Small Wars Journal

Whole-of-Government Support for Irregular Warfare: How a New Law Will Make a Map Hit the Road

Wed, 08/28/2013 - 7:27am

Whole-of-Government Support for Irregular Warfare: How a New Law Will Make a Map Hit the Road

Edward J. McDonnell III

Eight months ago, I put pen to paper on personal reflections I had previously submitted in a memorandum to my superiors at the Department of State (DOS) and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) when I departed Afghanistan for the Peace Corps in 2010.  A colleague and friend suggested that I reconfigure those thoughts into an article for the Small Wars JournalSWJ kindly published that essay as the article “Whole-of-Government Support for Irregular Warfare” on January 7th.

As I often write to others about that article, the crash-course in ‘Humility-101’ contained in the commentaries trailing the essay have proven over time to be as valuable as, if not more than, the article itself.  While my article made many specific points, two big-picture considerations had motivated me to write the underlying memorandum and later to put that pen to paper.  One was the lack of accountability inherent in an absence of a chain-of-command on the civilian side of the whole-of-government affairs. The second factor was a desire to map out a simple division of tasks between Village Stability Operations (VSO) by the Special Forces (SOF) and more traditional civilian development work.

These themes were not unique to me.  In fact, two very fine men, commissioned by the Department of Defense (DOD) as Special Inspectors General for the Reconstruction of Iraq and Afghanistan (known as SIGIR and SIGAR, respectively), are working assiduously to learn from the bad to aim for the good in future conflict stabilization operations (CSOs).  One has worked for many years in this pursuit, while the other has only recently whipped a demoralized agency into shape in just over a year.  Anyone reading this article by now has to have heard about the fraud, waste and abuse allegedly rampant in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Assurances that such dissipation of increasingly scarce resources will never occur again are wishful thinking because, even with the best efforts to safeguard the interests of other people’s money (in this case, that of U.S. taxpayers), mistakes will occur; mistakes make waste, often compounded by an unwillingness to face the inevitable resistance of colleagues when alerting others to problems.  No matter how tight the controls and how selective the hiring of field-grade fiduciaries, some soldiers and civilians will succumb to the temptation of ‘What the buck? No one will notice.’ Nevertheless, the magnitude and consequences of collateral fraud, waste and abuse can be minimized.

That desire to optimize the performance of CSOs has taken shape in a bill recently proposed in the House of Representatives.  That House Bill, H.R.-2606 The Stabilization and Reconstruction Act of 2013, aims to mobilize the hard lessons learned from profiteering and stupidity in Iraq and Afghanistan into a body of working knowledge to suffuse the planning and ethos of future stability operations.  As always, I salute the service to my country of each of those good men: Mr Stewart Bowen for his nine years of perseverance in Iraq with SIGIR and SIGAR’s Mr John Sopko for his refreshing fourteen months in Afghanistan.

While Iraq and Afghanistan were invasions conducted and led by the United States, their long durations gradually transformed their eventual status and rationales into protracted, perhaps successful, stabilization operations.  The final assessment of success or failure will not be clear for another generation or two in Iraq and at least two in Afghanistan.  To those many who will disagree with such a notion, I would point to the history of Viet Nam in the last three decades as a guiding example.  These small wars southwest Asia got too big for their budgets and dragged on too long for many unfortunate brothers and sisters in uniform. In short, as a nation, we are exhausted.

Indeed, this current crop of citizen-soldiers may truly be the ‘greatest generation’ since these men and women have fought 2-3x more than had their fathers or grandfathers before them.  That burden upon our younger compatriots, and also on more experienced National Guardsmen, was neither fair nor necessary.  The nationwide torpor in the wake of grueling conflict of questionable necessity explains a significant part of the stunning, if prudent, reticence to act by the current Administration in the face of a human catastrophe engulfing Syria with more than 100,000 people killed, a million children living in tents or on the streets and, increasingly likely, the use of chemical weapons.

H.R.-2606 seeks to turn lessons of Iraq and Afghanistan into practical legacies looking ahead instead of deterrents to action so that cross-border crises of the future can be addressed through a decisive application of limited force and resources for a limited time with clearly identified objectives. The article I composed eight months ago vaguely called for certain measures to be taken to prevent the degeneration into quagmires of well-meaning but poorly executed CSOs, which should functions as hybrids of VSOs and traditional development initiatives.  The road, if not to Hell but to failure, is surely paved with too many good intentions implemented with too little discipline.

