The Global Cable, Power & Security Why Allies Rebel: Defiant Local Partners in Counterinsurgency Wars

September 6, 2020
By Summer Reading List | Perry World House

With Labor Day behind us and the weather cooling down, summer is very nearly over - but there's still time for one more episode of our special Summer Reading List podcast series.

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Music & Produced by Tre Hester.

Franklin Few

On every episode of The Global Cable, we ask our guests the 'Franklin Few' - an updated version of a questionnaire used by Penn founder Benjamin Franklin. Here are Barbara Elias' answers. 

Someone you'd like to meet: Ho Chi Minh, leader of the Việt Minh independence movement and a key figure in the Vietnam War, to find out "what on earth made him think that he could do what he did."

A book, movie, or anything else you'd recommend to listenersForeign Policy's recent articles on race and international relations, such as this piece by Kelebolige Zvobgo and Meredith Loken. 

Someone who's recently done something that deserves praise or attention: Everyone who is hanging in there and doing their best in the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Something Penn and Penn students can do to be of service to the world: Learn from the amazing scholars at Penn, and recognize that there's still so much work to be done no matter your chosen field, so pick a problem and go for it.

Listen now


Barbara Elias [00:00:08] So the book addresses counterinsurgency partnerships between local regimes, like the current government in Kabul, for example, and foreign intervening forces, like the U.S. I was interested in these partnerships because they're full of contradictions, tensions and frustrations. And these alliances don't typically go well. They are unhappy marriages. These alliances tend to be like quagmires within quagmires. And I wanted to give more voice and analysis, using political science tools, to the week ally, to the local regime.

John Gans [00:00:43] Welcome The Global Cable, a podcast from Perry World House at the University of Pennsylvania, where we discuss the world's most important issues with the people who work on them. I'm John Gans, the director of communications and research here at Perry World House.

[00:00:56] With COVID-19 keeping us indoors and at home more than we might have expected this summer, We decided to release a special series of our podcast, a Summer Reading List. On each episode, we speak to an author about their latest book. They share what inspired them, what they learned during the writing process, and more.

[00:01:13] Our guest this week is Barbara Elias, an assistant professor of government at Bowdoin College who specializes in international relations, insurgency warfare, U.S. foreign policy and more. Elias received her doctorate from Penn in political science and was director of the Afghanistan/ Pakistan/Taliban Documentation Project at the National Security Archive in Washington. Her new book, Why Allies Rebel: Defiant Local Partners in Counterinsurgency Wars, was published by Cambridge University Press earlier in the summer. In our conversation today, Elias explains why local forces in war torn countries may choose to cooperate with or defy a foreign intervening power; what the stories of these different conflicts she explores, from Vietnam to Afghanistan, mean for the future of U.S. foreign policy; and how best to research in archives. Barbara Elias, welcome to The Global Cable.

John Gans [00:02:06] Barbara Elias, thank you so much for joining us here on The Global Cable.

Barbara Elias [00:02:09] Fantastic to be here!

John Gans [00:02:12] So the title of your book is very punchy and you are the last book in our Summer Reading List set of podcasts. And it's a great, great title. So 'Why Allies Rebel,' what brought you to this topic? And do you have an answer, I suppose, to that question that's as punchy as the title of your book?

Barbara Elias [00:02:32] Well, thank you. So the book addresses counterinsurgency partnerships between local regimes like the current government in Kabul, for example, and foreign intervening forces like the U.S. I was interested in these partnerships because they're full of contradictions, tensions and frustrations. And these alliances don't typically go well. They are unhappy marriages that these alliances tend to be like quagmires within quagmires.  And I wanted  to give more voice and analysis using political science tools to the weak ally, to the local regime, that might engage in behaviors intervening forces often find super frustrating, like refusing to reform in key ways, engaging in corruption and freeriding, failing to rise to self-sufficiency.

Barbara Elias [00:03:16] But instead of blaming individuals, you know, saying, oh, it's Karzai, Ziem, Tiu, or Maliki - while these figures are inherently flawed, true, there are also structural motivations for their behavior. So I came to this topic because like many scholars in international relations, I'm fundamentally fascinated by power. And in my case, in particular, weapons of the weak, to borrow the phrase from James Scott. And how do ostensibly enfeebled actors effectively impose their will? So the reason why allies rebel? I would say the short answer is because they are not necessarily direct puppets of intervening forces, but are independent regimes. They are highly dependent in terms of material, but politically independent regimes that have their own will and way about doing politics.

