The Future of Stability Operations: Can the U.S. Do Better?

By: Alicia Chavy, Columnist

Photo credit: Ian Leones, U.S. Marine Corps

Over the past two decades, the U.S. has led or participated in an array of civilian and military efforts in unstable and conflict-ridden nations around the world, to rectify human rights abuses, restore peace, security, governance, and stability. The U.S. has been officially involved in Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, Kosovo, East Timor, Afghanistan, and Iraq.[i] However, deeply rooted strategic and operational issues surround the U.S. approach to stabilization, which, if not addressed promptly, could undermine the sustained success of future stability operations. While there has already been a response to some of these issues in an inter-agency report released on June 19, 2018, the “Stabilization Assistance Review” (SAR), it has been met with some resistance in the National Defense Strategy (NDS). The new report may not be enough for the U.S. government to see a return of investment and success in future stability operations.

Due to its strong military capabilities, rapid mobility of resources, quick access and ability to jump-start critical operations, the U.S. has often focused on a military solution when executing or spearheading security and humanitarian relief tasks.[ii] Regrettably, most cases, for example, Somalia, Haiti, and Afghanistan, have increased conflict or instability. For instance, the 1991 security intervention in Somalia became an iconic example of what to avoid in stability operations. By 1993, the situation culminated into clashes with Somali factions, and led to the infamous Blackhawk down crisis in October 1993 when the U.S. employed decisive force to counter the rising security threat. After a combination of failed diplomacy and military intervention, Somalia has remained a failed state, with no effective central government, an ongoing humanitarian crisis, and continued factional fighting. [iii]

Past U.S. stability endeavors have not succeeded due to issues about the legitimacy and scope of its mandates, and to political and operational constraints. U.S. intervention forces carried over distinct mistakes, undermining their overall efforts and the endurance of its stability efforts. Such mistakes include the limited planning and clarification of the U.S. government’s intended scale of commitments; the inadequate scope and objectives in a mandate; the lack or scarcity of resources and support, and of distinct timelines, approaches and capabilities connecting the U.S. agencies and organizations have all weakened the impetus of stability operations.

There has also been a waning domestic public and political support for stability operations due to detrimental past failures in Somalia and Haiti. As a result of growing global terrorism and unconventional threats, the U.S. has focused increasingly on meeting security threats with force. These social and political developments have undermined American willingness and ability to carry out longer-term stability operations that involve development, governance, and rule of law projects in other countries.

As such, shifting national security and budget priorities, and limited civilian-military and interagency coordination led to inadequate allocation of resources and the use of a quick in-and-out strategies in Somalia, Haiti, and Bosnia. With shorter timelines and mandates, the U.S. stability operations were not sustainable measures and forced the country to become involved in intractable wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Understanding these failures, the U.S. State Department, USAID, and the Department of Defense released SAR, drawing upon lessons from stability operations after conflicts in Syria and Iraq to help the United States conduct stabilization operations more effectively, by leveraging diplomatic engagements, defense, and foreign assistance. According to the SAR report, a stability operation is “an inherently political endeavor to create conditions where legitimate authorities and systems can manage conflict and prevent violence.” Thus, the success of stability operations rests upon whether the U.S. and its partners can create such conditions to establish a foundation for longer-term development.[iv] The report outlines how the U.S. must improve the outcome of stabilization efforts through reformed bureaucratic structures, processes, and engagement with international partners. SAR also defines agency roles, identifying the State Department as the leading agency, USAID as the implementing agency for non-security stability operations, and the Department of Defense as the supporting element.

However, ongoing U.S. political and operational constraints harm the successful implementation of SAR. In the new NDS, the Trump administration shifted its priorities towards conventional threats and great powers conflict, reducing development, economic aid, and stability operations. The new freeze of 200 million dollars in stabilization assistance and the Secretary of the Army’s recommendation to eliminate the army’s Peacekeeping and Stability Operations Institute undercut the U.S. ability to carry out such operations.[v]


President Donald Trump’s budget and national security strategy deeply affects the US’ investment and involvement in future stability operations. With such fluctuating political, economic, and social support, the State Department, USAID, and DoD should navigate these constraints by further reforming the U.S. approach to stability operations.

First, future stability operations must focus on effective non-military means and military/civilian cooperation to prevent instability and resurgence of conflict.[vi] As the State Department takes the lead in future stabilization efforts, it must incorporate lessons learned from past and ongoing non-kinetic programs into future operations. Although “security is the sine qua non of post-conflict reconstruction,”[vii] crucial initial efforts to create justice, reconciliation, social and economic well-being, and governance “should not be sacrificed for vain attempts to establish a completely stable and secure environment.”[viii] Sacrificing such efforts today could have detrimental effects in the long term and could influence the development of future conflicts. The U.S. and its partners should explain and aim to obtain a local buy-in to enable the host nation in owning the reconstruction process and be its prime mover. Through joint assessments and the coordination of needs and objectives, the U.S. can address stabilization holistically.

Second, U.S. agencies and organizations must boost collaboration with its local, regional, and international partners. Regional organizations such as NATO and the African Union well understand the cultural, historical, security, and geopolitical issues at stake, and are more interested and incentivized than nations like the U.S. are in contributing to the building of other nations. The past involvement of regional organizations has increased the credibility and legitimacy of interventions, providing more leeway and flexibility for intervening forces. Such collaboration and coordinated efforts can help the U.S. match ends – the scope and ambition of the mandate – to means – the resources, funding, and required materials.

Third, and finally, in future conflicts the exit strategy of the U.S. and intervening forces must rest upon specific success in each context, instead of being guided by artificial deadlines or externally driven bureaucratic imperatives.[ix] As witnessed in Somalia and Bosnia, artificial deadlines may not be adequate to the particular situation and the urgency of the need for reconstruction, and they may encourage spoilers simply to wait for the international community to leave. The U.S. and its partners must consider local, regional, and international expectations of their stability operations, and establish realistic time horizons for them.[x] In doing so, they can foster local, regional, and international support for the nation-building projects, to ensure long-term sustainability.








[i] MCWP 3-03, Stability operations, US Marine Corps, December 16, 2016. P.15.; Nina M. Serafino, “Peacekeeping and related stability operations: issues of US military involvement,” Naval History and Heritage Command, July 13, 2006.

[ii] Berger, Samuel R., Scowcroft Brent, In the Wake of War: Improving US Post-Conflict Capabilities: Report of an Independent Task Force Improving US Post-Conflict Capabilities, Council On Foreign Relations (United States), 2006.

[iii] Nora Bensahel, “Humanitarian Relief and Nation Building in Somalia,” in The United States and Coercive Diplomacy, ed. Robert J. Art and Patrick M. Cronin (Washington, DC: United States Institute of Peace, 2003), 21-56.

[iv] State Department, “State-USAID-DoD Stabilization Assistance Review (SAR)”, June 19, 2018,

[v] Goodson, Jeff, “Defense Department wants out of stability operations”, The Hill, August 7, 2018,; Center for Strategic and International Studies, “Department of Defense’s Role in Foreign Assistance”, July 11, 2018,

[vi] Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, “Preserving stability ops capabilities to meet the future challenges,” Biennial Assessment of Stability Operations Capabilities, February 2012,


[viii] Ibid

[ix] Robert Orr, ed., Winning the Peace: An American Strategy for Post-Conflict. Reconstruction (Washington: CSIS, 2004), p.31


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