One Year Into the SAR Stabilization Is a Perfect Storm

May 22, 2019
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“Failure to meet our defense objectives will result in decreasing U.S. global influence, eroding cohesion among allies and partners, and reduced access to markets that will contribute to a decline in our prosperity and standard of living.”     The 2018 National Defense Strategy

This warning, captured in the 2018 National Defense Strategy (NDS) has significant meaning given the United States Government’s (USG) recent actions, or inactions regarding stabilization.  As we move forward, we are dealing with different threats.  Although terrorists and other violent extremist organizations still exist and must be dealt with, our primary concern is now with peer or near-peer competitors (henceforth referred to as adversaries) such as Russia and China, as well as lesser regional adversaries such as Iran and the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.

This new competition, as articulated in the 2018 NDS, is driving an increase in requirements for stabilization activities across the full range of military operations.  At the same time the USG is reducing the Department of Defense's (DoD) capability to do just that through the implementation of the Stabilization Assistance Review (SAR).  As we continue to cede territory and influence to our adversaries in the competitive space, we move closer to failing to meet our defense objectives.  DoD must have the authorities and funding required to conduct stabilization activities and to meet the objectives of the NDS.  The cost of failing to meet these defense objectives will be significant.  

The 2018 National Defense Strategy

The objectives stated in the NDS are designed to address a shift in focus away from countering terrorism, and a re-focusing towards great power competition.  Much of this competition will not involve open warfare or armed conflict, but will occur in the space known as “competition short of armed conflict."  Here revisionist powers and rogue regimes will use corruption, predatory economic practices, propaganda, political subversion, proxy nations or non-state actors, and the threat or use of military force to influence nation-states and their populations

The USG faces an increasingly complex international landscape in which adversaries sow instability, creating fertile ground for violent extremists and great-power adversaries to expand their influence at our expense.  As various countries compete for resources and influence, the impact of these actions will destabilize much of the competitive space.  This will drive an increase in requirements for irregular warfare in general, and an increase for stabilization activities specifically.  However, at the same time that these requirements are increasing, our capability to conduct these stabilization activities has been restricted by the implementation of the SAR.

The Stabilization Assistance Review

Also released in 2018 was the SAR, an interagency study that made a series of recommendations on how to improve the USG’s performance in conducting stabilization.  Among other things, the SAR provided clarification on the definition of stabilization, and the on the roles and responsibilities of the three leading USG players; Department of State (DoS), the United States Agency of International Development (USAID), and DoD.

The SAR defined stabilization as “a political endeavor involving an integrated civilian-military process to create conditions where locally legitimate authorities and systems can peaceably manage conflict and prevent a resurgence of violence.” The document goes on to make clear what stabilization is not, highlighting the distinction between stabilization and other activities that can occur in this same space and at the same time such as humanitarian assistance, reconstruction, and development.  Statements such as “… Stabilization is distinct from humanitarian assistance, which the U.S. Government provides impartially based on need…” and “… there is no public appetite to repeat the large-scale reconstruction efforts of the past.” Make it clear that full spectrum, comprehensive stabilization activities are a thing of the past.

The SAR goes on to identify DoS as the overall lead federal agency for U.S. stabilization efforts; USAID as the lead implementing agency for non-security U.S. stabilization assistance; and relegates DoD to a supporting role, primarily limited to providing critical security & logistics, and reinforcing civilian efforts where appropriate.

Interestingly, the SAR openly admits that stabilization is a critical part of how the USG addresses conflict-affected states within a spectrum that also includes both conflict prevention (competition short of armed conflict, typically considered phases 0 Shape and 1 Deter in military operations) and longer-term peacebuilding and reconciliation (post-conflict, phases 4 Stabilize and 5 Transition to Civilian Control).

Unfortunately, the SAR hamstrings DoD (and by extension the USG) by recommending the limited supporting role for DoD.  This is further exacerbated by the fact that currently, DoD lacks adequate authorities and funding to execute stabilization activities.  Conventional wisdom acknowledges that during conflict or the conduct of military operations when the environment is fluid, complex, and non-permissive, stabilization activities must be executed in parallel with military operations. There can be a small window of opportunity when a partner nation’s will may be high, their need may be great, but DoS and USAID may not be on the ground and able to operate effectively.  This window is usually fleeting, and malign actors are willing to take advantage of the situation and any void we allow to linger.  To mitigate this shortfall, DoD has nominated a "Defense Support to Stabilization (DSS) Legislative Proposal (LP) for inclusion in the 2020 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA).  This is the same DSS LP which Congress failed to include in last year's NDAA, and which is receiving pushback from Congress today.

So How Is That SAR Thing Working?

As the USG restricts DoD’s ability to conduct stabilization activities, we continue to lose ground to our adversaries.  Although they use differing techniques and have various motives, Russia, China, and Iran continue to make gains in the competitive space, increasing their influence and in some cases occupying territory.

