Small Wars Journal

The Army’s Next Mission: Stability is the Best Offense

Mon, 09/01/2014 - 2:19am

The Army’s Next Mission: Stability is the Best Offense

M. Shands Pickett and Annie Best


U.S. Army units have been continuously deployed to active theaters of war since the beginning of Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) in Afghanistan nearly thirteen years ago. With OEF drawing to a formal close later this year, the Army will be largely garrisoned. This begs the question: What is the Army’s place in U.S. foreign policy now that the wars of the last decade are over? We argue that the Army should play a vital role in an increasingly urban world filled with violence and instability. Instability is everywhere, from Mali and Syria to the Ukraine. It threatens global commerce and U.S. national security. Stability is the best offense in countering these threats, and the Army is the most appropriate (and truly only) instrument of U.S. national power capable of conducting global stability operations.

The Challenge: Urbanization as a Source of Instability

Rapidly growing cities in developing countries increase instability by creating ungoverned but globally-connected spaces. By 2050, the population of these cities will have increased by more than the world’s entire population in 1950 of 3.2 billion people. Driven by influxes of rural residents and high birthrates, this population growth outstrips basic government services as municipal and national taxation bases fail to produce enough revenue to meet the demand for services. Ineffective governance compounds these problems by allowing, in some regions, up to 40-percent of gross domestic product to be produced untaxed via black and gray market activity.[i]

These factors also exacerbate tribal or ethnic tensions and incite popular grievances, straining local security services. As a result, whole swaths of those cities are ungoverned, creating spaces for new threats to U.S. national security to incubate in the form of terrorists, pirates, gangs, and other transnational criminal elements. Today, this description can be applied to an increasing number of cities, from Mogadishu to Lahore.

Cities like Mogadishu to Lahore are connected globally to information and influence on an informal, grassroots basis through cellular technology and social media but are often disconnected culturally and economically on the collective scale.[ii] Many of these cities are emerging as sub-national actors as transnational urban networks reach across borders. Consequently, unchecked malign actors in ungoverned urban spaces can coordinate their activities and organize as never before. Terrorists don’t need far-flung desert training camps in the hinterlands of Yemen or Afghanistan when they can have whole neighborhoods in Nairobi or slums in Mumbai to themselves.

The Status Quo: Flying Blind into the Next Century

To create long-term peace and sustainable global stability, U.S. foreign policy must actively work to address and solve the problems of ungoverned but globally-connected urban spaces. Creating and bolstering the economic and social ecosystems that allow cities and their citizens to respond to crises and the day-to-day demands of globalization will mitigate threats to our security. Right now, the U.S. is blind to these problems as its well-funded intelligence community focuses on the symptoms of instability (e.g. the existence of a terrorist network in a city) with no real understanding of the factors that allow those threats to exist in the first place (the root causes of instability) or what it can do to address those root causes – and prevent a terrorist network from even forming.

Usually operated through the U.S. Agency of International Development (USAID), the U.S. government does have programs to help countries address sources of urban instability.[iii] However, these programs are stove-piped at the country level, dramatically underfunded, implemented by contractors, and focused on broader development goals – not narrower, shorter-term stability targets. And USAID’s programs aren’t managed through any overarching global framework, aren’t measured in a comprehensive way, and don’t bring to bear the full resources of a whole-of-government approach. So, if USAID can’t be the answer, who’s left?

The Army has been conducting non-stop, non-lethal stability operations for the past thirteen years. According to Army doctrine, stability missions constitute one-third of all Army operations.[iv] The Army can provide the funding and infrastructure to safely put experienced personnel into unstable environments. With the resources of the Department of Defense, the Army can coordinate, design, execute, and manage stability programs on a global scale. It can control its personnel with far more efficiency than civilian organizations. With the Army’s global logistics network and with State Department support, the Army can rapidly deploy and sustain personnel anywhere. Right now, that national security asset is garaged while relying on other branches of the government to execute initiatives critical to shaping the world over the coming decades.