John Gans [00:04:12] I think it sounds like you do have a punchy answer. That's great. I think when most Americans think about allies, they tend to think about or recall World War Two or or think about NATO, but allies can vary and come in many shapes and sizes. What types of allies are you looking at here and partners you're looking at here? And is the relationship between a local partner and a larger intervening power always going to be imbalanced and unequal by its very nature?

Barbara Elias [00:04:44] Yeah, and so, absolutely. So one of the things I discovered writing this book is that allies can be small, poor, flawed, and politically vital, all at the same time. So the quality of the regime does not determine the importance of the partnership with that regime in terms of security. And you can have massive resource asymmetries between allies, yet still have a vital security partnership. It just introduces more complexity in a partnership, I would say. So, yes allies do come in many shapes and sizes, and the shape and size of the ally may not necessarily affect how important they are to you. So the relationship between local and intervening forces, well, I would say will always be imbalanced and fraught with complications. You have persistent asymmetries in resources. So with a superpower like the U.S. intervening, and a local ally, that is by definition weak and enfeebled, which is why it needs U.S. intervention. But you also have political symmetries where local regimes need the U.S. In the short term to survive, but the U.S. needs the local allies to thrive and solidify itself in order to win the long war and achieve political stability that is so key in the way the U.S. defines its interventions. So there are resource asymmetries, but political reciprocity and a swapping of material dependencies and political dependencies, I would say.

John Gans [00:06:06] In that example or any of the others, what are the pros and cons of working with a larger intervening power for a group of forces, or a political party, or other groups on the ground? And is it Afghanistan that best illustrates that, or is it Vietnam? Which are the other cases in the book that you talk about, that demonstrate and illustrate the both sides of such a relationship?

Barbara Elias [00:06:29] Yeah, that's a great set of questions. Well, for locals, I mean, essentially, they're trying to - one of the pros is obviously they get security benefits, they obtain immediate security and resources, but it can come at a high cost for them in terms of their legitimacy, their autonomy, in terms of the compromises they must make to appease a patron like the United States, and the high costs of institutionalizing foreign intervention. So while aid and development money is significant and helpful, obviously solidifying their regimes, it's also massively disruptive and feeds into corruption and rent seeking behaviors in the long run. So those institutions and economic structures are really hard to dismantle in the long term. So there's a lot of short term benefits to working with a large intervening power. But there are also long term risks, political risks for local allies.

[00:07:22] There is a delicate dance. They try to extort as much money and benefits as possible from their intervening patron, while at the same time trying to press for as much autonomy and independence from that intervening patron at the same time. So it's a little bit tricky. In terms of cases, one of the great parts about about this project is that it was able to look at nine different wars and see some patterns of similarity across them, but also significant differences. One of the factors that was really interesting was how frustrating all parties found these partnerships in all of the instances that I looked at.

[00:08:04] But I would say one of the more more interesting cases, because you asked about which case best illustrates both sides. I would actually say that the Indian intervention in Sri Lanka from 1986 to 1990 is actually a great case. I'll speak a little bit about why. New Delhi initially supported the Tamil insurgents in the war, so not the counter-insurgents but the insurgents, the Tamil Tigers. So Colombo, the government in Sri Lanka, was engaging in systemic discrimination practices against - discriminatory practices against - the Tamil minority. And New Delhi supported the Tamil insurgents. There's a significant Tamil population in in India, especially in the state of Tamil Nadu and New Delhi, wanted to protect Tamil interests in Colombo. I mean, against Colombo in Sri Lanka.

 [00:08:52] But then New Delhi actually switched sides, the Indian government switched sides after losing control over the Tamil militants, and sought to join the counterinsurgent side, thinking that India, you know, huge power in the region could broker a peace deal between the Sri Lankan government and the Tamil insurgents that would protect Tamil interests and pull Sri Lanka closer to India politically. But the intervention, as many of these are, was a mess. It was a total mess. Over a thousand Indian soldiers were killed in the intervention by the same insurgents that New Delhi had trained. And the Sri Lankan state at one point actually works with the insurgents, with the Tamil insurgents to get the Indians to withdraw. But the Tamil Tigers remain violent and managed to assassinate the prime minister of Sri Lanka as well as the prime minister of India, Rajiv Gandhi, in 1991 in India. So I mentioned this case as the best illustration of the partnership, because it demonstrates the importance of local forces and the importance of local knowledge in coping with insurgents and in counter-insurgency. So the Sri Lankans took money and arms from the Indians, but at the end of the day, the Indians were relying on Colombo to win.

