Video - Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School

A Conversation with Jacqueline (Jill) Hazelton

  • Maria Costigan
| Spring 2011

Does counterinsurgency as state-building work?

Your PHD dissertation, which you’re working on currently, focuses on counterinsurgency warfare and the conditions under which governments defeat guerrilla insurgencies.  In the cases that you’ve studied, what are some of the constants that you’ve found that enable governments to defeat guerillas?

We have a conventional wisdom on counterinsurgency right now, which is counterinsurgency as state-building ­­­­­­- the development of healthy, participatory, well-governed states will defeat insurgency. But this process is very long term and it has actually never been done.  It’s an ideal.  The ideal involves building the civil arm of the state to serve popular interest, to gain the broad allegiance of the populace, including instituting broad reforms that affect the lives of the people the state in fundamental ways.  And it involves limiting the use of military force in order to prevent the alienation of civilians by causing unintentional causalities.  And all of those things are powerfully appealing to us. They make sense normatively as what we want and what we like and what we think states should do for their citizens.  But, as I said, this model has never actually been put into effect.  And that’s important because the United States is shaping a great deal of its foreign policy around this type of counterinsurgency - in Afghanistan particularly right now, but also in some other weaker states, where jihadi violence or support for jihadi violence has been a problem- Yemen and Somalia., for example

We have this model of what should work to end the threat to the U.S. homeland and to its interests abroad and to its allies, but it doesn’t bear any resemblance to what has succeeded in counterinsurgency in the past.  We as a polity and policy makers can make a choice, and military planners can make a choice, to attempt to conduct this type of effort in a particular case because it’s important, it’s valuable, it’s normatively the way we want the world to work.  But we need to realize that that’s not what actually succeeds in counterinsurgency.  Empirically what has succeeded in counterinsurgency is a lot of fighting, not necessarily a lot of killing, but a lot of fighting, and a little bit of political accommodation of political entrepreneurs.  Whether they’re community leaders or tribal leaders or war lords, the limited, targeted accommodation of these individuals …will advance the state’s goal of defeating the insurgency because it gains the state the intelligence necessary for targeting insurgents and for further political accommodation attempts.

So, if you compare the two models -- the hearts and minds or population centric model that is the conventional wisdom which guides American policy now is about building the civilian institutions of the state.  What actually works in building the military.  The conventional wisdom is about winning the broad allegiance of the populace.  What works is gaining the cooperation of a few political entrepreneurs.  The conventional wisdom says limit the use of force and in particular don’t target civilians; don’t hurt civilians, whatever you do.  Think about the rules of engagement in Afghanistan.  In fact what has succeeded has included not only the use of the full spectrum of force but unfortunately also the targeting of civilians.  So we have  two very different models.  One is visionary, and ambitious, and optimistic and one is not at all pretty- it’s very, very ugly.

How far away from implementing that sort of visionary ideal is the world at large?

That’s a good question and that’s a tough question.  I think that the American military would like to do this through the hearts and minds model- for a variety of reasons, bureaucratic and patriotic and in terms of effectiveness.  But the problem is that it’s hard and militaries are not built and trained and designed to do those things - to do state-building, to build civil institutions, to foster broad political participation, to institute broad sweeping political reforms in another state’s government.

What is the role of peacekeeping organizations in that? Do they play into what the military is doing in this type of situation?

Are you thinking of NGOs and aid organizations?  This is an interesting problem and an increasingly difficult one because there are a number of different perspectives on this that don’t necessarily jibe.  There is an argument that the provision of any aid in a conflict-inflicted state is by definition going to benefit the insurgency in some way.  If there are more resources, then there are going to be more resources accessible to the challenger.  And there is an argument that providing more resources means more fighting because there’s a bigger pie to fight over.  And then in terms of conflicting roles - for the military it’s difficult because if they feel that they need to protect aid organizations, NGOs, and so on, that’s one more thing they have to accomplish and they already don’t have the resources to do what they want to do.  From the NGO perspective, there’s a concern that if they’re seen as allied with the military that will taint them in the eyes of the populace, in the eyes of publics outside the area of operations as well, and make it more difficult for them to do what they want to do.  And they also have the problem of trying to deliver aid and development at the micro or macro level in conflict states - that’s really hard.