The Solution: Building a Global Stability Framework

What would an Army-led, urban-focused approach to global stability look like? The Army would be given the mission of creating a global stability framework, to measure and increase municipal capacities in order to decrease ungoverned urban spaces. Unlike the huge troop requirements demanded by Iraq and Afghanistan, the Army does not need to “just put boots on the ground” but can instead establish a highly-selective process to get the right soldiers for the job.[v] Stability teams may even be supplemented by the host nation or multinational partner forces.

Each city will require stability missions and programs tailored to local conditions. And soldiers conducting stability missions will have to deploy in small teams, not large brigade-sized elements. These small teams of soldiers may have outsized effects on urban stability by:

  1. Gathering local data;
  2. Producing analyses to identify sources of instability;
  3. Developing programs with host nations to target those sources of instability; and
  4. Monitoring and evaluating the effects of their programs.[vi]

Soldiers will gather critical data from a variety of local, non-military sources to produce analyses vetted with city government officials. Each stability team’s data and analyses will remain unclassified and will be shared with the host nation, non-governmental organizations, and inter-agency entities with expertise in urban development.

Partnered with municipal officials in developing cities, soldiers will develop programs aimed at mitigating the sources of instability that drive violent conflict. They will act as a coordination hub for existing U.S. government stability programs, working with the State Department and USAID to help them better focus and tailor existing programs. By operating in city offices, they will gain critical knowledge of local issues and be able to see stability problem sets from a host nation perspective.

The Army will be able to aggregate the data and analyses collected by these stability teams to identify regional and global trends and recognize future flashpoints for violence long before they happen. That higher Army headquarters can also identify best practices in stability programming and disseminate those lessons learned. It will maintain and operate a U.S. government global stability framework, working to bring governance to at-risk urban environments.


With lessons learned over the last thirteen years of war, the Army has built a doctrinal foundation in stability missions that can be used to execute operations designed to increase stability and foster resiliencies in fragile cities. It’s clear that ungoverned, rapidly-growing urban centers will produce the greatest security challenges of the coming decades. Surveying the tools of U.S. national power to meet this challenge, the Army stands out. The Army has the funding, risk tolerance, expeditionary capabilities, and experienced personnel. Creating urban stability teams and deploying them to at-risk cities through inter-agency channels gives the U.S. the opportunity to change global dynamics, build the future of foreign policy relationships, and provide the U.S. government with a new organizing principle for its international affairs in an increasingly unstable world.

End Notes

[i] Anoop Singh, “Out of the Shadows,” IMF Finance and Development, June 2012.

[ii] These cities exhibit similar characteristics to the “Non-Integrating Gap” countries Thomas P.M. Barnett identifies in The Pentagon’s New Map. See Thomas P.M. Barnett, The Pentagon’s New Map: War and Peace in the Twenty-first Century (New York: Penguin, 2005).

[iii] These USAID programs typically fall under the umbrella of the “Countering Violence Extremism” initiatives referenced in the National Security Strategy (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 2010).

[iv] U.S. Army, Stability, Army Doctrine Publication 3-07 (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 2013).

[v] Existing Military Occupational Specialties can be used to fill the stability team billets. Examples include: Civil Affairs, Intelligence, Public Affairs, Combat Engineer, Military Police, and Information Operations.

[vi] Adapted from the District Stability Framework (DSF) developed for USAID by Dr. James Derleth.


About the Author(s)

Annie Best is a program officer at the German Marshall Fund of the United States. She received a Masters in Urban Design from Carnegie Mellon University. The views expressed in this paper do not necessarily reflect the institutional views of the German Marshall Fund.

M. Shands Pickett is an operational environment specialist at the U.S. Army Joint Multinational Readiness Center. He holds a Masters in U.S. Foreign Policy from The George Washington University. The views of the author do not reflect the official policies and positions of the U.S. Army or the U.S. Government.


Red Team RadiKal

Sun, 09/28/2014 - 4:26pm

While the entire piece reads a bit like a lotus eater’s dream, a couple central points do invite a response.

