In late May 2006, U.S. troops pacifying Kabul, Afghanistan, lost control of a cargo truck, causing a massive pileup and killing one civilian. This sparked rioting by a mob of Afghans, many frustrated after nearly five years of U.S.-led occupation. Within a day, because the United States had not developed a robust force capable of protecting noncombatants, 14 more people lay dead, and 138 suffered injuries. "The violence revealed a deep undercurrent of anti-American and anti-government sentiment," Robert M. Perito writes, "and highlighted the inability of the Afghan police to control large-scale civilian disorder" (p. 201). Perito, an expert on democracy promotion and security with the United States Institute of Peace, argues that this is a common failure. Over the last three decades of peace operations, regime change and counterinsurgency warfare, the United Nations, Europe and the United States have failed to train, equip and deploy the kinds of forces necessary to stabilize conflict zones. He contends that this requires the United States to become a Lone Ranger capable not just of taking down regimes but also of building them up.
Perito urges Washington to overcome its aversion to nation building and focus on developing a hybrid force that can wield firepower while carrying out criminal investigations, preventing riots, and developing legal and political institutions. These civil-military units are crucial to the U.S. national interest, he says, because they can bring order to areas that tend to breed lawlessness and, potentially, terrorism. "The United States cannot afford to adopt policies based upon wishful thinking and pretending that the challenges faced in the Balkans, Iraq, and Afghanistan are forever in the past," he asserts (p. 229).
The strength of Perito's book is his comparative approach. His case studies show how the United Nations, NATO and the United States have repeatedly tried to cobble together forces flexible enough to secure population centers — capabilities that most countries either do not have or are reluctant to deploy abroad. The record indicates that military forces, even those fighting relatively hot wars, must be able to establish, at least temporarily, enough law and order to protect noncombatants. However, Perito's method is not rigorous enough to prove that a lightly armed force would solve the problems that have vexed heavily armed troops. More important, Perito minimizes larger issues of U.S. politics and foreign policy that confound the development of a robust constabulary force. This appears to reduce warfighting to a technical question of capacity: if the United States trains forces in police and civilian work and deploys them at the right time and place, then it will get what it wants.
This ignores questions of whether U.S. intervention in the politics and culture of foreign lands is practical, just or wise. Can the superpower stabilize lawless areas without having to expend massive amounts of treasure and deploy tens of thousands of troops and civilian officials for years or decades? Should it aim to build nations in far-flung regions, regardless of differences in religion, culture or political tradition? And do such actions always serve the national interest? Perito's analysis, especially his defense of American intervention in Iraq, will strike most readers as insufficiently attuned to these strategic and political concerns. The military should be able to impose some semblance of law and order in areas under its control, but it is not obvious that these capabilities will make a major difference in execution or outcome, except at the margins.
Perito does not have to dig too deeply into the historical record to show that conventional forces are often too heavy to contend with political, social and economic chaos. He relates the oft-cited example from the early days of the Iraq War, when soldiers who deposed Saddam Hussein "stood by and watched as mobs looted Baghdad's commercial district, ransacked government buildings, and pillaged the residences of former regime officials" (p. 164). Commanders, including David Petraeus, contended that they were not responsible for basic law and order. Perito's approach allows us to compare this failure to a previous episode, in the Balkans, where unarmed groups gained the upper hand because conventional troops could not unleash their massive firepower without compromising the purpose of peacekeeping.
The solution, Perito argues, is to deploy a constabulary force that is lightly armed, trained in both policing and combat, and able to operate both on the field of battle and in areas dense with civilians. Because of this flexibility and adaptability, Perito argues that these forces are ideal for post-9/11 conflicts.
Where are these forces to come from? Perito demonstrates the danger of relying on indigenous police. In one notable case from the Iraq War, Shiite forces were not neutral, but instead meted out sectarian justice, killing 60 Sunnis in retaliation for a truck bombing. More promising, European states like France, Spain, the Netherlands and Italy do field the prototype constabularies that Perito describes. However, he argues, the United States cannot rely on them. During the Balkans missions, some European leaders were reluctant to send these forces for fear that the United States would reduce its conventional forces. In addition, many of these European constabularies were already committed to other missions and could not be spared. Perito interprets this as evidence that the United States should raise its own constabulary, but we might consider it evidence of something else: stabilization missions require time and manpower. Merely having these forces does not mean that they will be readily available.
Perito reminds readers that the United States has historically fielded such hybrid forces. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, it conducted stability missions in areas like the American frontier, Cuba, Panama, Haiti and Nicaragua. Perito laments that these forces were often mostly indigenous, with American officers leading local units. He argues that, today, the Military Police are the closest the United States has to a constabulary. However, they do not have all the civilian capabilities Perito advocates, including expertise in building legal institutions.