That perspective of mine was not at all original to me but rather reflected the wisdom and knowledge many others in the SOF, the U.S. government (USG) and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) who had the gentility and took the time to impart them to me.  That January article, in its advocacy of civilian accountability and inter-agency specializations, was rightly criticized for its not addressing, either correctly or at all, certain perennial issues with any CSO:

  • How to assure lock-step lateral coordination between the SOF (including Civil Affairs; CA) and the Public Diplomacy Office within the DOS (PDO);
  • How to consolidate the unity of the civilian chain-of-command into the State Department (DOS);
  • How to assure communications between the DOD and DOS, particularly at the Secretary level (SecDef and SecState); as well as,
  • How to enforce oversight and accountability of whole-of-government CSOs.

This recently proposed Bill fleshes out the spirit of the ideas presented in my article – by coincidence, I assure you.  To gain some perspective on the strength of H.R.-2606, permit me to repeat my reaction and response to those earlier critiques because the Bill addresses both the criticism and my flawed responses neatly.  In most cases, I admitted that my thoughts were just those: propositions to be argued out in subsequent discussions. In the specific instance of an institutionalized civil-military collaboration (CivMil) among VSOs, the PDO and development agencies, I pondered a segregation the SOF into a separate military service.

That idea proved quickly to be not only inimical to our democracy but inadequate for the future SOF soldiers involved in CSOs. (‘Make no mistake’, as you-know-who might say, the SOF will most likely be the fellows tasked from the DOD to carry out the kinetic side of these short-term interventions.)  The Bill creates a U.S. Office of Contingency Operations (USOCO). Its Director enjoys a status of a ‘principal officer’ of the USG (i.e., at or near cabinet level), the appointment of whom is subject to the “advice and consent” of the U.S. Senate.  The Director, while enjoying senior-level authority, acts under the advice, direction and consent of the SecDef, SecState and National Security Advisor.

This status grants the Director the authority to facilitate the DOS and DOD working together at the behest of the President upon his declaration of a “stabilization and reconstruction emergency” (Declaration).  There are many ways in which H.R.-2606 facilitates cross-agency unity of command without interfering with the cohesion on the field that the military services require for their troops to survive.  Since a CSO requires immediate recognition of crisis, prompt decision-making among several options and timely implementation of whatever intervention is chosen, the Director has to balance many roles, several of which require a diplomatic touch from a strong USG position.

First, and foremost, the Bill places the CivMil function firmly into USOCO, so the Director and his staff would direct the planning (not the deployment in the field) of military and civilian resources.  A bifurcated status relative to the SecState (i.e., of the Director being a peer nevertheless subject to SecState’s guidance) allows the Director to enforce a civilian chain of command into USOCO among various non-DOD actors answering to distinct Departments of agencies.  This mechanism cleverly avoids my previous idea of ripping USG civilian entities asunder by integrating their traditional off-shore activities into an institutional DOS chain-of-command, at the expense of long-standing peacetime practices like trade promotion.

Furthermore, the Director would coordinate between non-governmental stakeholders and the uniformed military to avoid duplication of efforts and to preserve the necessary institutional firewall between kinetic and humanitarian operations down-range.  Additionally, the Bill establishes a separate AND equal Inspector General (I.G.), with an implied mandate to conduct performance audits.  This new I.G. is not just another layer of bureaucracy but an intelligent way to minimize finger-pointing among agencies (e.g., between the I.G.s and others within the DOS and DOD or between the field commanders and civilian counterparts) since the USOCO I.G. answers to none of them.

In essence, the Bill establishes a USG ‘point-man’ (i.e., the Director) to deal with coalition governments in complicated peace-keeping or ‘nation-building’ deployments; likely to be the most common form of CSO going-forward.  As one can see, this Bill presents possible and plausible solutions to nagging problems in the field that tend to undermine multi-lateral contingency operations. In short, H.R.-2606 applies the “Hard Lessons” learned in Iraq and still being experienced in Afghanistan to address the issues that originally informed my ‘first-cut’ essay in January.

