Stability Operations Given Priority But Not Funding

Neil King Jr. and Greg Jaffe report that the United States is vastly increasing its emphasis on peace and stability operations. Sort of.

The difficulties of rebuilding Iraq after toppling Saddam Hussein have taught President Bush a painful lesson: Aftermaths can be tougher than wars. Now the administration is trying to recalibrate the military and foreign service to better handle postwar developments in future conflicts.

For the first time, the Pentagon has declared that, along with battling foes, the ability to foster stability and reconstruction is one of its core missions. The administration also planted the seed for a corps of trained nation builders in 2004 when it created an Office of the Coordinator for Reconstruction and Stabilization in the State Department. The 55-person shop is staffed largely by officials on loan from the Defense Department, the Central Intelligence Agency and other agencies. It tries to anticipate the next global hot spot — be it Sudan or North Korea — and prepares to deploy as the main U.S. postwar coordinator wherever a need might arise.

While this “lesson” has been rather obvious for more than a decade, there were substantial bureaucratic and political obstacles to implementing it into policy. Indeed, Bush ran for office vowing not to do “nation building.”

Even the Iraq underway, though, the change has been minimal:

With finances tight, Congress isn’t rushing to budget the money. One senior Pentagon official says he has heard objections from both Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill. Their worry: elevating the importance of nation-building will, over time, divert funds from the nation’s ability to wage all-out war and leave the military less prepared to counter an unexpected major threat from a country such as China. And legislators in both parties are wary of more Iraq-style adventures. “There is wide recognition of the need to professionalize our response to postwar challenges,” says James Dobbins, who oversaw a host of U.S. rebuilding efforts during the 1990s, mainly at the State Department, and who is now at the Rand Corp. think tank. “But there is also a whole range of criticism that says, ‘If we get better at this, we might start doing it more often.'”

If, as my mentor always taught me, “policy is what gets funded,” these changes barely constitute policy. The military is making the change quite grudgingly and Congress would prefer to devote the money to things that will directly benefit their constituents and, not incidentally, their chances for reelection.

Supporters point out that after the Cold War — and well before the recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan — the U.S. plunged into more than 15 different stabilization and reconstruction operations, from Haiti and Bosnia to East Timor and Kosovo. Each effort was undertaken essentially from scratch, by mustering whatever personnel and money the government could.

The postwar operation in Iraq exposed the defects of that approach. They include sketchy advance planning, a deficit of qualified personnel and tensions between the military and diplomats. Even today, Pentagon officials complain that the State Department and other civilian agencies, such as the Justice, Commerce and Agriculture departments, are slow to provide reconstruction experts to help soldiers in the field. That leaves the military doing jobs it says are better suited to civilian experts.

The Bush administration opened the State Department office on a shoestring — and with little fanfare — 17 months ago. In 2005, the White House asked Congress to chip in $17 million of start-up funds, but ultimately it got only $7.7 million. The administration then asked for $124 million for the fiscal year ending in September — $24 million for staffing and the beginning of a first-response team, with the rest to establish a special crisis fund. Instead of funding the crisis fund, lawmakers have given the Pentagon the authority to transfer as much as $100 million from its budget to the State Department office in the event of a crisis. Legislators also trimmed the State Department’s overall budget request, but without detailing how much should go to the reconstruction office. Now, offices inside the State Department are jockeying with one another over available funds. Advocates for the reconstruction office expect to get less than their desired $24 million.

This is what Congress and bureaucracies do. Indeed, part of the art of the budget process is labeling something as whatever hot topic is getting funded. Calling a thing that you’ve been doing for other purposes “homeland security” or “counterterrorism” is a surefire way to get more money for it.

Whether or not Congress acts, the Pentagon is raising the profile of nation-building operations. In late November, Deputy Defense Secretary Gordon England signed a Pentagon directive singling out postwar stability and reconstruction operations as a “core U.S. mission” with a priority “comparable to combat operations.” More than a year in the making, the directive marked the first time the Pentagon has elevated stability operations to such a level, and it reflects the post-9/11 realization that failed states, such as Afghanistan, pose just as great a threat to U.S. security as industrialized powers. “This is a revolutionary notion. It is a huge change,” said Hans Binnendijk, who teaches at the Pentagon’s National Defense University.


Some officers who have succeeded at stability operations in Iraq are being promoted to positions where they can better shape the future of the Army. For example, Lt. Gen. David Petraeus, who led the 101st Airborne Division in northern Iraq and then oversaw the training and equipping of Iraqi security forces from Baghdad, has been promoted to run the Army’s Combined Arms Center at Fort Leavenworth, Kan. There, he is responsible for educating officers and shaping Army thinking on warfare.

The Army, not unreasonably, fought these changes throughout the 1990s. That they dubbed these things “operations other than war” for several years was a pretty good clue that they thought of these as ancilliary missions. Now that they have been the modal business of the Army for nearly fifteen years, though, it is now inescapable that getting good at it is a priority. If Congress funds it inadequately, the military will divert money from other pots and get the job done.

FILED UNDER: Congress, Uncategorized, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Barry says:

    “Aftermaths can be tougher than wars.”

    This ‘aftermath’ is part of the war; it’s only been declared otherwise by people seeking to excuse the f*ck-up. Sort of like a scene in a movie, where somebody punches a guy out in a bar, only to have a dozen friends of the punchee stand up and start fighting.

  2. James Joyner says:

    Barry, that’s true in the case of an insurgency but otherwise seldom so. While the aftermath may well determine the success of the mission, it usually isn’t something that the military has the tools to deal with.