Which aspects of your dissertation are you focusing on currently?

Right now I’m researching the Vietnam case.  It’s the third of my three archival and interview cases.  The first is Dhofar, Oman, which was 1965 to 1975.  It was a British backed and led campaign.  The second is El Salvador, which was an American backed campaign, 1979 to 1992.  These are two successes, successes of very different kinds.  Dhofar was a decisive military defeat of the insurgency.  El Salvador was a negotiated settlement.  The Salvadoran state, even with a great deal of American support with money, materiel, and advisors, was never able to do more than fight the insurgency to a stalemate.  So that ended at the table in peace talks.  The third case is Vietnam in the advisory era, 1956 to 1965, and that’s a loss.  It’s interesting as a comparison because the conditions at the starting point were very similar and we see this generally in insurgencies.  You have a weak state, you have a state that does not meet the needs of its citizens in some large way, presumably, that is not strong enough to simply nip the threat in the bud.  And in Dhofar and El Salvador, the state and its great power backer were able to overcome those difficulties, although it took a very long time in both cases.  In Vietnam, the United States was not able to overcome those initial challenges and ended up sending in ground troops.

You’ve had a very interesting career track, you started with an undergraduate and graduate degree in English Literature, including years as a journalist. How did you get into counterinsurgency studies and is there any connection to your earlier work?

I got interested in counterinsurgency when I got started on my dissertation with Bob Art at Brandeis University.  I had done my IR masters on terrorism and I had gone to Bob to continue working on terrorism, but at that point it was becoming clear that the U.S. effort in Iraq was breaking down, and the stories that the military was starting to tell itself about what the problems were and what it should do to fix the problem did not ring to true to me in terms of what I know about how states behave.  It just didn’t make sense.  How could people be making these huge assumptions about what states do, what governments do- when reality bears no resemblance to that story.

There is much more continuity in those three phases than you might think at first glance.  And one of those things that I think is very important, both in scholarly work in political science and in the analysis of literature, and in journalism, is recognizing there are multiple points of view.  There is a multiplicity of actors, and none of them in isolation is most accurate or the greatest reflection of reality.  And that’s not something that a lot of security analysts tend to recognize, and that’s a problem.  There’s also the connection among these realms that is my interest in establishing the facts. Whatever else we’re going to argue over, let’s set the baseline.  What can we agree on factually? What’s going on here, at least to that limited degree?

There’s the question of critical analysis that’s so important in the English field, reading texts, reading narratives, reading in the broad critical sense, not just words on the page.  What is the story? What is going on here? Teasing apart the strands, seeing how they fit together.  And that’s exactly what you need to do in political science and journalism also.

Journalism gives me a terrific advantage in academia.  First, just in empirical background- a lot of knowledge of international events over the years.  Even more important, I think, is the recognition of political realities, not how states work in the abstract or ideally but what the nitty-gritty reality is.  And then finally, it gives me a heightened awareness of the policy implications of academic research.

How has working at the Belfer Center impacted your research?

It’s been fantastic. Being around smart people who do what I do all the time has been remarkably productive for me.  It’s the differences in training from my colleagues, the differences in theoretical approaches and methodological approaches; it’s learning about those things.  How other people approach their work.  It’s been amazingly fruitful.

What would you say the most rewarding part of your long career has been?

You know, I have to say that I think it’s been the opportunity to work with senior scholars.  To see how they do what they do, while they’re doing it.  There’s an element of the old fashioned apprenticeship to that, and that has been a tremendous learning experience.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation:

Hazelton, Jacqueline. "Interview with Jacqueline (Jill) Hazelton: Does Counterinsurgency as state-building work?." Interviewed by Maria Costigan, December 3, 2010. Harvard Kennedy School Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.

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