Nevertheless, I would like to share initial thoughts about the implementation of the marching orders spelled out by H.R.-2606, at times by proposing enhancements to the Bill.  First, the presidential Declaration stipulated under the Bill ought to be subject to the requirements imposed by the forty year old War Powers Resolution of 1973 to avoid ill-advised interventions that meander into the quicksand of mission-creep.  Additionally, as the Legislative Branch re-appropriates powers previously ceded to the Executive, such an open-ended Declaration could become a way for a wayward President to take the country to war without the support of Congress.

Furthermore, the Bill would break two key institutional log-jams that have tripped up previous interventions.  First, when the DOD and DOS reach an impasse on a specific issue, the National Security Assistant could cast a tie-breaking vote.  Additionally, the USOCO Director could also represent the interests of Legislative Branch within the Executive, when Presidential inaction prompts Congress to act or call vociferously for a CSO intervention.  Accordingly, such additional status conferred upon the National Security Assistant should require his or her being subject to the advice and consent of the Senate, going-forward.

These additional responsibilities assumed by senior USG officials would have to make explicit certain practices to facilitate the mechanics of future CSOs and USOCO’s leadership role within them.  Before larger-scale investigations would occur, the Director, upon the recommendation of the I.G., would be permitted to terminate contracts without explicit cause and to impound otherwise obligated funds without definitive legal proof of malfeasance.  This seeming sweep of power would be aimed at deterring waste.  Fraud is harder to prove while waste is easy to see (once an I.G. or interested USG contracting official actually shows up to a project site).

In the instance of Presidential inaction defying the sense of Congress or the concern of the larger electorate, this Bill presents an opportunity to devise a method for interested Senators and Representatives to initiate the debate of, or action toward, a CSO intervention on humanitarian grounds.  As an illustrative example, two or more Chairmen (with at least one from each Chamber) of the House and Senate foreign affairs and armed services committees could be permitted to instruct the USOCO to assess possible emergency conflict zones to inform subsequent “pre-intervention planning”.

Second, in the continued absence of action by the President and upon completion of the preliminary study commissioned by Congressional leaders, the House of Representatives would have the grounds to issue a Declaration of the existence of a stabilization and reconstruction emergency in lieu of the President.  Finally, after ninety days of further inaction from the White House, both Chambers of Congress, through a joint resolution and with appropriations provided by the House, would initiate a CSO with the Director acting on behalf of the Executive Branch to implement said resolution

The key objectives and opportunities discussed in this Bill, H.R.-2606, seek to accomplish four basic objectives:

  • To carry out short-term interventions, tightly circumscribed in scope and timing by Congress;
  • To assure that timely decisions occur that at least try to integrate diverse and divergent views within the USG;
  • To try to cement a civilian unity of command to complement that of the military; and,
  • To look to minimize waste quickly and realize efficiencies.

About the Author(s)

Edward J. McDonnell III, CFA has integrated a previous career in international banking into several tours of developmental diplomacy in provincial reconstruction teams, host-country institutions, a U.S. Embassy and a U.S. Army command through work with the Departments of State and Defense as well as USAID and the Peace Corps.


Ned McDonnell III

Wed, 09/04/2013 - 9:19pm

In reply to by G Martin

Thanks, Grant.

Since you are more privy to things than I am, because you know many more people, I will defer to you on the current thinking in D.C. and Tampa.

That point conceded, the larger problems and challenges posed by Conflict Stabilization Operations (CSOs), and addressed by H.R.-2606, especially as they manifest in the current debate, really need to be the primary focus of our discussion with respect to this timely proposal. As the Foreign Affairs Committees of both Chambers of Congress grapple with what to do, or what not to do, in Syria, there seems to be a broad split of perspective on the role of military power.

These respective views are not hard and fast positions but tend to gravitate toward poles of thinking. For example, one general view seems to argue that use of military power is a military business and that certain rules of warfare apply while the other sees military power as just another policy tool to be used when needed, perhaps even convenient. That is: one understands the introduction of military power as a change-in-kind in favor of a new and more interventionist policy while the other considers it as change-in-degree of an existing (non-)reponse.

There is a reason for my long response, Grant.

