`Low-intensity warfare'

THE phrase ``low-intensity warfare'' crops up frequently in the context of terrorism. The term actually refers to today's often ambiguous conflicts -- including terrorism, counterinsurgency, and, some would say, narcotics trafficking. ``Low intensity'' means that these activities are well below the level of total conventional or nuclear warfare, but the phrase does not communicate the true nature of this struggle in which terrorists kill people. There are four keys to achieving success in a low-intensity conflict:

Understanding the concept and recognizing it as a serious national-security problem.

Realizing that we are already combating it.

Cooperating to devise a clear strategy that Americans can understand and support.

Developing the patience to pursue successful long-term results.

Difficult as it is to deal with low-intensity warfare, the United States has registered some successes. It has assisted several friendly nations in their counterinsurgency struggles. In El Salvador, for instance, the government has made advances in its struggle against the guerrillas and their Soviet, Nicaraguan, and Cuban supporters. The most important lesson in dealing with counterinsurgency is to achieve a balanced national strategy with overall political goals, rather than one in which economic or military efforts predominate.

We can also learn from successful counterinsurgency efforts undertaken without US assistance. The Guatemalan armed forces have long conducted by themselves a complex counterinsurgency effort based on a national strategy integrating the public and private sectors.

The US must also examine its efforts to build democratic institutions in the third world. Such institutions are needed to combat security threats posed by insurgency, terrorism, and narcotics trafficking. When citizens of third-world countries can see results from participation in the political process, Marxist-Leninists lose their best opportunities to destabilize governments.

The US has long assisted nations in building stronger democratic institutions and training civic-minded people. We focus on government and people through economic and security assistance. We assist national electoral mechanisms so they can overcome logistical and administrative challenges. We also sponsor conferences and programs for leaders of nations, exposing them to US values and political system. We try to improve the humanitarian quality and professional nature of law enforcement so that people can trust their police, not fear them. Via graduate scholarships to US universities, we help other nations develop critical skills in medicine, economics, technical disciplines, and agriculture.

By assisting education programs, we support efforts to train citizens to improve their communities. Strong democratic institutions give people the foundation to defeat threats to their nations. The people and their institutions are strengthened in this process.

Ultimately, we need to improve these efforts and integrate our actions in an effective national-security strategy. Close cooperation and integration of policy concepts and efforts between the State and Defense Departments must be matched by cooperation from the Congress. Congress should remove legislative restrictions and administrative requirements that complicate the administration's efforts to meet these challenges.

The final ingredient is patience, as Sir Robert Thompson, principal architect of Britain's victory over Malayan communist guerrillas in the late 1950s, emphasizes. ``Take as long as necessary,'' he counseled in a recent Defense Department conference on low-intensity warfare. ``Be content to achieve your objectives in 10 to 15 to 20 years. Follow a low-cost strategy.'' Finally, Sir Robert advises that the best way to lose this war is to give in to the temptation to do nothing.

John W. Van de Kamp is an Air Force politico-military affairs officer assigned to the Department of State. The views expressed are his own.

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