The Russians are perhaps the most blatant. Let’s set aside their recent disruption of our elections and focus on their efforts to expand their control and influence in the rest of the competitive space.  In the last ten years, Russia has expanded into Georgia (2008), Ukraine (2014), and Syria (2015).  They continue to seek inroads back into Afghanistan and have moved into the Arctic by claiming a vast swath of territory.  Their expansionism continues, seeking to either annex outright, or to gain influence over countries where they do so without prompting a response from NATO or other international organizations.

The Russian strategy of “limited actions” or “soft power” follows their approach used in Syria.  They seek to defend and promote “national interests” beyond Russian territory.

They undermine and overthrow governments in foreign countries.  These include Iraq, Libya and Ukraine.  Add to this list their efforts underway Venezuela, and you can see that Russia is truly a global adversary in the competitive space.

China has been more subtle.  Over the past decade, they have expanded their influence across South East Asia, South Central Asia, and beyond.  In 2007 it created the China-Africa Development Fund.  This was followed by the Overseas Infrastructure Development and Investment Corporation.  Later came the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).  Most recently was the creation of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. Unlike Russia, which uses its military openly in the competitive space, China’s modus operandi is to use infrastructure finance as a method for economic statecraft.  But China too is expanding its military into this competitive space, primarily due to instability.

Instability in countries like Sudan, Mali, Cameroon, Darfur, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and all along the BRI has driven a change in China’s policy. To protect its assets in those areas where China is extracting and or transporting resources, Beijing has increased its commitment to UN and African Union peace missions, with more than 2,500 troops supporting six United Nations Peacekeeping missions.   Additionally, China has adopted an anti-terrorism law allowing for foreign missions of the Peoples Liberation Army and opened a military base in Djibouti.

Operating more at the regional level, below the level of a great power, Iran also is a player in the competitive space and an adversary the USG must deal with. Iran’s approach uses proxy political-military organizations. In most cases, the result of the Iranian involvement is not the subjugation of a state, but rather the prevention of the defeat of the Iranian sub-state or non-state actors which continue to destabilize that state.

Iran has long supported anti-Western groups like Hamas and Hezbollah, as well as proxy groups in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, and Yemen.  These actions continue to destabilize the region.  Iran took advantage of the instability in Iraq during their fight with ISIS and established a logistics infrastructure that allows for the transit of fighters and supplies from Iran to Syria and Lebanon. Iran’s actions in Lebanon include broadcasting pro-Iranian news and carrying out attacks on the Lebanese-Israeli border. Iranian-backed Hezbollah fighters in Syria have played a role in propping up the Assad regime, and Iran deployed senior military leaders, hundreds of Revolutionary Guard soldiers, and provides various forms of other support to the Assad regime.  Iran supports the Taliban in Afghanistan, and in Yemen, Iran is undermining Saudi Arabia's influence by supporting the Houthi rebels against Saudi and Yemeni forces and a Saudi-led Arab expeditionary force.

The Upshot 

Stabilization is much more than a congressional oversight drill, and it is a national security issue.  The release of the SAR and 2018 NDS have created a perfect storm regarding stabilization.  While the SAR restricts DoD’s contributions to stabilization, the NDS is driving an increase in requirements for stabilization activities, exposing a shortfall in capability, and creating a national security concern.  Today we are losing to our adversaries in the competitive space.  DoD must be given adequate authorities and the funding necessary to be a more active participant in stabilization activities and to meet our defense objectives.  Congressional approval of the DSS LP is a critical step in the right direction.  The NDS makes it clear what the price of failing to meet those defense objectives are.

"The costs of failing to meet America's crisis of national defense… will not be measured in abstract concepts like 'international stability' and 'global order.' They will be measured in American lives, American treasure, and American security and prosperity lost. It will be a tragedy—of unforeseeable but perhaps tremendous magnitude…”


Charles Barham is a retired U.S. Army Colonel with 29 years of service (1981-2010).  He also served for four years as a Department of the Army Civilian Management and Program Analyst in the Afghanistan/Pakistan Hands Program (2010-2014).   He currently serves as a Department of the Air Force Civilian Management and Program Analyst at USCENTCOM in the Operations Directorate, Interagency Action Group, Civil Affairs Operations Division as the Senior Stabilization Advisor and Stabilization Program Manager.  He served for more than three years in Afghanistan as; Assistant Director of the Police Reform Directorate, Combined Security Transition Command - Afghanistan 2006-2007, Senior Socioeconomic Advisor in HQ ISAF-DCOS/STAB under Generals David Petraeus and John Allen 2011, as Deputy Director of the NATO/Afghan Transformation Task Force, HQ ISAF under General Joseph Dunford 2013, and as a Senior Planning, Programming and Budgeting Advisor to the Afghan National Army Special Operations Command.  He has served for over seven years in U.S. CENTCOM in positions including Senior Socioeconomic Advisor and Interagency Planner, as well as in his current position of Senior Stabilization Advisor and Stabilization Program Manager.  He has a Bachelor of Science in Business Administration from the University of Richmond, a Master of Business Administration from Oklahoma City University, and a Master of Strategic Studies from the U.S. Army War College.  He has published online articles in SOF News, Real Clear Defense, and Small Wars Journal.



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