Last September Hillary Clinton found herself on the hot-seat for labeling Mexico’s war against drug cartels as “an insurgency.”
"We face an increasing threat from a well-organized network, drug-trafficking threat that is, in some cases, morphing into, or making common cause with, what we would consider an insurgency," Clinton said in response to a question at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington. "It's looking more and more like Colombia looked 20 years ago."
Her remarks drew immediate criticism from Mexican authorities, who argued that their war is nothing like Colombia’s existential threat from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). While the FARC has mobilized itself with the strict intention of overthrowing Colombia's political and economic system, Mexican cartels are simply concerned with profit. The lack of a political motive, so the theory goes, makes all the difference.
Even President Barack Obama intervened, telling La Opinion, "Mexico is a great democracy, vibrant, with a growing economy. And as a result, what is happening there can't be compared with what happened in Colombia 20 years ago."
Clinton later clarified her remarks by disavowing the comparison.
The flaws in this logic, however, sink deep into the endless fields, deserts, jungles, and mountains of insurgency. Just because Mexico's conditions diverge from Colombia's doesn’t invalidate its own insurgency, nor does Mexico’s “great democracy” and "vibrant economy." Obama and Clinton refer to Pakistan as a “democracy” in the same breath that they condemn its insurgency. U.S. officials have praised Colombia’s democratic and economic progress as its insurgency lingers on. Even a well governed country risks insurgency; one can argue that America’s homegrown gangs, often rooted in political marginalization and poverty, would qualify.
Now everyone is repeating these same mistakes after Joseph Westphal pulled a Clinton at the University of Utah’s Hinckley Institute of Politics.
“This isn’t just about drugs and about illegal immigrants,” the Undersecretary of the Army warned. “This is about, potentially, a takeover of a government by individuals who are corrupt.”
Defining Mexico’s war against the cartels as an insurgency, Westphal then suggested that U.S. troops may be needed to stem violence across the border. Like stepping on a land-mine.
"My comments were not and have never been the policy of the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government toward Latin America," Westphal said in a statement the following day. "I regret that my inaccurate statements may have caused concerns for our partners and friends in the region, especially Mexico."
A serious case of déjà vu, the Mexican Interior Department "categorically rejected" Westphal’s comments, throwing the truth out in the process. One Mexican government official said that Westphal went “way beyond” Clinton's remarks because he speculated that the U.S. might deploy troops over the border, a political red line. As with Clinton’s colorful choice of words, Westphal’s controversy drowned out the very real dialogue over Mexico’s insurgency.
This isn’t something to sweep back under the rug. Perhaps Mexico believes the word “insurgency” makes no difference, but then why fear the word? And why is “war” or “drug war” any better? Insurgency doesn’t imply a legitimate cause any more than regular warfare. In both cases a force can possess legitimate or illegitimate causes.
"It's regrettable that this official makes statements... that do not reflect the cooperation that the two governments have been building," the Interior Ministry added.
The only inaccuracy was Westphal’s ill advised publicity of U.S. ground troops operating inside Mexican territory (contingencies obviously exist). A deciding factor in counterinsurgency is managing impressions over a long period of time; smooth public relations and a unified message in COIN are vital to a successful outcome. But Mexico’s insurgency isn’t nullified by building cooperation between governments. On the contrary, multilateralism is the prescription for combating a cross-boarder insurgency.
And yet Westphal backtracked so far as to say he, "mistakenly characterized the challenge posed by drug cartels to Mexico as 'a form of insurgency.'"
He should have stuck with his first answer. Corruption and chronic underemployment have exacted a grim toll over a populace who feels their daily lives are neglected by the government. Mexico does enjoy a democracy, but many recently questioned whether its revolution had failed during its 100th anniversary. To say that Mexico’s drug war is devoid of a political spark ignores the general resistance to these collective ingredients of insurgency.
Repeating its standard line from Clinton’s flap, the Interior Department argued that Mexico’s violence cannot be characterized as a rebellion. As organized crime, cartels “are not groups that are promoting a political agenda.” This takes a narrow view of insurgency. At least one of Mexico’s gangs, La Familia Michoacana, began with a political objective of protecting the populace, and gang members often hold the opinion that the state has failed them. “Choosing” a gang often comes without a choice.
Nor do all insurgencies have political motives.
Bard O Neill, an old-hand insurgency expert, classified nine different types of insurgents, including commercialists and preservationists. These groups don’t necessarily aim for direct political power, but often display every other symptom of insurgency. Both find it useful to corrupt and damage a country’s political, economic and social structures in order to maintain power. Commercialists aim to acquire profit, preservationists to uphold their threatened way of life. Some have begun to label Al-Qaeda Organization in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) as commercialists. Mexico’s cartels qualify as both.
Cartels seek a degree of territorial autonomy as a result, not outright secession but certainly a politically-tinged goal.
Insurgency isn’t just something that happens in Iraq or Afghanistan. A subset of fourth-generation warfare (4GW), insurgents have sprung up around an asymmetric world. Western militaries and intelligence agencies consider organized criminal networks as a primary non-state threat in the 21st century, due to their growing connections to traditional insurgents like the FARC, AQIM, Taliban, and Chechens. Just as 4GW blurred the line between military and civilian, the diversity of non-state actors is blurring the profile of a traditional, politico/religious insurgent.
Mexican cartels may not fit the usual description of insurgency, but COIN is a relatively new study in America to begin with. Fourth-generation warfare isn’t finished evolving. Some theorists even speculate that non-state spheres like globalized black markets and illicit virtual states are fifth-generation warfare in the making.
Ultimately the answers for Afghanistan and Mexico’s insurgency aren’t so different: clean up the government, efficiently employ the national workforce, improve education, reduce Western demand for drugs, and seal a porous, rugged border. Political strategy is the lifeblood of COIN, however playing politics with insurgency is an absolute violation of COIN. Best to clarify the concepts of insurgency and rectify the other controversy, rather than nuke the entire statement.
That's the fast, easy, and counter-productive way out of trouble - another violation of counterinsurgency.