THE BLOG
06/20/2008 06:35 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Fixing Iraq: Cops for COIN

Written with Lt. John P. Sullivan

Washington is overflowing with foreign policy proposals for the next administration. Think-tankers of all political stripes are looking for a big idea to revolutionize American foreign policy. Missing from the equation, however, are new solutions for America's problems with counterinsurgency (COIN) and stabilization operations. The goal of these military missions is the reconstruction of law and order and the pacification of enemies such as criminals and guerrillas. The vast majority of American military missions since World War II have been counterinsurgencies, and military experts agree that we will face many more in the coming decades.

Unfortunately, Iraq and Afghanistan demonstrate the immense difficulties our conventional military faces in adapting to careful, intelligence-driven stabilizations missions. A bipartisan chorus of critics argue that military force alone is insufficient for winning counterinsurgencies, which they often dub "police work." So how do we get COIN right? One solution wears blue, drives cars with flashing lights, and wrote you up yesterday for doing 56 in the 55 zone. Yes -- police officers.

Why? Future battlegrounds increasingly blur the boundaries between war, crime, and terrorism. Lawlessness usually follows disorder and accelerates the process of state failure by eroding the state's monopoly of violence and preventing the growth of legitimate enterprise. In Afghanistan the Taliban uses the country's illegal opium trade to finance its operations and undermine government authority. Mobbed-up Iraqi insurgents muscle in on criminal enterprises. And the Colombian FARC, who lack mass public support, are sustained by their command of the coca fields. This highly volatile and complex kind of warfare cannot be waged by traditional military forces alone.

The fault lies not in the professionalism and courage of our fighting men and women, who have proven their mettle in fierce combat. But military forces are ill-suited for restoring basic law and order in societies ravaged by the reach of terrorists and organized crime. Investigation, community relations, and other complex tasks of preserving social order have never been part of the basic military mission and remain at best an acquired taste.

With a wealth of experience in combating gangs and organized crime, community policing, and dealing with complex conflicts in an increasingly multi-ethnic society, America's metropolitan police officers are well suited to overseas stabilization missions.

Yes, the average uniformed police officer doesn't have all of the range of skills necessary to operate effectively in failed states riven by insurgency. But building from community police skills, SWAT capabilities, gang suppression, and detective practices, they can be adapted and integrated into paramilitary, "formed" police units. These hybrid forces like France's Gendarmerie, Italy's Carabinieri, and Spain's Guardia Civil are a third option between the military and the police. These militarized internal security units are trained for both policing and fighting, and excel at international stability missions. These units handle specialized tasks like riot control, investigations, and disrupting criminal conspiracies, freeing up military forces for more general missions.

The European Union has pooled these military police into a 5,000-strong expeditionary police (EXPOL) force known as the European Gendarmerie Force (Eurogendfor), and Australian and Canadian national police departments regularly deploy police for stability operations worldwide.

Unfortunately, the US has no equivalent. With no national police force, few local police forces can contribute officers for peacekeeping abroad without straining their own resources. With no standing EXPOL force, international policing needs are filled on an ad hoc basis by military units and small civilian police forces that are ill-suited to the task. The United Nations has experimented with civilian police (CIVPOL) in peacekeeping forces, but uniformed military peacekeepers still predominate in peace operations.

The time has come for the development of standing constabulary forces that can draw talented and intelligent individuals for overseas policing. A US-specific EXPOL force could deploy in concert with standing NATO and UN expeditionary police units, although there's no reason why US EXPOL units couldn't be combined into mixed police units.

There are many remaining questions about such a force. Under whose authority would it fall -- State Department, Defense Department, or Homeland Security? Would it be a US-centric standing force, or a composite force drawn from many alliance powers? A standing force would offer a clear continuity of command and control, but would be expensive in both money and political will to maintain. A composite force would be cheap and rapidly deployable, but would have uncertain lines of command and control and lack continuity and professionalized training. Constructing such a stability police force would pose many problems and difficulties. But going without it is infinitely more expensive.

In the military, the COIN process is often simplified as DIME (Diplomacy, Intelligence, Military, Economic). But without effective policing to guarantee basic law and order, diplomacy has no credibility, the military cannot effectively operate, and economic reconstruction is impossible. We need to add a "P" -- Policing -- to the mix.

John P. Sullivan is a senior research fellow at the Center for Advanced Studies on Terrorism. A career police officer, he is a lieutenant with the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department. He is also co-editor of "Countering Terrorism and WMD: Creating a global counter-terrorism network" (Routledge, 2006)