The Forgotten Front (Book Review)

By Andrew Byers Joint Force Quarterly 90

Download PDF
The Forgotten Front: Patron-Client Relationships in Counterinsurgency
By Walter C. Ladwig III
Cambridge University Press, 2017
$34.99 360 pp.
ISBN: 978-1316621804

Reviewed by Andrew Byers
Andrew Byers is a former Visiting Assistant Professor of History at Duke University and is Co-Founder of the Counter Extremism Network.

The Forgotten Front: Patron-Client Relationships in Counterinsurgency
The Forgotten Front: Patron-Client Relationships in Counterinsurgency
The Forgotten Front: Patron-Client Relationships in Counterinsurgency

This is an important book for theorists and practitioners of counterinsurgency alike. Ladwig, who teaches at King’s College London, begins by pointing out that most U.S. counterinsurgency thinking errs in assuming that the United States will share common goals, interests, and priorities with the local government that it is supporting. As recent experiences in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan indicate, that assumption should not be taken for granted. In fact, many U.S. elements of strategy applied in counterinsurgency—ending political and military corruption, bolstering political legitimacy by addressing the public’s concerns, engaging in economic reform—may appear just as threatening to the local government’s interests as the insurgency itself. Some local governments’ political and other interests simply do not coincide with those of the United States, and that can lead to tremendous difficulty in convincing them to adopt U.S.-backed reforms. Indeed, Ladwig’s central argument is that the “forgotten front” in these conflicts—the relationship between the United States and local government it is trying to aid—is just as important.

The Forgotten Front is structured with three theoretical chapters and three case studies—the Philippines during the Hukbalahap (Huk) Rebellion, 1946–1954; South Vietnam under Ngo Dinh Diem, 1955–1963; and El Salvador during its civil war, 1979–1991. Ladwig concludes with a final chapter with policy prescriptions and implications. The three case studies vary widely in outcome: the Philippines is considered a success; Vietnam, a clear failure; and El Salvador’s results are much more mixed. So what explains the differing results?

According to Ladwig’s analysis, outcomes were primarily determined by the amount of influence the United States was able to exert over its ally to reform itself and adopt desired U.S. policies. In the Philippines, where the United States was able to exert the most influence, a successful outcome was achieved. In South Vietnam, where the United States was never able to induce internal reform, failure resulted. In El Salvador, where the United States was able to exert a moderate and fluctuating amount of influence, a much more mixed outcome resulted.

In each case study, Ladwig examines discrete “influence events” in which the host nation began by opposing U.S. calls for reform or policy change and the United States then attempted to exert influence over its recalcitrant client. Influence is, of course, difficult to measure, but Ladwig uses agency theory—concerned with how one party attempts to motivate another to act on its behalf—to assess the patron-client dynamics in each case study. The United States had two chief strategies for influencing its clients: inducement (a client will comply with the patron’s preferred policies if aid is unilaterally provided and strong statements of support are made) and conditionality (polices that attempt to shape a client’s behavior by making assistance contingent on prior compliance with the desired policy). One of Ladwig’s key findings—a point that should shape future U.S. policy choices—is that client governments almost universally complied with U.S. desires for policy change when it attached conditions on its aid, but never when it simply provided inducements. Open-ended inducements, Ladwig found, simply do not work.

Ladwig argues that significant credit for the successful counterinsurgency in the Philippines must go to the United States because of its sustained, active intervention that relied heavily on the use of conditional aid. This pushed the Filipino government to adopt the necessary military, political, and economic reforms to implement and execute a successful counterinsurgency campaign. The U.S. dominant influence approach was one of conditional aid and constant pressure, always tying aid to reform, and it worked.

In the case of Diem’s South Vietnam, the United States primarily employed inducements, with little success; significant pressure was seldom brought to bear to force Diem to adopt the reforms that would have led to long-term stability of his government, and he was never held accountable for his failures. The United States only tried conditioned aid twice during this period and appeared to gain greater influence as a result, but these efforts were not sustained. Inducements without conditioned aid failed dramatically in the early years of the Vietnam War.

In El Salvador, U.S. influence varied over time and from issue to issue. The United States alternated use of inducements and conditionality across three different administrations, but important reforms and policy changes only occurred when strict conditions were attached to aid.

There are, of course, obvious policy implications and lessons learned here for the United States well beyond these three historical case studies. For example, as the United States revisits its relationship with Pakistan and considers how it might best support its goals in places like Afghanistan and Iraq, it should think hard before offering unrestricted aid, which has an exceedingly poor track record in forcing clients to make the kinds of internal changes needed to compete successfully against an insurgency. More explication and analysis on why governments often choose inducements over conditionality is needed, since open-ended inducements with no specific actions required in exchange for the aid are so common. Deeper analysis is also needed of the complexities and difficulties of adopting a policy conditionality.

Because of its central theme and extensive supporting evidence, The Forgotten Front is one of the most significant recent books on counterinsurgency, with major policy implications for the United States and its allies. JFQ