USAID and National Security

USAID and National Security
USAID and National Security
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The White House proposal in February to cut 37% from the budget of the State Department and Agency for International Development (USAID) quickly generated pushback from both the military and Congress. Over 120 retired generals and admirals sent a letter arguing that diplomacy and development are critical to national security, and Senators John McCain, Marco Rubio, and Lindsey Graham quickly agreed.  

After Secretary of State Rex Tillerson also objected, the cuts were reduced to 28%.  The final 2018 request keeps funding for health, food aid, disaster assistance and refugee programs, but calls for refocusing development assistance on those countries of greatest U.S. strategic importance. 

These cuts, and the White House call for reorganizing and consolidating USAID, argue for a re-examination of the agency’s role in national security.  USAID’s niche is promoting socio-economic development and good governance, and its impact is best examined by looking at the issue from three perspectives.  First is its relative strengths and weaknesses in dealing with our biggest national security priorities—traditional adversaries, the Islamic Jihad, and Afghanistan.  Second is the agency’s work in conventional vs. irregular warfare. Third is through the prism of the development-security nexus.     

Traditional Adversaries and Conventional Warfare

Russia, China, and North Korea are arguably today’s biggest bilateral security threats.  Should any of these relationships slide into hot conflict, the war would likely be conventional in nature.  Conventional warfare became rare after World War II, but how USAID approaches the threat of it is reflected in its 2017 request of $698 million to ‘counter Russian aggression.’  That money was planned for economic, trade, democracy, anti-corruption, media, energy, and health projects in likely Russian target countries in Eastern Europe. 

USAID has a long history of executing these kinds of programs, but the extent to which they deter military aggression is unclear.  A comparison of USAID’s approach to, say, training conventional forces in the same small states on how to fight as insurgents in the event of a Russian invasion, could be informative even though the two approaches are not mutually exclusive.            

Islamic Jihad and Counterterrorism 

The biggest non-bilateral security priority is the Islamic jihad.  This is a religious war, driven by ultraconservative Salafist Islamic doctrine which manifests as al-Qaeda, the Islamic State and other fanatical groups.  Since we are unlikely to extinguish Salafist ideology in the near to mid-term, for now, the fight against these groups employs a counterterrorism approach. 

Counterterrorism focuses on neutralizing terrorists and their organizations, and in practice, it involves more than just kinetics and high-value targeting.  Information operations, strategic communications, and counter-threat financing are also important, especially vis-à-vis Islamic jihad. 

The human domain, which also plays a role, is the responsibility of the Special Forces.  Joint military doctrine specifically excludes ‘countering root causes’ from the definition of counterterrorism, however, so development plays no real role in counterterrorism operations.  Seeking relevance in this area nonetheless, in 2011 USAID started a program to ‘counter violent extremism.’  Six years later, that effort is widely derided by observers outside of the program as still emergent at best, and a catastrophic failure at worst.   


The third major national security priority, Afghanistan, presents a far more complex threat.  Afghanistan is part of historical Khorasan, a region of special religious significance where jihadists believe they will first defeat their enemies in the lead-up to the Muslim version of Armageddon.       

Thanks to President Obama’s precipitous withdrawal of most coalition forces by 2014, the nature of war in Afghanistan has complicated exponentially.  The Taliban now contest or control about 43% of the country, and have declared their intent to establish a global Islamic state there.  Al-Qaeda is resurgent.  It now considers Khorasan its jihadi front and is aggressively recruiting foreign fighters.  The Islamic State in Khorasan Province (ISKP) meanwhile, which entered the country in 2014, has established a foothold, announced a Khorasan caliphate, and also begun diverting foreign fighters there. 

So, in addition to fighting an increasingly muscular Taliban insurgency, the Afghans face the prospect of becoming the primary geographical focus both for al-Qaeda and for the Islamic State as it bleeds out of Syria and Iraq.  

A long-term al-Qaeda and ISKP presence in Afghanistan would constitute a major and recurring international terrorist threat to the U.S. and its allies.  The only thing that may prevent this cataclysmic concatenation of forces is a sustained combination of robust Afghan security force training, expanded counterterrorism operations, and long-term economic stability. 

Increased military assets can train the Afghans and contain the jihadists, but economic stability is more complicated.  In countering religious insurgencies, structural development only appears to help at the margins in the short to mid-term.  Afghanistan’s insurgency, however, is polyglot—various parts ethnic, social, nationalistic and religious—and long-term economic stabilization there remains a very high priority since a stable Afghanistan is far superior to an unstable one.  Long-term economic stabilization is a USAID forte, including economic governance, economic policy reform, trade and investment, sector and business development, and economic infrastructure. 

What is urgently needed, however, is the kind of expeditionary business and sector development capability in Afghanistan that the DoD Task Force for Business and Stability Operations (TFBSO) demonstrated both there and in Iraq.  Before it was prematurely killed off by Congress and DoD, the Task Force did some of the best work of that highly specialized kind since the end of World War II.  Especially in the energy and mining sectors in Afghanistan, that effort continues to pay off in spades. 

For several reasons, this is not the kind of work that USAID is cut out for in a kinetic environment like Afghanistan.  Finding the very rare individuals who can do that kind of niche work, and establishing—either inside or outside of government—the operational structure they need to succeed, is one of our most urgent national security priorities in Afghanistan.  

USAID, Irregular Warfare, and Expeditionary Development

Expeditionary development is a budget priority because it is critical to mission success in irregular warfare.  Today most irregular conflicts fall into one or more of five categories: counterterrorism, foreign internal defense, unconventional warfare, counterinsurgency, and stability operations

Development—or at least the human domain—plays a significant or dominant role in all five.  Since development in both counterterrorism and unconventional warfare are exclusively the purview of Special Forces, however, USAID engagement is limited to foreign internal defense, counterinsurgency, and stability operations.     

