Foreign Policy Essay

The Foreign Policy Essay: The (Many) Hurdles to U.S. Stabilization Operations

By Renanah Miles
Sunday, February 2, 2014, 10:00 AM

Editor’s Note:  The United States has repeatedly intervened to stabilize conflicts and build state capacity in the developing world. Most attention focuses on the desirability of military intervention and lessons learned – or missed – by the services and Department of Defense; the role of civilian agencies is often neglected. Yet over ten years after the United States invaded Iraq, and over twelve years after the United States first went into Afghanistan, the capacities of the State Department and the Agency for International Development to carry out stability operations remain weak. Renanah Miles, a former defense analyst now studying at Columbia University, offers her explanations for why civilian agencies’ attempts to build capacity for stability operations have failed. Although budgets, the standard excuse, are certainly part of the picture, Miles argues the deeper problems are cultural and organizational. 


The State Department’s Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations (CSO) is busy with Syria. In the past two years, CSO reports spending $27 million on “transition assistance,” training 500 activists with an emphasis on media, communications, and leadership development. Yet the CSO’s efforts pale next to the spiraling death tolls in Syria, the disintegration of the Syrian state, and the displacement of millions of Syrians in what UN officials call “the worst humanitarian disaster since the end of the Cold War.” Syria is not the only problem. Ongoing violence in South Sudan and the Central African Republic raises the specter of civil war and state failure.

It is tempting for officials to downplay these problems or at least assume that they will not involve U.S. intervention. With the memory of Iraq still fresh and Afghanistan’s unfinished state-building project collapsing by the week, Americans’ desire to intervene and stabilize countries abroad is at a nadir. Yet policy imperatives may shift: Libya, Somalia, and other interventions arose suddenly and caught those in and out of government by surprise.


If America does again intervene, civilian agencies are not ready for the job. The State Department – the U.S. lead agency for stability operations – is not able to effectively lead or conduct stability missions, and there is little chance this will change in the near-term.  The State Department – supported by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) – embraced stabilization and reconstruction as a core mandate in the 2010 Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review (QDDR). This came after nearly a decade of shortfalls in Iraq and Afghanistan (National Security Presidential Directive/NSPD-44 made State the U.S. lead for the mission in 2004); yet today, capacity remains low. So what accounts for the failure to demonstrate an enhanced response capability?

Political and resource constraints

The State Department often cites insufficient resources: an explanation that is both true and incomplete. Stabilization operations are difficult to sell politically and make easy potshot targets for political opposition. In the decade after the Cold War, a series of crises in Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, and Kosovo prompted U.S. intervention. Each crisis was marked by deep ambivalence over the wisdom of such state-building missions, and no one came away eager to do more.

Shifts in political appetite after unpopular conflicts help explain the cyclical tendency to build up and then discard capabilities. The Civilian Response Corps (CRC) provides a recent example. The intent behind the CRC was to marshal deployable civilian assets for Iraq and Afghanistan. Congress was particularly supportive of this State asset, which then-Senator Richard Lugar believed would provide “a modest but vigorous force-multiplier.” Despite ample lead-time, State’s new capability basically missed Iraq and barely made it to Afghanistan – by 2010, the CRC had only sent one person to Iraq (and just over 130 people had deployed to Afghanistan). The following year CSO began whittling the corps down to a fifth of its originally planned size of 250 active members. According to a Congressional Research Service (CRS) report on the bureau, CSO cited “funding and altered perceptions of its utility.”

As budgets shrink across the board, funding is another constraint; foreign aid is a perennial favorite for the chopping block. It took five years for CSO’s predecessor organization to get dedicated funding (which it finally got in 2010). Last month, Congress’ 2014 Appropriations Act moved away from dedicated funding for CSO. This year, the bureau will operate on a mixture of Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) funds and Diplomatic & Consular Programs funds – the same pot as embassy security and human resources functions. Proponents suggest the move shields CSO from scrutiny as a stand-alone account, but skeptics might argue this dilutes any claim of stability operations as a core State mandate.

Under these constraints, it’s tempting to argue that capacity development is impossible. Yet this conflates resources with capacity. Resources are critical, but capacity is a broader calculation that takes into account dollars, people, training, infrastructure, authorities, plans, and strategic interests. And here, State and other civilian agencies are part of the problem. In this light, three factors within State’s control undermine its ability to develop capacity for stabilization operations: bureaucratic coordination, organizational culture, and justifying the costs to Congress.

Problem #1: Bureaucratic conflict and interagency coordination – who’s in charge?

Although the QDDR called stabilization and reconstruction a core State mission supported by USAID, efforts by State Department leaders to create a coherent capability foundered. The mission uncomfortably straddles the seam between the two agencies’ larger mandates (political and humanitarian crises, respectively) and is a source of internal turf battles. CSO’s predecessor, the Office of the Coordinator for Reconstruction and Stabilization (S/CRS), stood up in 2004 and was subsumed in 2011 after largely failing to achieve its objectives. Most analyses partially blame internal obstruction and internecine conflict caused by overlapping responsibilities and authorities.

