Stabilization Assistance Review: A Prudent, Economical Path Forward

Stabilization Assistance Review: A Prudent, Economical Path Forward
U.S. Army photo by SSGT Matthew Klene
Stabilization Assistance Review: A Prudent, Economical Path Forward
U.S. Army photo by SSGT Matthew Klene
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The Department of Defense (DoD) has asked Congress for $25 million to establish a post-conflict stabilization assistance fund, and a Defense Support to Stabilization (DSS) program and program office at the Defense Security Cooperation Agency (DSCA). The DSS program office will provide guidance for designing, implementing, monitoring, and evaluating DoD's post-conflict stabilization activities.

The DoD appropriation will be the “earnest money” for a joint stabilization effort by the DoD, the Department of State (DoS), and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID)which was announced in the Stabilization Assistance Review (SAR), published in May 2018.

After the “money for nothing” years in Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. is approaching post-conflict stabilization in a way that reduces the upfront cost to the taxpayer and provides an off-ramp if the stabilization effort is not bearing fruit within five years. This will give Congress the opportunity to demand proof that local political actors are making real progress before it appropriates funds for large-scale (and expensive) reconstruction.

The SAR makes three things clear:

  • Stabilization operations and activities are inherently political, the primary purpose of which is to "create conditions where locally legitimate authorities and systems can peaceably manage conflict and prevent violence"
  • Stabilization is a short-term action, between two and five years
  • There is a clear chain of command, with the State Department as the overall lead, USAID as the supporting agency for development, and DoD as the supporting agency for security and logistics.

Though the SAR offers an organized, phased, and fiscally responsible approach to stabilization, an anomaly in the SAR is its blinkered view of the role of the private sector. The SAR refers to “consideration of the exact role of the private sector” but refers to the private sector in the context of private sector investment, such as major infrastructure projects, e.g., dams, bridges, and power plants. Contingency contractors and “implementing partners” (what USAID calls contractors) are not mentioned in the document and are not given a role though they assist the U.S government in stabilization activities throughout the world, and even outnumber U.S. troops 3-to-1 in dangerous conflict zones such as Afghanistan and Syria.

Contingency contractors are often "first in," transporting military personnel and their equipment, then providing equipment maintenance, life support services such as housing and food service, as well as logistical and medical support services. Despite taking many of the same physical risks to life and limb as our military members and agency civilians as part of the "total force," contractors often find themselves, as in the case of Afghanistan, without the same legal protections.  DoD acknowledges “Contingency contracting has been an incremental part of U.S. military history since 1775” and it has memorialized the expensive lessons from Iraq and Afghanistan.

The other anomaly is the absence of a reference to the National Security Strategy, ostensibly the reason for a flow-down document such as the SAR. The SAR refers to sixteen places “where internationally-supported ‘stabilization’ efforts have been active” but is unclear if those places are provided for illustration or if the drafters of the SAR are “setting the table” to prompt action by the nation’s leaders.

The short time horizon for the stabilization mission means the Executive and Congressional leadership will want proof of success before committing the country to a costly reconstruction endeavor. The perennial assertions by NATO commanders in Afghanistan that “we’re turning the corner” never panned out so America’s leaders would be smart to demand information beyond the number of police trained or courthouses erected, and may require turning to non-traditional metrics—both qualitative and quantitative.

It is often only the second and third order effects, such as the number of feral dogs in the streets or citizens who voluntarily respect traffic laws, that point toward success, so tracking qualitative metrics, such as the population’s general sense of well-being, are often the only route to honest assessment. The SAR’s goal of requiring continual alignment of operations with immediate political goals adds yet another level of difficulty as successful stabilization operations may bridge presidential administrations and fiscal years.

The most critical issue the SAR addresses is cultural, and not between the Americans and the foreigners encountered in conflict zones.

The three main stabilization actors – State, Defense, and USAID – bring unique expertise, but also prejudices and expectations to the stabilization mission. The SAR directs the agencies to change their processes: State and USAID have always taken the long view of stabilization, which is no longer available; Defense, on the other hand, moves quickly, but its short-term operational goals may not directly contribute to the broader political mission. Each needs to change its operational outlook and synchronize its efforts. Without robust encouragement, specifically, the right funding streams, getting the three stabilization agencies to accommodate each other may be difficult.

The Executive branch has a plan, the government’s partner firms in the stability operations sector, lead by the International Stability Operations Association, support the concept, so now it’s up to Congress to provide the cash, legal authority, and oversight necessary for success.


James Durso (@james_durso) is the Managing Director of Corsair LLC. He was a professional staff member at the 2005 Defense Base Closure and Realignment Commission and the Commission on Wartime Contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Mr. Durso served as a U.S. Navy officer for 20 years and specialized in logistics and security assistance. His overseas military postings were in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, and he served in Iraq as a civilian transport advisor with the Coalition Provisional Authority.  He served afloat as Supply Officer of the submarine USS SKATE (SSN 578).



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