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August 9, 2012


Goodbye Stability (Operations)

by Mike M

Events and reports out of Syria and Afghanistan raise a theme that’s not new, but hardly resolved:  What options does the United States have for what we might call the “post-stability operations era”?

The requirement for stability ops was supposed to be the center of gravity of post-Cold War U.S. global strategy.  From Thomas Barnet’s core/periphery doctrine to Francis Fukuyama’s emphasis on state building to U.S. national security doctrines that prioritized the concept, dealing with “failed states” and the threats they tossed off (regional instability, terrorism, piracy, refugees and more) became the baseline focus of U.S. national security policy.

It’s interesting, then, that in Syria today, U.S. policy seems intent on avoiding the practical implications of precisely this line of thought, at just about any cost.  The idea of putting in tens of thousands of troops to enforce order, generating a “civilian surge” of development and state building experts, and otherwise launching ourselves into yet another “stability operation” of indeterminate length has zero appeal, and for good reason.  The administration is running substantial risks and taking some domestic and international heat to avoid such an outcome.

The United States is out of money.  U.S. ground forces are exhausted, and tired of playing policeman in strange and foreign lands (while simultaneously worried about “forgetting the lessons” of these wars as they did after Vietnam—as if coherent lessons have even been learned).  The American people have lost the will to back such operations.

Most of all, a clear implication of the last decade is that nobody, least of all the United States, possesses any coherent model for effective state-building.  We think we know one requirement for long-term stability and progress—effective institutions—but as to how we might grow them within the miasma of corruption, nepotism, kleptocracy, incompetence, authoritarian hangover, and simple institutional absence that so often plagues failing nations, no one has a verified clue.

Few were surprised, then, and only a handful lamented, when the recent Defense Strategic Guidance declared that it would not “size” U.S. ground forces to “conduct large-scale, prolonged stability operations.”  Translation:  The era of the Iraqs and Afghanistans is over.  The next time a threat rears its head out of a failing state context, or a humanitarian crisis emerges, big-time stability interventions will not be on the options list.

Yet the demands are not going away.  The advocates of intervention in Syria are right about the potential need:  Human rights horrors; dangers of the spread of violence to the region; risks of extremists grabbing hold of pockets within a fragmented state; possible anti-American bias after a transition we did not assist; dispersal of chemical weapons.

Meantime recent news from Afghanistan makes fairly clear we are going to have a mess on our hands after 2014.  The parliament votes to dismiss two senior ministers, including Wardak at defense, historically a close U.S. partner.  Afghanistan’s finance minister, head of a ministry long thought to be a success story of outside capacity building and honest administration, faces investigation on corruption charges.  An extensive Post profile of a U.S. base handed over to Afghan forces hints at a pattern many have feared—an Afghan inability to manage facilities, operations and strategies the U.S. has put in place for them.

Another Post story focuses on a specific town, Karz, raising all the same governance questions that have hung around the neck of the enterprise from the start:  The national government isn’t present; corruption ruins progress; U.S. development projects have uneven results; and more.  A new congressional investigation finds that “a significant proportion” of the $400 million spent on large-scale projects in 2011 was wasted—even ten years into the effort we can’t figure out how to conduct projects properly.  Looming in the background are the unavoidable economics of the situation:  The international presence accounts for the lion’s share of Afghan GDP; as it ebbs, economics will worsen, with many ramifications.

All of which points to likely moments after 2014 when a U.S. president may face crises—of Afghan stability, of parts of the country defying the control of the central government and hosting extremists targeting the United States.  Yet at such a moment, it will hardly be clear what to do.  No matter the tough-guy rhetoric of some who have criticized the current administration’s policies, the U.S. body politic is effectively out of surges.  Absent another 9/11—and the betting here is even in the case of one—no president would spend the political capital to ship 50,000 or more troops over to Afghanistan in some reversal of the transition approach.

So:  In a post-stability operations era, what will we do?  Will our allergy to stability operations leave us paralyzed in the face of the risks of instability, as it seems to be doing in Syria today?