First and most important, the authors manage to completely ignore hard historical reality – specifically that the Army (along with its allied services) has proven entirely incapable of imposing stability ANYWHERE over the past 50 years, whether in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Haiti, Somalia, Vietnam . . .

In fact, data clearly indicates that the presence of foreign troops is far more likely to decrease stability than to increase it. (See Kilcullen, 'The Accidental Guerrilla', Pape, 'Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism', or recall Shelby Foote’s story of the ragged Confederate captured in Mississippi who, when asked why he’s fighting, responds, ‘I’m fightin’ because you’re down here.’)

The authors note that ‘Ineffective governance compounds these problems,’ yet urge the US to commit blood and treasure on behalf of unworthy allies. Perhaps we should recall those same arguments in favor of Diem, Batista, Duvalier, Reza Pahlavi, Mobutu, Saddam (yes, the US was with him before it was against him), Karzai, al Maliki . . .

While the authors seem to have seized the lexicon of Kilcullen’s 'Out of the Mountains', writing of urban ‘ecosystems’ and ‘capacities’, they entirely overlook the most critical initial condition of a possible intervention, which is the ‘cultural terrain’ of the area.

Culture is the organizing principle of a complex system. It determines what is and is not possible or acceptable in any given context or community. Culture, to greatly simplify it, is partly genetic / epigenetic, partly linguistic, partly ‘tribal’, partly metaphysical and partly a response to natural and vernacular landscapes. Culture ‘knows’ what is and is not acceptable behavior and enforces that through a range of responses from shunning to stonewalling to armed resistance.

Mogadishu, Mumbai, Mexico City and Detroit all have distinct cultures and institutions, both formal and implied. Each is a result of the above-named factors, and the interaction among locally unique initial conditions, rules and relationships. For that reason, solutions are extremely unlikely to translate and propagate across system boundaries. The failure to understand cultures – and to understand that each is unique and presents a different problem set and solution space – negates any possibility of effective intervention in those systems from outside.

The authors argue that, ‘With lessons learned over the last thirteen years of war, the Army has built a doctrinal foundation in stability missions.’ In fact, with plenty of help from policymakers and diplomats, the Army has failed at every such opportunity over the past 50 years. It has learned in that time, little more than to continually reinforce those failures and to cover up. (See Ricks, 'The Generals'.)

The fact that the Army has developed ‘doctrine’ (read dogma) is an indication of that failure. The institution refuses to learn, and stubbornly clings to linear reactions in a nonlinear world. The result will be more lives lost, more resources squandered, and more of the very instability it purportedly wishes to alleviate.

Biggs Darklighter

Fri, 09/05/2014 - 1:40am

In reply to by Bill C.


Your right and your wrong. The west, after all, did abide by the treaty agreed to with Russia after the Soviet collapse to not encroach on Russian border nations and Russia wanted to be accepted in the G8. Also nobody forced Syria into a civil war except its own people who wanted a better life. I would say in Russia's case it's in ability or lack of desire to compete in a free market. Russia became very western on its own after the Soviet Union fell and their materialistic desires have corrupted them so much they now have an oligarchy. China is doing the same thing. Is it justified to invade your neighbor because they won't buy natural gas from you? Most might say no. Is anyone forcing the rich Arab royalty and other elites to come to Las Vegas and other "Sin Cities" around the world to indulge in prostitutes and alcohol? Don't think so.

So you can attribute instability to expansionism just as much as you can attribute it to the world being "flat" or people just being greedy, evil, the clash of cultures and action and counter reaction, mob turf wars, or just recognize that as populations grow, societies divide and war ensues. wrote. But you might as well utilize "6 degrees from Kevin Bacon" methodology as an underlying theory of human conflict:

God created man, man became sinful, Cain killed Abel, West has fought West, East has fought East, West has fought East, therefore is it God's fault for all the instability in the world because he created man who is sinful?

Bill C.

