USAID and Counter-Insurgency: Five Decades Old

The State Department (@StateDept) reminds us that the United States Agency for International Development has it’s 50th anniversary today. Somehow, the United States had the bright idea to place its international aid agency within the national security apparutus right from the start. John F. Kennedy and his top global policy planners saw USAID, the Alliance for Progress in Latin America, and other friendlier faces of the US government as working hand-in-glove with the planners of military maneuvers, trainers of military and para-military forces, and plotters of coups.

Not only was Kennedy into such soft power–hard power collaboration, but he was personally fascinated by counter-insurgency (a word that would later become so common, it lost its hyphen). John F. Kennedy, a man with a political halo is most American circles, brought about the Green Berets and the Special Warfare School at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. In March 1961, just as US AID was getting its commission publicly, a committee of the National Security Council (later the Special Group – Counter Insurgency) was commissioned to report on “U.S. Strategy To Deal With Wars of National Liberation,” as put in the title of the report they issued in December.

This report did not remain in a file, but instead drove new concepts like “counter-insurgency” and “internal defense” into the heart of US foreign policy for a generation. In Latin America, where I am now, “internal defense” became “internal security” or the “national security state,” the key American vision for reorienting Latin American militaries towards a new enemy: internal leftist parties and social movements.

Here’s a breakdown of the worldview behind this (all quotes are from the Overseas Internal Defense Policy written for the National Security Council in 1962; I swear no critic of the government was involved in making any of this up!):

  1. Communism was the global enemy, but the most serious losses to it had come in China, Vietnam, Cuba, and Algeria, where local leftists were almost entirely responsible. This is called internal agression.
  2. “Communists often infiltrate nationalist and reform movements.” So they might be a problem too.
  3. Everyone’s a target: “The vital sectors within modernizing societies include the rural sector; the labor front; students and youth organizations; the intelligentsia; the educational systems; internal communications and informational media; the military and police; religious groups; the civil bureaucracy; the various middle-class elites; ethnic minorities; and the political parties, sometimes including a legal communist party but invariably an illegal communist apparatus operating underground or through various fronts.”
  4. This matters to the USA because (1) We like freedom; (2) For military reasons, “strategic areas and the manpower and natural resources of developing nations” must not fall under communist control; (3) For economic reasons, “resources and markets of the less developed world [must] remain available to us.”
  5. The USA can get involved everywhere: to “immunize” countries where there is no insurgency, to “defeat the threat” where “subversive insurgency is latent or incipient,” and to train countries for and get involved in fights against insurgents.
  6. We need to get local governments to sign on to this policy. “To persuade these leaders to act in the interests of their society is often a complex and subtle task. … It is therefore essential that U.S. Country Teams know where the points of strength and vulnerability lie. This done, they can determine how to strengthen those elements which most effectively support U.S. objectives.”
  7. The US is okay with revolution: “The U.S. does not wish to assume a stance against revolution, per se, as an historical means of change. … A change brought about through force by noncommunist elements may be preferable to prolonged deterioration of governmental effectiveness or to a continuation of a situation where increasing discontent and repression interact, thus building toward a more dangerous climax.”
  8. However, the US will act against any revolution still in its early stages: “Where subversive insurgency is latent or incipient, U.S. strategy will be directed toward its elimination, lest it provide a communist foothold and escalate into active insurgency.”
  9. All hands on deck! “Anticipating, preventing and defeating communist-directed insurgency requires a blend of civil and military capabilities and actions”

Okay, so what does this have to do with USAID? Well, guess who was on the Special Group – Counter Insurgency:

  • Military Representative of the President, Chairman
  • The Attorney General
  • Deputy Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs
  • Deputy Secretary of Defense
  • Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff
  • Director of Central Intelligence
  • Special Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs
  • Administrator, [US]AID
  • Director, USIA

Further, the AID has a strategic role in “immunizing” countries against uprisings, in making the existing social order more palatable, and in training militaries and paramilitaries. Or as the NSC put it:

Where subversive insurgency is virtually non-existent, or incipient (PHASE I), the objective is to support the development of an adequate counter-insurgency capability in indigenous military forces through the Military Assistance Program, and to complement the nation-building programs of AID with military civic action.* The same means, in collaboration with AID and CIA, will be employed to develop a similar capability in indigenous para-military forces.

*[From the glossary]: The use of preponderantly indigenous military forces on projects useful to the local population at all levels in such fields as education, training, public works, agriculture, transportation, communications, health, sanitation and others contributing to economic and social development, which would also serve to improve the standing of the military forces with the population.

And just in case you’re thinking that USAID-Counterinsurgency cooperation is so fifty years ago, here’s a quote from the US Government Counterinsurgency Guide of January 2009:

“The large numbers of foreign service nationals that make up the professional cadre of field staff provide a unique understanding of the local situation, while the range of sectors and levels of activity allow USAID great operational flexibility and agility to both implement and track the effectiveness of COIN operations.” (Appendix: US Government Roles in COIN [Counterinsurgency], p. 51)

So, happy birthday, USAID! And remember, if anyone confuses you with an organized attempt to thwart radical social change, it’s just because they’ve figured out your mission statement.

Bibliographic note: The Overseas Internal Defense Policy is just one of many declassified documents now freely available. Many subsequent implementation decisions on counter-insurgency issues are part of the Presidential Decision Directives archive by the Federation of American Scientists.

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