Sustaining Stability: The Problems and Possibilities of US Stabilization Operations

By: Stan Sundel, Reporter

Photo Credit: Center for Complex Operations

Are stability operations useful in mitigating foreign conflicts? If so, what policy tools can be leveraged to execute successful stability efforts in today’s challenging security environments? These were two of the key questions addressed by Kim Field, a former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State in the Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations and retired US Army Brigadier General, in her talk entitled “The Future of Stabilization,” hosted by the Center for Security Studies on November 30, 2017.

Field defined stabilization as “an integrated civilian and military approach applied in foreign fragile and or/conflict-affected areas to establish civil security, address drivers of instability, and create conditions for sustainable stability.”

“Stabilization operations had become a dirty word” in security circles, Field said, due to perceived repeated failures over the past fifteen years. In particular, the United States’ engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan have illustrated the difficulty of implementing a successful stability strategy. Despite years of international investment in blood and treasure, there has been minimal progress in managing the security situation in these two nations. Field argued that the failures in Iraq and Afghanistan are due to a number of factors. First, it is hard to establish stable governance in countries without a history of democratic institutions. Second, above the tactical (on the ground) level, there has been insufficient cooperation between civilian and military authorities executing stabilization strategy in these countries. Third, the operations carried out during these wars have frequently been mishandled.

According to Field, stability operations require three major components, sometimes called the “three D’s”: defense, diplomacy, and development. In post-conflict environments, the military often plays a disproportionate role in implementing stability operations. However, a military focused approach to post-conflict stability engagements can be problematic. Defense, diplomacy, and development are distinctly different functions. Each are unique tasks that require training in specific skill sets. Military officers tend to prefer to focus on the use of force in stability operations, because this is their core mission. The military is understandably less interested in investing in the “soft stuff”—diplomacy and development—that are essential components of stability operations, because they won’t ever have the expertise of their civilian counterparts and “don’t want to soften [their] warrior edge.”

Since stability operations constitute a complex set of tasks and skills and because we are not likely to see large deployments of “boots on the ground” to conduct stability operations, non-military institutions should be involved in implementing this strategy as well. Civil society organizations (CSO) are essential. Governments often do not have the resources to execute stability operations on their own. CSO’s must work harder to build trust with people in local communities. Coalitions need to be assembled between both national and regional actors that can bring legitimacy to the stabilization process.

“Stabilization is fundamentally a political endeavor,” Field said. As such, the State Department needs to be the primary federal agency coordinating US stabilization efforts. Many different types of government agencies are currently working on stabilization issues—including the NSC, DOD, and USAID. But ultimately, one federal agency needs to have the final authority on stabilization operations. Without designated leadership, complicated bureaucracies struggle to work together towards a common goal, which can threaten the success of stabilization projects.

Field proposed a series of policy prescriptions to improve future stabilization efforts. These included: 1) designating and resourcing the Department of State as the lead for stabilization operations; and USAID the lead for programming under State’s direction; 2) having the National Security Council prioritize countries and regions selected for a stabilization approach; 3) synchronizing military and civilian expertise at the level between policy and tactics; and 4) ensuring the president’s budget provides the State Department, DOD, and USAID with sufficient funds for stabilization planning and programming.

On a different note, Field also offered attendees some valuable career advice. “Luck has a big part in success,” Field said. During her time in the military, she saw many colonels more talented than her that were never selected to become generals. Part of the source of her luck, she said, was having bosses who appreciated what she brought. She advises not to let ambition and impatience pull young people away from those bosses too quickly. Field encouraged the audience to work hard, but keep their careers in perspective, knowing that you cannot chart every step of your professional life.

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