In practice the Obama administration has experimented with several tools:  The light-touch NATO air campaign over Libya; drone strikes to degrade terrorists; a proposal for a training vice combat mission in Afghanistan after 2014.  But the Libya operation only helped clear away a regime, not provide stability.  Drone strikes are likely a stopgap measure—politically questionable over the long term, especially if conducted within a state where U.S. forces once served on the front lines and no longer do (can you imagine Afghan politicians allowing the things to roam at U.S. discretion for years, causing civilian casualties?).  Training is an effective support to a largely coherent governance system, not a substitute for one.

The core issue, again, is stabilization.  Does the United States any longer believe it needs to bring stable and effective governance to such places?  The scholar Amitai Etzioni has argued that nation building generally fails anyway and that outsiders should take a “restrained approach” to the challenge:  don’t try to “change” the society; work with who is in power; cut deals with power brokers; promote arrangements by which local groups work problems out among themselves.  His priorities are domestic security and crushing al Qaeda, and everything else is at best a distant hope.

Etzioni is on to something, but his proposal raises the essential dilemma against which the administration’s Afghanistan policy has been butting its head since at least mid-2009:  Is it really possible to have half a stabilization policy?  The whole Afghan argument has been that the very corruption and weakness of institutions has made success in COIN impossible.  If true as a rule, and if you decide that a country’s stability (and the defeat of an extremist insurrection) is in your interests, you simply cannot turn your back on society-reforming objectives.  They are necessary preconditions for everything else.  You can’t default to “restrained” state-building; it will collapse.  (If there is an argument against the December 2009 strategy, this is it:  It tried to be a sort of “halfway COIN,” and there is no such thing.)

This is the old COIN versus counterterrorism debate in Afghanistan, rearing its head again.  Can we succeed on the cheap, carving out the “real” enemies from amid chaos?  Or must we stabilize the context lest the extremists keep returning?  After a decade of wars, we haven’t come to an answer.  Nor do we have any reliable strategies for delivering stability when we think we need it.

But the truth is, after a decade of war, the answer–our answer, the answer that will be reflected in U.S. policy–has arrived by default.  We have neither the money, nor the forces, nor the will, nor the concepts to stabilize such countries.  Inevitably, then, we’ll continue to manage the problem, experimenting with anything we can find short of large deployments.  (All the while absolutists will scream from the bleachers about appeasement and failure, as if some recipe for success were available to someone who would only spend the requisite billions or dispatch the needed divisions for the necessary decades.)

But two implications can be drawn that need further thought and action.  One is that, since we’re going to be in manage-not-solve-the-problem mode, we need to think much harder about what we do when bad people hit American society—strike directly at the homeland—from abroad.  Terrorism has only been the leading edge of a much wider set of risks in this regard, which will include cyber, economic, biological, robotic, space, even informational tools.  Because we won’t be able to “go forth and conquer” in response, we need a more nuanced answer that still promises to protect the security of the nation.  One part much be a true commitment to deterrence by denial—resilience as a national strategy.

A second implication is that as much as we don’t know how to state build, some broad directions have become evident over the last decade in particular.  The U.S. government (working with international institutions of various flavors) needs to work to create a set of new models to build effective institutions.  USAID is working in this direction, with more recipient-directed programs, but the U.S. and international record over the last decade suggests that a truly revolutionary approach is called for.  The time has come for a rigorous, tough, bottom-up review of all aid and capacity building programs with an end goal of redesigning U.S. efforts to assist countries grow stable institutions.

We may be moving into phase two of the state instability challenge.  Phase one was all about absolutism:  This is the Next Dominant Issue; we need to go forth and cure it.  With experience, we know that these threats are serious but limited, and that we possess neither the resources nor the skill to solve them.  In the emerging phase, we need to think in more humble, “restrained” terms about what we are trying to accomplish and how to go about it.  But when the issues involved threaten American society, this will be no small challenge—analytically or politically.

2 Comments Post a comment
  1. Aug 9 2012

    “U.S. forces will no longer be sized to conduct large-scale, prolonged stability operations.” As if they ever were.

    • Mike M
      Aug 15 2012

      Nice. I wonder if anyone in the DoD review process penned that note into the margins of the defense guidance.


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