Perito is not consistent about whether the constabulary should be autonomous from military command. He says civilians should lead reconstruction efforts "as quickly as possible" (p. 224). But his cases suggest autonomy should be a low priority. These civil-military hybrids cannot fight their way into a conflict zone, so in the early stages of a stability mission, the military is likely to control such forces. In addition, while he does not always highlight it, Perito provides evidence that constabularies are not likely to stand alone without conventional backup. In Iraq, the U.S. Army took years to drive out violent insurgents; a confluence of military force, patrolling by American troops, and the Sunni awakening managed to reduce the number of noncombatant deaths. In Afghanistan, Perito criticizes the United States for prematurely deploying an indigenous police force during its siege of Marjah. The Afghans, he says, were too lightly armed, suggesting conventional forces are crucial to creating the kind of environment within which a constabulary can operate.
Given the difficulties of the constabulary force and its frequent inability to stand alone, how are we to determine either the proper mix of conventional and stability forces or the amount of time that these civil-military troops should be under military rather than civilian command? Perito's method makes it difficult if not impossible to answer this question. How can we know that the stabilization force would be more effective at urban operations than would a conventional force trained in stabilization tactics and operations? Perito does not answer this. Even if the Pentagon and the departments of Justice and State work together to field a civil-military force, as Perito urges, it is likely to require the direct supervision of military commanders and the support of heavily armed conventional soldiers.
Aside from the question of the marginal value of a constabulary, Perito's study downplays issues of politics and strategy. For example, U.S. forces failed to stop the looting of Baghdad, not simply because they were unable or unwilling, as Perito contends, but because the Bush administration refused to take responsibility for the postwar chaos. The world's greatest constabulary could not have stepped in without an explicit order by civilian leaders that U.S. forces were to stabilize the society and build a new state. In addition, given the congressional antipathy toward the use of the military as a police force, Perito does not convince the reader that lawmakers would favor the development of a stand-alone constabulary. Whether the force will fight its way into a conflict zone or require a hefty contingent of regular troops, this puts American lives at risk and does not make manpower-intensive nation-building operations any more likely.
What we should not assume, but Perito seems to hint at, is that this hybrid force could lower the domestic-political bar for deployment of U.S. forces. A flexible and readily deployable constabulary sounds like a neutral institution designed to enforce the rule of law, protect noncombatants and advance U.S. interests. However, regardless of its purpose, this force will be participating in actions akin to war and may be the target of armed groups. If the hybrid force is central to the U.S. national interest, then it must be treated as if it were any other military force: deployed transparently by U.S. officials and backed by American national will.
Unfortunately, Perito's interpretation of the U.S. national interest and its grand strategy may lose him the trust of many readers. He contends that, after the terrorist attacks of September 2001, "it became clear that the U.S. ability to establish sustainable security in failing and postconflict states would rise in importance" (p. 219). However, Perito does not fully square this with the conflict in Iraq, which the United States turned into a power vacuum. Would the stabilization force simply be used to eliminate failed states, or would it make it easier for the United States to destabilize countries in the hopes that they could be remade in its image?
Ultimately, Perito's title may mislead readers about how a stability force is likely to work. First, the comparison to the Lone Ranger suggests that the constabulary intervenes, shoots (or does not shoot) and leaves. But Perito's evidence demonstrates that stabilization forces will be difficult to staff with local citizens, will often number in the tens of thousands, and will require many years if not decades to succeed. This increases the political difficulty of training and deploying the stabilization force, and it means that it is difficult to hold such forces in reserve. If these units are working in Bosnia, Kosovo and Iraq, how many are left for Afghanistan and other lawless regions? By Perito's logic, they cannot be shifted around easily; they must be given enough time to ensure that internal tranquility and institutions of law and order can persist without them.
Second, his evidence shows, the constabulary is not a silver bullet. Such a force would likely not be able to go into or remain in a war-torn region without the presence of conventional U.S. troops. This is true for moral reasons (who comes to their aid if they are overwhelmed by armed enemies?) and political ones (U.S. lawmakers will never, perhaps should never, allow such units to operate on their own without such a backup force). Therefore, the constabulary will likely be closely linked to the military. Indeed, former Army officers who praise Perito's book say they are convinced that the Army will again be tasked with missions like stabilizing Iraq and Afghanistan.
Third, in The Lone Ranger series, the local population always gazed admiringly at the Lone Ranger as he rode off, asking each other, "Who was that masked man?" But a U.S. stability force would not have this kind of anonymity. In each of the cases under review, Perito relates episodes where at least one faction appeals to suspicion — or hatred — of the United States in order to resist its stabilization efforts. This was as true in Bosnia, where the United States was not party to the original conflict, as it was in Iraq and Afghanistan. These feelings among foreign populations may not always be fair, but there are two reasons for them. First, the United States is often an interested, rather than a neutral-party. Second, these civil-military forces still engage in violence or threats of violence, and their actions are likely to provoke resistance or hostility.
Proponents of this kind of constabulary force would do better to emulate scholars like Eliot A. Cohen, who in Citizens and Soldiers: The Dilemmas of Military Service defines the United States as an "imperial republic" in need of a lean, "hardy" volunteer force nimble enough to fight small wars effectively (pp. 31, 182-187). Cohen does not argue that U.S. interventions will be neutral and anonymous. No matter the kinds of forces we deploy, these are not police actions. They are wars.