Thu, 09/04/2014 - 2:00pm

In reply to by Biggs Darklighter


Consider this excerpt from an article by John Mearsheimer in the September issue of Foreign Affairs Magazine entitled "Why the Ukraine Crisis is the West's Fault:"

"Putin’s pushback should have come as no surprise. After all, the West had been moving into Russia’s backyard and threatening its core strategic interests, a point Putin made emphatically and repeatedly."…

Sounds like "expansion" to me, with the "cost" being, as one can easily see, "loss of stability"/"instability." (Thus, my "root cause" argument, below, seems to have decent "legs.")

Accordingly, it is not the Georgian or the Ukrainian governments that we must ask whether the West's expansionist efforts are the root cause of present instability but, rather, the Russian government.

Likewise in the Middle East, one might find numerous local governments that would tell you, in no uncertain terms, that the "root cause" of instability in their region can be traced -- quite obviously -- to the efforts being made by the West to transform their states and societies more along modern western lines.

Thus, since we are knowingly going down this route (expansion), and have knowingly accepted the cost of this action/decision (instability), then we must, likewise, knowingly adapt our military forces, those of NATO, and those of our other allies, etc., to (1) this mission (expansion) and (2) these consequences (instability).

That, I believe, is what we have been, and are still now, trying to do.

Thus, it is in providing for our mission (expansion), and in accepting the known cost(s) thereto (instability/danger), that one is to understand such things as (1) the need to deploy our and NATO forces to or near the Russian borderlands, (2) the need to deploy our and our allies' troops to the Middle East and (3) the need to adopt more robust and tailored "security" measures -- here at home -- and abroad.

Biggs Darklighter

Wed, 09/03/2014 - 11:24pm


You lost me at "Expansion." As for the West being THE root cause of instability, I think its a mediocre argument. You can make a case in Iraq but the Russian borderlands is another story. I would bet the Georgian and Ukrainian governments would disagree that the West is THE root cause of past and present instability.

The "root cause" of instability today can often be found in those areas of the world where the West seeks to re-order states and societies more along modern western political, economic and social lines (the Middle East; the Russian borderlands). So:

Stability? Obviously not the goal.

Expansion? Now we're on the right track.

Thus, it is in this light (expansion the goal; loss of stability the knowingly accepted cost) that I believe that (1) the role of the U.S. Army, the U.S. military, NATO, etc., and (2) the problems presented by mega cities (and the solutions suggested thereto) must be examined and evaluated.

Biggs Darklighter

Tue, 09/02/2014 - 11:11pm

While this essay flies in the face of current defense guidance to not do conduct long term stability operations there are some other key problems with it.

"the Army is the most appropriate (and truly only) instrument of U.S. national power capable of conducting global stability operations."

True, but utilizing the Army for this can be very costly.

"Instability is everywhere, from Mali and Syria to the Ukraine."

Yes it is but instability in Syria and Ukraine is not due to poor city planning or infrastructure, its because Syria has a brutal dictator trying to oppress a revolt which is attracting disparate recruits to rebel groups with different agendas. Ukraine is unstable because of a deliberate invasion of the country by Russia.

" The Army can provide the funding and infrastructure to safely put experienced personnel into unstable environments."

Sure, the Army can provide funding and infrastructure, of course something else will have to be cut in the Army's or DoD's budget to off set the cost. Putting someone safely in an unstable environment is a bit contradictory. If it's unstable, chances are it's not to safe. We have thousands of dead and wounded soldiers to attest to how safe unstable environments are.

"And soldiers conducting stability missions will have to deploy in small teams, not large brigade-sized elements."

Depends on the operational environment. Baghdad in 2007 required thousands of U.S soldiers just for security. No security? Good luck with stability.

"The Army has the funding, risk tolerance, expeditionary capabilities, and experienced personnel."

Again with the funding, not so much of that to go around. Army commanders will have varying degrees of risk tolerance but the public and our politicians is another matter entirely that needs to be factored in.

"With the resources of the Department of Defense, the Army can coordinate, design, execute, and manage stability programs on a global scale."

Army only provides forces. The Geographic Combatant Commanders would manage such missions in their regions. If each one wanted to start their own Marshall Plan we would be in worse trouble economically than we are today.

"It’s clear that ungoverned, rapidly-growing urban centers will produce the greatest security challenges of the coming decades."

