Defense Department wants out of stability operations

afghanistan war
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afghanistan war

Last January, the secretary of Defense, secretary of State and administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) signed a new interagency framework for conducting stability operations. Known as the Stabilization Assistance Review or SAR, it’s the result of years of interagency friction over institutional rolls in conflict environments.

In conjunction with the SAR, the Secretary of the Army has recommended eliminating the Army’s venerable Peacekeeping and Stability Operations Institute. Secretary of Defense James Mattis is expected to rule on that proposal in the next 10 days, and what he does will say a lot about the future of this critical instrument of national security.

{mosads}Stabilization focuses on three basic elements: security, governance and basic service delivery. U.S. experience with stabilization since 9/11 has left something to be desired. The SAR argues that the problem is lack of strategic clarity, organizational discipline and unity of effort. What it doesn’t say is that the global development industry has become ideologically obsessed with the notion that development is a civilian lane, and wants DoD out of it altogether.


Stability operations are critical to consolidating military gains and achieving strategic success. They constitute part of core military doctrine, they are one of five basic types of irregular warfare, and DoD has a continuous track record of leading these operations dating back to 1789. Now, however, DoD wants out so it can focus entirely on kinetics. This is the latest pendulum swing in a long-running ideological schism in the U.S. military between those who understand irregular warfare — there have been 181 insurgencies just since the end of World War II — and those who think the military should limit itself to breaking things and killing people. 

The SAR proposes to reallocate authority for stability operations, with State as the overall lead, USAID as lead for non-security assistance, and DoD providing security and support. This approach has many problems, but three stand out. First, the SAR focuses on countries in the throes of conflict and largely ignores both “gray zone” countries headed in that direction and those on the road to recovery. Second, it focuses on near-term stability and barely addresses the complex medium- and long-term term actions that make it sustainable. 

Third, the SAR’s parochial framework ignores the private sector altogether. This is particularly curious. Foreign direct investment long ago surpassed traditional development funding in driving country development, and it will continue to play a major — if not defining — role in the mid- to long-term stability of nations.

The military is legally required to stabilize territory that it controls. Now, at the threshold of abdicating leadership for that to USAID, DoD argues that its stability mandate is both obsolete and onerous: It costs too much, personnel and force structures have changed, and the military needs to focus on combat readiness. With an active duty roster of over 1.2 million and a reserve of over 800,000, however, a DoD-funded RAND Corporation analysis found that the U.S. military is still well-staffed to conduct both large- and small-scale stability operations. 

In addition to security, the sine qua non for stability, DoD has some 60,000 engineers to restore essential infrastructure, thousands of Civil Affairs forces to work with local authorities, 40,000 medical personnel to help provide health services, 90,000 military police to help establish public order, and 7,500 judge advocates general to help with civilian rule of law.

RAND identifies a dozen significant risks to the SAR approach. The most important is reliance on civilian organizations to perform. USAID is very good at what it does. But in contrast to DoD’s force of over 2 million, USAID had just 10,235 staff in 2016 — over 48 percent of which were overseas foreign nationals. That’s a U.S. personnel ratio between DoD and USAID of about 395:1. It had just 42 U.S. engineering positions worldwide, and only a few hundred staff in the Office of Transition Initiatives, which runs the agency’s 14 stability programs.

Irregular warfare isn’t going away, and neither are stability operations. Congress needs to take a cold hard look at the real-world capabilities of all three institutions, and forget about a change of leadership. Instead, it should instruct DoD to mainstream stability ops, possibly in a separate stability command. It should also instruct USAID to support DoD in making national security generally, and stabilization specifically, its top priority.

DoD, meanwhile, should be careful what it wishes for. If it succeeds in abdicating the lead for stability operations, it had best be ready with a backup plan. As the only U.S. institution with the ways, means and track record to successfully lead this kind of work — especially at war — the question isn’t if but when it will be back in the saddle.

Jeff Goodson is a retired U.S. Foreign Service Officer. In 29 years with the U.S. Agency for International Development, he worked on the ground in 49 countries in Africa, Asia, Latin America, Eastern Europe and the Middle East. Goodson was chief of staff at USAID Afghanistan from 2006-2007, and director of Development at ISAF Headquarters in Afghanistan under General David Petraeus and General John Allen from 2010-2012.

Tags James Mattis Jeff Goodson Military stability operations

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