The problem with the intellectual split outlined above lies less in the split itself than how protagonists of various theses seem to use it. There are many ideas out there on what the USG ought to do with respect to Syria; I would like to address the split mentioned above as an instructive example. As divergent arguments invariably surface, people defending their own views tend to identify apparent challenges with one of these two 'world' views in order to justify the rightness of their preference. Again, we turn to this example.

First, for those who see military operations as an instrument of policy (e.g., Samantha Powers), U.S. military power is much like chemo-therapy in that it is an awful necessity and largely attritional but, if managed well, ultimately therapeutic. Alternatively, those others, who view military involvement as a change in kind, believe that once military power is introduced, the game changes; like becoming pregnant (i.e., it does not happen halfway). Once in, the thinking becomes more about winning than containing; this shift in perspective is a discrete change in thinking.

No harm done, yet. What happens next, in this particular example, is what hurts the quality of the debate and subsequent decision-making. Once the 'opposing' idea is identified as emerging from one or the other view, the person defends his or her own narrower thesis not against the counter-argument but against the view.

In our example, Samantha Power says, “Let’s bomb and establish no-fly zones as the next logical step to sanctions, since they are not changing things on the ground.” Let’s say, for example, that a wary military advisor challenges that view.

He responds, “Whoa, it’s not that easy. If you want precise targeting to avoid killing civilians, we will need to use fighter jets, flying below 15,000 feet, to determine whether conditions permit the bombing and where exactly to fire the missile. Drones are too slow; cruise missiles are not precise enough; and the jets flying low will be up for grabs....”

As the military advisor, understandably gun-shy after Afghanistan and Iraq, prepares to argue against no fly zones, Samantha declares, “Oh great, so we should just do nothing…” The wary advisor says, “No, that’s not what I said….” But Samantha cuts him off because she is not interested in weighing his argument but in winning her argument. So she fires back, “What are you saying? That 15% of Syria’s population on the edge of death doesn’t matter? That Bastard al Assad gets a free pass with his moonlight Sarinade?"

As we see, that indirect fire, rhetorically, then, is meant to imply the superiority of the proponent's argument without addressing the specific challenge. That, to me at least, represents a form of cognitive corruption. Normally, such an artifice ought to concede the argument then and there. But the current debate on Syria is anything but normal. Often the person attacked responds in kind. Who likes being called out?

So now, defensively, the wary ‘militarist’ says back, “And what about you? Have you even thought of second order effects? You wait and see, have it your way, and we will be in up to our necks in six months; bail out with our heads between our tails; or, leave a hornets’ nest just as you all did in Libya.” The military advisor is no longer arguing against the merits of the specific idea of Samantha but is arguing that uncertain trumpets and civilian naïveté leads to body bags for no reason, with popular blame falling on the military.

“Wonderful,” says this advisor, “another civilian prescription for disaster…Look we are done with winning bravely fought battles in the fields only for you to lose the war on the golf course…” And Samantha is not done, either, as she says, “That’s the problem with you guys, no sense of proportion….” As one can imagine, the argumentation quickly degenerates into bickering with little positive contribution. Why all this unproductive rancor?

Because the nature of the debate has changed. The advisor’s counter-attack also misses the original proposition. Both protagonists argue past each other, attacking larger world views in their own minds, perceived to be opposite of one’s values (i.e., world-view). Both sides have, by now, resorted to straw-boogey-man arguments.

Sadly the people talk past each other; artifice to artifice. The ideas do not quite collide to break each other apart so constituent concepts can be pieced together into a third, hopefully superior, idea. Nothing gets done; the Commander-in-Chief flips a coin.

Stalemate and frustration all too often occur, leading to rigid and failed ad-hoc policy decisions. What H.R.-2606 will do, however, is to force and focus these arguments to confront each other directly, under the mediating aegis of the Director of the USOCO, ahead of time to facilitate and accelerate the synthesis of that new and better idea.

That debate and its resolution are two parts of the planning process intrinsic to the presidential declaration of a conflict and stabilization emergency as well as the subsequent CSO, both overseen by the ‘neutral’ USOCO.

The current debate about Syria, hopefully, will lead to a well-planned response not only by inhibiting further use of chemical weapons variously outlawed since 1899 but also in aiding two million or more innocents, many barely surviving and in very dire straits. But we will be lucky if it does. The important point here is that this one problem of several biggies that H.R.-2606 addresses institutionally. There are others but their discussion will have to wait.