Probably the most accurate statement in the essay but note the use of "security."

In the end the Army is not designed primarily to be Nation Builders as the essay argues. While post WW II Japan and Europe and the current Balkans mission reflect successful stability operations, the SIGIR and SIGAR reports on stability operations Iraq and Afghanistan also illustrate how disastrous our stability operations have been in the last 13 years. Stability operations are a mixed bag that requires a specific formula for success.

The closest thing in execution we have to what this essay argues is Civil Military Support Elements but its nothing on the scale as to what the essay calls for.

The American public is hardly going to permit the U. S. Army (an Army whose actual performance in low intensity conflict is questionable at best) to police the world’s hot spots of instability.

The idea implied by some on this blog that the answer to most of the world’s problems is more stick wielded by the USA have a heavy burden to prove its effectiveness.

The key purpose of the US military should not be to shape and change the cultures of the world but to defend the direct interests of the US and with its allies contain through deterrence the aggressive ambitions of other powers.

This means that the more strategic assets of the United States are what we should value most.

The USN/USMC team and the USAF are the tools of global predominance not an Army that possess certain persisting debilities in personnel and doctrine that inhibit its capabilities.

Bill C.

Tue, 09/02/2014 - 1:31pm

In reply to by Robert C. Jones

In analysis of this sort, I believe that we must -- first and foremost -- brazenly address America's enduring foreign policy objective, which is, the transformation (and, thereby, "opening up") of outlying states and societies; this, so that the human and other resources contained therein might be better accessed, be better utilized and be better serviced by the global economy and its investors. The modification of the role of women in certain outlying states and societies, for example, to be seen in this exact and enduring light.

Thus, if the era of foreign control and the era of excessive foreign manipulation are, indeed, now obsolete, how then, exactly, might we posture ourselves to achieve America's enduring foreign policy objective noted above?

This question stated another way:

If direct foreign control and excessive foreign manipulation are:

a. "Out" re: getting Big Macs, McDonald/Douglas and General Motors more-quickly "in." And

b. "Out" re: getting certain women of the Islamic and other faiths to more-quickly dress, act, buy, sell and work like western women,

Then what exact and specific new process(es) -- to achieve these exact and enduring foreign policy requirements -- would you now suggest as replacements for direct foreign control and excessive foreign manipulation?

Note: From what I understand, time is thought to be of the essence in achieving our enduring foreign policy objective noted above. Thus, the matter of "speed of achievement" would seem to need to be addressed within our new proposals.

As to the question why "different" states and societies must be -- yesterday and still today "opened up" -- the answer to this question would seem to be: To achieve -- and/or secure -- sufficient economic growth, as is necessary to the maintenance of our (and increasingly most of the world's) domestic tranquility and national security.

Robert C. Jones

Mon, 09/01/2014 - 10:39am

I am not sure how we move forward to better overcome the degree of delusional self-serving thinking that is so resident within the services and major commands these days. With the budget axe looming none are innocent of this practice, but some are worse than others. Facing (rightfully, IMO) the largest cuts, the Army is hands down the worst offender in this dangerous contest.

The #1 lesson of the past 13 years is that our Army-heavy, military- heavy approaches to advancing US interests and foreign policy have been a strategic failure. We need to own that.

Cities don't cause instability any more now than ever, even if Dr Kilcullen is working to create a new cottage industry to the contrary (military organizations have no corner on self-service).

The reality is that people are empowered, as are rising states, to challenge systems of governance deemed as oppressive, illegitimate, or simply inappropriate in the emerging environment. We need to stop thinking that stasis of governments we "like" or think good for our interests; or overthrow of governments we dislike or think bad for our interests as the way to pursue an effective foreign policy. But that is what Army stability operations are about. This is an obsolete model.

Stability of governance is not the same as stasis or control of government.

We need to recognize the demise of the era of foreign control, or even excessive foreign manipulation of governance. We need an approach that is far more agnostic about who rises to governance in places where our interests reside, and more on how we posture ourselves for influence with those who do.