Foreign internal defense is a cooperative model of irregular warfare that uses military and non-military assistance to help a host nation fight indigenous insurgent groups.  It is fairly common in practice, but the best example is probably the Philippines where USAID development and governance work has played a crucial role in the fight against the Moro Islamic Liberation Front.  The Foreign internal defense will likely become more widespread in the future.

Counterinsurgency is the most common form of irregular warfare, with insurgencies erupting at a rate of about two per year since the end of World War II.  An analysis of 71 insurgencies resolved from 1945-2010 found strong linkages between both governance and development, and counterinsurgency success.  Neither was a ‘prime implicant’ in success; counterinsurgent forces won every time they implemented the ‘development concept,’ however, and most times they addressed government legitimacy.  USAID worked on governance and development in over two dozen of these countries concurrent with counterinsurgency operations. 

Stability operations occur at every scale from local to national, and the tasks involved are part of almost every offensive or defensive military operation.  The five primary stability tasks are establishing civil security, establishing civil control, restoring essential services, supporting governance, and supporting economic and infrastructure development.  The last three of these are mainstream activities for both USAID and the U.S. military.  USAID’s relative strength here is in sustained engagement.    

USAID has worked in irregular conflicts since Vietnam, including in Afghanistan, Colombia, the Congo, Honduras, Iraq, Panama, Peru, the Philippines, Serbia, West Bank/Gaza and many other places.  It is especially well-suited to humanitarian response, stability operations, small business development, economic infrastructure, and local governance.    

Other Development Agents

For financial, cultural, personnel, security, and other reasons, USAID is less effective in countries at war than it is in countries at peace.  However, it also isn’t the only development agent in irregular warfare, by a long shot.  DoD, in particular, does expeditionary development with vastly more financial, material, personnel and other resources, in addition to establishing security—the sine qua non

Of particular note, U.S. Special Forces are getting better at tactical economics, and the Navy Seabees and Army Corps of Engineers both have long histories of expeditionary engineering.  DoD also has a deep bullpen of senior and experienced reservists who can be called up to execute full- spectrum social and economic development at war.  This was neatly demonstrated by the Army’s 10th Mountain Division in eastern Afghanistan as far back as 2006. 

There are, in addition, scores of bilateral, multilateral, United Nations, non-governmental, private sector, foundation, and host nation organizations that do development in the irregular war zone.  Over 150 of these worked in Afghanistan at the high water mark for full-spectrum counterinsurgency operations there, and about two dozen of them—knowingly or not—did work of major strategic importance.

USAID and the Development-Security Nexus

The roots of thinking about a nexus between development and security date back to the Cold War, and there is a large body of literature on the issue.  In a nutshell, the working hypothesis is that development strengthens societies in ways that make them more secure.  Corollary thinking is that development can generate security, and the European Union has programmed money to that end.   

While increased development and increased security often occur in the same place at the same time, the extent to which that reflects a cause-effect relationship between them is less clear.  There is no definitive, comprehensive lay down of when, where, and to what extent development may or may not generate security, nor how any such effect might vary in jihadist conflicts driven by Islamic extremism versus, say, social, economic, ethnic or wars of independence.         

The development-security paradigm is still deeply entrenched in U.S. and international thinking about conflict.  But with the U.S. debt having nearly doubled to over $19 trillion during the Obama administration, the cause-and-effect of pursuing development to generate security should be conclusively demonstrated before it is integrated as a pillar of national security strategy.  Even if imperfect, the existing security + governance + basic services model of stability that is integral to military doctrine is both more actionable and more predictable in its results.       


It is a truism that we cannot shoot our way out of irregular wars, and that all three elements of the ‘3D national security framework—defense, development, and diplomacy—are necessary to bring irregular conflicts to closure.  The shape-clear-hold-build concept also remains useful, but how these models are executed in practice badly needs to be reexamined.  

A National Defense University assessment of lessons from the Afghan war through 2015 found that USAID has ‘improved over time but needs to work harder on planning for expeditionary activities.  It has few assets to mentor and assist in political development.  It has more assets in humanitarian assistance, development, the rule of law and reconstruction, but far fewer than large-scale contingencies require.  Decision makers need to understand the complexity of military strategy better.  And planning for post-conflict stability operations was inadequate, setting back operations.’ 

The upshot is that USAID will never again be the highly regarded expeditionary development agency that it was in the 1960s.  Its culture is different, and for many its 2015 manifesto on (non-) cooperation with DoD—still Agency policy—conclusively put to bed any notion that USAID was either ready, willing or able to lead the development part of the national security framework. 

USAID could make a bigger contribution if the political will, leadership, and culture existed to focus the agency on national security and to rebuild its capacity to do expeditionary development.  But even if that were possible, experience in Afghanistan exposed a fatal flaw with civil-military integration—allowing the success of military missions to rely on the ability of civilian agencies to perform.  This is perhaps why enthusiasm for the whole-of-government approach to irregular warfare has waned across the U.S. government.    

In the final analysis, what’s important isn’t who does the development work when it is critical to mission success.  Development in irregular warfare, after all, isn’t rocket science.  It’s about delivering basic social and economic services to the people, under wartime conditions.  What’s important is that the work gets done.

Today only DoD has the ways and means to execute that mandate, including the intellectual rigor, manpower, resources, and experience.  The top national security priority for DoD in this respect should be institutionalizing expeditionary development as a core military capability and rewarding the many warriors who are already very good at it. 

Whatever else happens, that would go a long way toward ensuring that the strategic development part of national security—at least in irregular warfare—gets done, and gets done right.

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