Thanks again, Grant, for making me think. Yes, I believe the ‘Conflict and Stabilization Act of 2013’ is an ingenious integration of lessons learned and the balance of powers under the “Constitution”.

While not a cure-all, H.R.-2606 is fair, balanced and thoughtful.

G Martin

Sat, 08/31/2013 - 7:12pm

In reply to by Ned McDonnell III

Funny- my friends in the DC area say that it is exactly the opposite: Samantha Powers and her buds are pushing for R2P and the military folks are saying- why???

In fact- out of Tampa the stuff I've heard is that the conclusion is we shouldn't assist one side of a proxy fight between Saudi Arabia and Iran- even if we officially like one and not the other...

Ned McDonnell III

Sat, 08/31/2013 - 3:19pm


While I disagree with your response of the assertion I make about Viet Nam -- that is: my argument in favor of also taking an inter-generational perspective when assessing outcomes (like a temporal butterfly effect) -- my larger concern with your comment is why you make it.

Bill and Dayuhan (from comments on the 5-Q bullets by General whoever),

Let's look at Syria right now. My buds in the USG say that the Administration really is dithering; that many in the Pentagon are chomping at the bit; and, that USAID and the State Department are at a foggy bottom.

That is not surprising since the pursuit of any of the (re)actions along the nothing-invasion continuum (not a binary choice) has consequences, many of which we can neither foretell nor control. So that frightful ambiguity tends to push people to an extreme of impulse or indecision.

Were this albeit imperfect structure of H.R.-2606 in place, the menu of responses would be fuller, more nuanced and more suggestive of implementation. That is because the Administration would have a focussed view coming to it, while the Departments of State and Defense would have to get over being impatient or acting like Hamlet and work together.

Thank you for your comments.
Ned McDonnell

G Martin

Sat, 08/31/2013 - 7:20pm

In reply to by Bill C.

Even though I hate to use historical examples as templates- what about the narrative that "if we are going to use Vietnam as our guiding example", then success would only be achieved when we decisively defeat the insurgents using mostly devastating force, then leave in a way that encourages an external component to roll in with conventional forces and establish order- by taking out political enemies and pretty much abusing those they see as a threat, and then they eventually turn to capitalism because they see it is a way to develop...??

Maybe I'll write a paper entitled: "The Reason America Can't Win at COIN is because their people expect them to fight according to a skewed sense of white-washed history wherein good wars are seen as being bloodless and all civilians are innocent and worthy of protection."

If we lost VN because we weren't "Population-centric" enough, then how did the NVA win with the junk they pulled after the war?


Thu, 08/29/2013 - 7:29pm

In reply to by Bill C.

The US objective in Vietnam was to prevent a transformation that we though incompatible with our strategic interests. To do this we were perfectly willing to adopt the entirely reactionary strategy of keeping the French in power. When that failed we tried a variety of other things, but any effort at reform, let alone transformation was secondary to and largely window dressing on the primary objective of preventing an unwanted change.


Wed, 08/28/2013 - 8:33pm

In reply to by Bill C.

Why would you think that transformation or reform were objectives in Vietnam?

Bill C.

Wed, 08/28/2013 - 12:06pm

"The final assessment of success or failure will not be clear for another generation or two in Iraq and at least two in Afghanistan. To those many who will disagree with such a notion, I would point to the history of Viet Nam in the last three decades as a guiding example."

If we are going to use Vietnam as our guiding example, then should we not suggest that military and other intervention by the United States may be more likely to delay and obstruct, rather than to expedite and facilitate, the successful transformation and incorporation of these states and societies?

If we are going to use Vietnam as our example, then success will only be achieved when (1) the war is won by our enemies, (2) when the Americans and their puppet governors/governments have been sent packing, (3) when a decent interval has been allowed to run -- one of sufficient length as to provide that (4) the winners of the war against the Americans might then (5) credibly introduce modernization/reform as their own, independent idea and initiative.

Thus, should H.R. 2606 take this understanding into consideration, to wit: that intervention by the United States may result in delays and obstruction re: favorable state and societal transformation -- rather than in expediting/facilitating such desired ends?