The Washington Quarterly 29.1 (2005) 21-40
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Defeating Transnational Insurgencies:
The Best Offense Is a Good Fence
One of the most troubling aspects of the current insurgency in Iraq is its transnational nature. Islamic radicals are recruited from far-flung networks across the Middle East and Europe and piped into the country through neighboring states, principally Syria and Jordan.1 Infiltration by foreign suicide and insurgent fighters across the Syrian border into western Iraq has taken a particularly ghastly military and civilian toll, especially in al-Anbar province.2 On the other side of the country, the eastern border with Iran is a transport conduit for deadly explosives and could become an even greater liability, should the United States press coercive diplomacy against Iran's nuclear program.3 Despite the costs and dangers imposed by porous borders, U.S. troops and Iraqi security forces seem unable to halt the flow of men and materiel. This failure is not unprecedented; from Afghanistan to Kosovo to Vietnam, transnational insurgent movements have posed daunting, even insurmountable, challenges to counterinsurgent powers.
The inability to neutralize transnational insurgencies reflects a broader problem. Conventional models that guide policymakers, the military, and academics generally assume that insurgents are drawn solely from the native population.4 Consequently, conventional counterinsurgency strategy instructs that, by instilling loyalty or terror in the populace, the uprising can be defeated. In Iraq the pronouncements of U.S. and Iraqi officials clearly indicate that they are operating within this framework.5 The flaw in this approach is that the transnational aspect of insurgent conflict introduces actors who are not permanently embedded in the local population. Transnational insurgents can live and organize in external sanctuaries, rely in part on foreign [End Page 21] recruits and diaspora fund-raising support, and if desired, only enter the country for a period of hours or days, after which they kill themselves or flee back across the border following an attack. As long as the insurgent group maintains minimal support within the country for logistics, it can undermine conventional domestic counterinsurgency strategies such as "winning hearts and minds" or coercing the population.
Exploiting transnational opportunities has allowed insurgents throughout the world to survive and grow under otherwise unpromising circumstances. Since World War II, in Algeria, El Salvador, Lebanon, Northern Ireland, and Sudan, among others, insurgencies facing serious disadvantages have stayed alive and fighting by reaping the benefits of sanctuary, diaspora-based funding and recruiting, and porous borders. Insurgent groups translate transnational campaigns into enhanced staying power, increased political influence, and even ultimate victory in some cases. This is especially true when cross-border ethno-nationalist or religious sentiments can be mobilized in the face of a foreign presence, as transnational insurgency against the Soviets in Afghanistan and against the Americans in Vietnam revealed.6 Along similar lines, many radical Islamists now view Iraq as a battlefield against the United States and have traveled to the country to join the fight.
In the face of these challenges, how can counterinsurgents win the transnational dimension of a conflict? Specifically, how can the United States and its allies neutralize the transnational insurgent challenge in Iraq? Transnational insurgencies undercut the effectiveness of conventional counterinsurgency strategies; neither the hearts-and-minds nor the coercion model can work when an influx of external fighters flows unchecked. Moreover, many of the strategies proposed to deal specifically with transnational insurgencies, such as offensive military incursions, population resettlement, and diplomatic threats and bribes, tend to be either counterproductive or only useful as one part of a much broader strategy against transnational insurgencies. Despite the allure these policies possess, they are rarely as effective as a transnational containment strategy built around three primary elements: border defenses, nationalist propaganda operations, and intelligence cooperation with states where diaspora "feeder" networks are based.
This package of containment policies is not easy to implement, but countries less wealthy and powerful than the United States and its allies in Iraq have successfully used it. Turkey, Israel, India, Morocco, and France (in Algeria) have all blunted determined transnational insurgencies by sealing...