sanctioning, the former strong enough to prompt the move toward integrity and the latter strong enough to deter misconduct, but not strong enough to push those willing to cooperate into closer relationships with adversaries. At an institutional level, international support for anti-corruption institutions can help insulate them from pressures from governments, and help build up expertise and networks needed to do their jobs. It should also be recognised that going against corrupt networks could put change agents at risk and in some context, they might need physical protection from violent reprisals. If early reformers are left vulnerable and suffer reprisals, it might be difficult to rebuild support for reforms afterwards.
The international community also needs to consider the political processes that are usually connected with legitimisation of governments, such as elections. In fragile and conflict-affected states, elections can reflect not a legitimate political result, but rather an outcome of bargaining and backroom deals among different factions, supported by bribery and intimidation on election-day itself. Knowing that political institutions, especially elections, are usually required by the international community, powerbrokers manufacture the institutions and the election results they require; the international community needs to be prepared to manage or postpone elections if they are deemed to do more harm than good; establishing inclusive and reform-minded political forces takes time and constant pressure. Should elections go ahead in a non-permissive security environment, international forces might have a role in protecting voters and candidates (especially those from outside the dominant network), to help diminish the scale of fraud.
Costs and Benefits:
A focus on supporting change agents and limiting the influence of spoilers can complicate the operational picture for the mission, and render its relations with the host nation government less straightforward. An in-depth analysis could show that the government, often seen as a natural partner, has in fact been captured by corrupt networks and individuals. This complicates the operational picture, but at the same time makes it more realistic and a better guide to selecting goals and means.
In some cases, supporting change agents – for example a government that does wish to implement change, but encounters significant resistance – carries reputational risks. The influence of external actors could be pointed to as a convenient explanation for why reforms are needed, providing political cover for change agents, but also steering resentment toward international actors.
While all of these factors will require careful handling at both military and political levels, this approach will also allow planners to understand the stakeholders and implement a more effective combination of pressure and incentives.
Case Study: Corruption and Plan Colombia: The Missing Link
Political Will and Ownership: Plan Colombia
US officials involved in Plan Colombia, an assistance scheme for Colombian armed forces and police, pointed to Colombia’s ownership of the plan as a key reason why it worked. The political and military will to build effective institutions capable of countering the drug cartels and the FARC meant that even before Plan Colombia started, the government implemented reforms aimed at increasing the armed forces’ effectiveness and accountability. Plan Colombia provided the political cover for carrying out further defence reforms, and set standards for the Colombian military to aspire to.View case study
International support for anti-corruption institutions: CICIG
The Commission to End Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), established after the Guatemalan civil war to investigate members of the security sector accused of human rights abuses, enjoyed long-term financial and organisational support from the United Nations. This allowed the Commission to grow, gain expertise, and pursue high-level trial and convictions. Its work led to charges being filed against more than 160 current or former government officials, including former and sitting Presidents, Vice President, former defence and interior ministers, and retired military officers. International financial and political support allowed the Commission to survive the challenging first years and achieve tangible results.View external case study
- Command Group