John Gans [00:10:02] When I think you actually - that example is one good one, and some of the elements in the book demonstrate, I think sometimes, in the United States and elsewhere, we grow frustrated when we try to do these interventions and with our partners on the ground or our allies on the ground. And I know that's something that occurs in other countries is, as you sort of illustrate here, and often that is seen as an inability or an incapacity to do what's right, or to be able to accomplish reforms, or do those sorts of things and just generally the capacity of individuals in other countries to do things.

[00:10:41] And what's fascinating, and I don't think this is an original thought, though. I've done some research on Vietnam myself, on what you sort of see is, sometimes these people are on the ground, are extraordinarily capable, in part because they're playing so many different forces and so many different powers against each other. And they're actually great survivors, which is a remarkable skill in some of these countries. And so our questions about capacity are often questions of commitment, and they're playing their interest along the way.

Barbara Elias [00:11:09] No, it's a really good point about how complex the game they are playing actually turns out to be and how they are really trying to survive in a very complex political environment. And so things that seem nonsensical or counterproductive to us, may actually have a complex rationality to it. So I think it's a great point.

John Gans [00:11:27] What if I can ask is, if you were advising the president here in the United States or elsewhere, or a defense secretary or defense minister here or elsewhere, about a foreign intervention, what would you tell them about how local allies might rebel and how they might be able to sort of take steps to avoid that?

Barbara Elias [00:11:50] Yeah, so. So this was something that was really interesting in coming out of the U.S. cases in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan was about how there was a slow learning curve in all three interventions to accept that local allies, the U.S. backed regimes in Kabul, Saigon, and Baghdad, would all have independent interests and would follow those interests. So I would advise anybody or any policymaker looking at an intervention to anticipate that local allies will have divergent interests from the US and they will follow those priorities. So expect it, cope with it, and don't take it personally. They're not disloyal, persay. They are another state that are loyal to their own interests. And that may sound basic, but in the documents are so much palatable U.S. frustration, which you alluded to, you know, that these allies just won't do what Americans are telling them to do.

[00:12:47] And it's very costly for the United States, right, you have the sympathy for that, for that frustration for sure, because Americans are dying and spending upwards of billions of dollars on these interventions to support these regimes. But at the same time, these divisions, political divisions, between intervening forces and between local forces can actually be expected and dealt with ahead of time. That the U.S. also needs to acknowledge that sometimes it's currently pressing for a very strange thing. It's pressing for a client regime that is strong and self-sufficient, but also subservient and deferential. And that's a contradiction in itself. And so the U.S. needs to also use policymakers and I think also need to address their own contradictions in what they're asking local allies to be and to do.

John Gans [00:13:38] That's excellent. Well, you mentioned documents. And so as somebody who's spent a little time in archives and working on my own research, you worked - not only did you do research in archives, but you worked at a wonderful archive in Washington, the National Security Archive at George Washington University. And I thought maybe, you know, that's one of the real gems for academic researchers and really one of the gems, one of the best institutions, I think, that doesn't get enough attention. What does that institution do? Tell our listeners. And what's your best tip for archival work for those researchers who are interested in it?

Barbara Elias [00:14:14] Yeah. Thank you for that. You know, even hearing that, you know, the National Security Archive mentioned makes me smile, because it is one of the best institutions I've ever had the honor to work with and to learn from.

[00:14:27] And like you said, it is often an undiscovered gem. And then once you do discover it, then you're in it for life pretty much. And I did have the honor to work there for almost 10 years on there on a bunch of different projects, including working for freedom of information in general, and then also working on managing the Taliban/Afghanistan/Pakistan project. They're working on U.S. policy in the region.

[00:14:53] But it is - the National Archive is a research institute and a journalism center that is also a library, an archive for declassified documents, it's a lot of things at once. But it does it all well. Its nonpartisan mission is to arm the public, journalists, and historians with historical documents to better understand national security and hold policymakers accountable. So if you need a classified government document declassified, they are your experts. I think it's primarily about accountability and accuracy in our historical record regarding national security. And it'll be interesting to hear what your experience was.