The creation of CSO provided an opportunity to try again – this time with more status and authority. The QDDR called for the new bureau’s mandate to exceed that of S/CRS. Yet in practice, CSO seems to have gone where it could instead of where it said it would. Where S/CRS stumbled – gaining agency buy-in, clarifying overlaps with USAID, and leading interagency efforts – CSO has opted to scale back rather than face resistance. This eased some pain points; for instance, tension with USAID’s Office of Transition Initiatives (OTI) faded when it deemed CSO’s redefined role an acceptable division of labor. Yet the price is CSO retrenchment from leading either State or interagency stabilization efforts. The CRS report cited earlier notes that internal documents call CSO “the home bureau for State Department, not government-wide, ‘expertise on conflict prevention, crisis response, and stabilization.’”

If State’s focal point for stabilization operations is thus not going to lead interagency efforts, who will? Coordinating across the U.S. government is no small task and many failures in the Iraq reconstruction effort were blamed on a lack of unified, coherent efforts. In the absence of a robust civilian capability, the Department of Defense (DoD) has frequently defaulted into a de facto lead role for stabilization missions– yet there is little political inclination or DoD desire to make the military the permanent lead. While waiting on State to develop a capacity, DoD reluctantly built up its own stabilization capabilities as a back-up effort. These proved no substitute for civilian leadership, though, and signs suggest that DoD will eventually divest many of the capabilities it created over the last decade in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Problem #2: Organizational culture – the mission it wants or the mission it has?

State and USAID’s organizational cultures complement their core missions, but indirectly undermine their capacity for stabilization operations. The State Department emphasizes conflict prevention and activities that incrementally shape outcomes over time. Most successful State personnel are neither planners nor operators; rather, they are analysts or diplomats who put a premium on understanding fluid situations and communicating effectively. This complicates integration with the military and managing large-scale and complex operations, especially when it comes to planning for or deploying to post-conflict environments. Although USAID has an operationally oriented culture, it tends to devalue stabilization and reconstruction, suspicious that such activities militarize development. Outstanding capabilities exist in entities such as OTI, but that office has long been regarded as an outlier. Although OTI’s status has improved in the past three years with significant internal growth, it remains unrepresentative of the larger organization.

Poor planning for stabilization operations is rooted in more than cultural orientation. It is difficult to plan without a clear strategy, which is in turn impossible without a well-defined mission. Lack of clarity over what a stabilization and reconstruction capability should look like has thwarted State’s efforts to build its capacity. The QDDR failed to provide clarification, instead emphasizing that, “Afghanistan and Iraq are not the primary models for building our civilian capacity.”

Saying what something is not is different than saying what it is. Telling bureaucracies to maintain a capability – but not much of it – risks drawing the line too low, effectively undercutting the declared endorsement. In this light, CSO's shift towards conflict prevention rather than stabilization is not surprising – yet it is concerning given the lesson learned in Iraq and Afghanistan that skills used in conflict prevention are not rapidly transferable to highly destabilized post-conflict environments.

Problem #3: Justifying the costs – how to deal with Congress?

Many at State and USAID understandably subscribe to the view that you cannot get blood from a stone. Congress has historically been averse to funding foreign aid–threats to defund USAID are not uncommon–and the public consistently believes that foreign aid spending is 28 percent of the federal budget when in reality it is around one percent. Yet how hard is State trying? Congress cannot buy what is not sold and there is little evidence to suggest that State is making a concerted effort to prioritize its stabilization and reconstruction capability.

One of the problems that bedeviled S/CRS was an expectation that given the importance of the task, authorities and resources would flow without question. Yet S/CRS (and subsequently CSO) failed to effectively demonstrate its capabilities to Congress. Without a strong demonstration of abilities or a persuasive case, failure to retain dedicated funds becomes unsurprising. Given political ambivalence about stabilization operations, the mission will not fund itself. If neither the buyer nor the seller is enthusiastic about the product, there is no reason to expect much money to change hands.


Asked in an interview what the United States does better in stabilization, reconstruction, and transition operations today than ten years ago, Assistant Secretary of State for CSO Frederick Barton said he thought there was a “better sense of appetite” today. But appetites have changed before in response to unexpected external circumstances. When considering future U.S. stabilization capabilities, two questions must be answered: is the need for the mission ongoing and is addressing it a priority?

If there is a reasonable chance that the U.S. government will undertake even a mid-sized stabilization operation in the future – and history suggests that there is – then State must take steps to resolve internal disagreement, clarify its mission, and recalibrate its approach towards Congress. Lessons were learned in the past ten years – gaps were identified, elements of State and USAID successfully operated in the field with the military, and new concepts materialized. Yet without strong political or bureaucratic support it is unlikely these lessons will produce lasting improvements.

Retaining an adequate post-conflict stabilization capability does not require a tremendous amount of resources, nor does it signal intent to undertake future large-scale intervention. Rather, it reflects the recognition that capacity takes time to develop and that the alternative of being caught short could prove far more costly. Perhaps the most important lesson of Iraq and Afghanistan for civilian stabilization operations is that after a crisis starts is too late to begin building the necessary capability.


Renanah Miles is a Ph.D. student in the Department of Political Science at Columbia University and a former program analyst in the Office of the Secretary of Defense. She concentrates in international relations with a focus on security studies and the Middle East.