Beyond SWEAT: Developing Infrastructure in Stability and COIN Operations

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The revised FM 3-24, Counterinsurgency, defines a role for “restoring essential services” as one of five key lines of effort in counterinsurgency (COIN) operations.  Further, FM 3-24 describes the “clear, hold, build” framework and notes the potential role infrastructure development plays in this conception of COIN operations.  This doctrinal foundation and the work of experts on guerilla and insurgent warfare elevated the role of infrastructure development as the tool to win the “hearts and minds” of the Iraqi and Afghan People.    

By mid-2008, the United States Government had spent over $50 billion in the reconstruction of Iraq, “the largest relief and reconstruction effort for one country in U.S. history”.   Since 2004, Congress authorized $2.64 billion for Afghanistan.   This large expenditure of money enabled the completion of infrastructure development projects such as water treatment plants, sewage treatment facilities, electrical grid improvements, and landfills throughout Iraq and Afghanistan in an attempt to restore essential services, build upon security gains, and “win” the population.  Yet, the completion of these projects remains only loosely correlated to a reduction in insurgent activity.    

This paper offers an explanation for infrastructure development’s inability to meet the expectations of its role in counterinsurgency operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.  In many instances, the infrastructure development program in Iraq and Afghanistan demonstrates an apparent misunderstanding of the definition of winning hearts and minds and a narrow application of the revised COIN doctrine.  Specifically, this infrastructure development program, built on SWEAT analysis and CERP funding, often attempted to win the gratitude of the population, not their allegiance to the elected government.  The amount of money spent and projects completed then became the measures of performance, to the exclusion of more appropriate, population-centric measures of effectiveness.  Concurrently, units developed an emphasis on large and often complex infrastructure projects that did not often achieve their intended effect.  Although based on a few limited doctrinal definitions, this approach missed the more comprehensive fight for the population described in counterinsurgency doctrine.

Infrastructure development still holds keys to winning in stability and COIN operations.  In a more appropriate role, assessing the state of infrastructure in stability and counterinsurgency operations provides a lens through which to view a more fundamental cause of instability, government legitimacy.  The state of infrastructure disrepair can indicate how a local government currently fails to meet the needs and concerns of the local population; further, the improvement of infrastructure provides an opportunity to develop the legitimacy of that government.  Focusing infrastructure development around smaller, community-based projects could enhance stability and build legitimate governance, the ultimate goals of counterinsurgency and stability operations. 

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"Focusing infrastructure development around smaller, community-based projects would enhance stability and build legitimate governments, the ultimate goal of counterinsurgency and stability operations."

Should we consider that the ultimate goal of counterinsurgency and stability operations MAY NOT BE to enhance stability and to build legitimate governments.

But, rather, the ultimate goal of these endeavors (counterinsurgency and stability operations) MAY BE to transform the state and society (to modernize these entities) such that they might, in the future, present the modern world with fewer problems and offer the modern world, instead, greater utility/usefulness.

If this is, indeed, the case (the ultimate goal is to modernize the state and society), then would this help to explain why:

a. Smaller, community-based projects -- which would seem to reinforce the old "status quo" way-of-life/way-of-governance (and, thus, would be considered counterproductive/counterintuitive) have not be undertaken?

And why:

b. The larger, more comprehensive projects (designed to accommodate and facilitate the state and society's entry into the modern world) are the order of the day?

These are valid points, and raise good questions. Building a "state" capable of policing its geographic territory, providing for its citizens, and interacting responsibly with the rest of the world would "present the world with fewer problems." I agree with you that this desired end-state requires some intervention at the national and even provincial levels.

I don't see stability/legitamacy and modern state/society as mutually exclusive. If carefully executed, smaller projects could work to build the civil society and a cadre of leadership capable of supporting the modern state. Further, solving problems at the community level is not just a relic of the past. In the United States, most of these infrastructure and service (water, sewer, etc) provision issues are still solved locally (county level). State level government may grant some money and set some utility policy, but the bulk of the problem solving and execution still occurs quite locally.