[00:15:32] But I think the best tip is to just keep digging. You often found contradictory information within government documents, across different bureaucracies, across time, across policymakers. The timeline of decision making is vital to construct a timeline as you go to appreciate the evolution of a decision, and the evolution of information available. There is no a-ha moment. There's no like a pirate finding the treasure, I got it, I'm done. You know, I haven't found that. It's a process of building a mosaic, tile by tile, and then stepping back and seeing what the story is and what the policy is. And I would also recommend letting yourself get lost in the documents. My most interesting finds far and away were when I went off on a tangent, just allowed myself an extra hour or so to just find whatever I found is interesting. Maybe it wasn't directly related to my project or what have you, but to something that was just fascinating. And so I was able to discover, you know, something like, um, like memos from the George H.W. Bush National Security Council, for example, that authorized equipment captured from the first Gulf War to be sent to Afghanistan in 1991, in order to appease the mujahideen fighters, some of whom would then become the Taliban later that decade. But here we are. Here's the U.S. sending Saddam Hussein's captured equipment to the future Taliban. So you don't know exactly what you're looking for, sometimes, until you find it.

John Gans [00:17:09] I think that's the kind of thing that the next person I'll talk about would approve of, which is Ben Franklin, who you know well, a Penn grad yourself, you know, our celebration of Ben Franklin and his importance to the University of Pennsylvania. He was one of our first trustees, and he developed a questionnaire for use in conversations with fellow Philadelphians interested in current and global affairs. And we've updated it for our podcast. And these are short questions that can have short answers, these are what we call the Franklin Few. So who would you most like to meet today and why?

Barbara Elias [00:17:46] That's a good question. I also miss Philadelphia. So those of you who are lucky enough to be in Philly, it's a fantastic place to be - I also like being in Maine too, but..So who would I like to meet and why? It's always a really hard question, but short answer I'd say Ho Chi Minh, the leader of the Vietnamese insurgency against the French and the Americans. And I recognize that he's responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands of Americans and Vietnamese, or more. Hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese.

[00:18:17] And I don't take that lightly, but I would love to meet him and ask him what on earth made him think that he could do what he did. Like it worked. And Vietnam became united, communist and independent as he wanted. But all evidence was that the odds were insane against him. So why did he do it and what was he thinking?

John Gans [00:18:37] No it's excellent. It's one I hadn't thought about and one certainly nobody has mentioned before, but it's a great idea. So, you know, I know one of the reasons we're doing a summer reading podcast is we're all sort of stuck, probably not doing exactly what we want to do during the pandemic and coronavirus. And so we're asking people, have you read anything, seen anything, listened to anything that's related to world affairs that our listeners might be interested in?

Barbara Elias [00:19:05] I think in response, in part, at least in response to the times, Foreign Policy magazine, as well as some other publications, have recently put out some some articles on race and international relations as a field of study in political science that are fascinating.

John Gans [00:19:20] Well, that's great.

Barbara Elias [00:19:21] I think that that can be a really useful way to recognize what's happening in the world at the moment, as well as digging into our scholarship as well, and have these worlds meet.

John Gans [00:19:33] That's excellent. OK. And then do you know of any individuals in the United States or elsewhere who've recently done something that deserves praise or imitation?

Barbara Elias [00:19:42] Well, I do love this question because so many academics were so often trained to critique. So it's nice to flip it. Who deserves praise? It's a great, great, great thing. Ben Franklin, as always, a great point, but I yeah, I don't have anyone in particular.

[00:19:58] But I would say right here in this moment with the COVID pandemic and with the reckoning over persistent racial inequities in the U.S., I think so many people are hanging in there wherever there is for them, doing the best they can. And maybe just hanging in there and trying to balance impossible things and doing the right thing deserves a moment of recognition.

John Gans [00:20:18] I like it. That's good enough for me. All right. And then the last question, you know, you were a Penn doctoral student, once upon a time. And so can you think of anything right now in which Penn or Penn students, grad or undergrad, can do to be of service to the country or the world?

Barbara Elias [00:20:37] Well, UPenn gave me a foundation scholarship. I owe so much to the Department of Political Science and to my mentors there, and so advice for Penn students right now would be to learn from the amazing scholars that are there, and recognize that there's so much work to be done. So pick a problem. Don't let go of it. Embrace nuance, change your mind, listen, serve your country or your cause, and know that there are allies out there to go back to the theme of the book, I suppose. Sometimes they can seem small or weak, but allies are vital and can help make change. So even if we are separated by distance, maybe we're not separated by cause in scholarship.

John Gans [00:21:22] I love it. That sounds great. Well, thank you so much for joining us on The Global Cable. And thanks for writing such a wonderful book. We look forward to keeping in touch and getting you back to Philadelphia and to Penn soon.

Barbara Elias [00:21:33] Great. Thank you!