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Building on Reconstruction: What We Have Learned and Where to Go Next

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Building on Reconstruction: What We Have Learned and Where to Go Next

John Richard Berg[1]

The Department of Defense has learned through the difficult experiences of both Iraq and Afghanistan that success is not only defined in military terms; it also involves rebuilding infrastructure, supporting economic development, establishing the rule of law, building accountable governance, establishing essential services, and building a capable host nation military responsible to civilian authority.

           -- Joint Publication 3-07 Stability Operations

At the tail end of the range of military operations—typically overlooked in favor of the traditional missions of American military might—lies the less-revered domain of Stability Operations.  This domain, as indicated in the leading excerpt of the U.S. military’s Joint Publication of the same name, has been both embraced and forgotten in the last decade.  The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan attempted to transition from initial combat operations to “nation-building,” ultimately unable to build stable environments.  The break-out of new internal conflict in each invoked a relearning of counterinsurgency doctrine, shelved by the Department of Defense since Vietnam.  Dissuading Iraqis and Afghans from joining or aiding insurgents—that is, “winning the hearts and minds” of the population—proved difficult as insurgencies persist in each country today.  While initial combat operations were quickly successful in both Iraq and Afghanistan, a shared miscarriage in each was the transition from “war” to “military operations other than war.”[2]

Many military leaders have reflected on the failed transitions in Iraq and Afghanistan, resulting in several published “lessons learned” and a rewriting of military doctrine.  In the ebb and flow of military priorities—always struggling between the conflict of today and the enemy of tomorrow—there is a risk of forgetting key lessons from recent military experience.  This paper provides a survey of those lessons learned on military roles in stabilization and reconstruction.  Experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan have resulted in many critiques and recommendations on these roles; this article captures many of them and seeks to highlight what actions are still required.

Stability Operations, Counterinsurgency, and Reconstruction

Drawn from Joint Publication 3-0 (JP 3-0), Joint Operations, military efforts focus on different activities during the evolution of conflict.  The below figure from JP 3-0 highlights these activities as they correlate to notional phases of a military operation.  As described in the introduction, the transition between military “dominating activities” and the ensuing “stabilizing activities” was particularly problematic in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Source: Joint Publication 3-0, Joint Operations

Stability operations, or “stabilizing activities” as categorized above, consist of five key functions and are varied in use based on the political, economic, social, and security environments.  These key functions are (i) security, (ii) humanitarian assistance, (iii) economic stabilization and infrastructure, (iv) rule of law, and (v) governance and participation.[3]  Akin to stability operations are counterinsurgency operations (COIN), which seek to defeat an insurgency by addressing root causes or grievances.  As put succinctly in JP 3-07, “stability operations are fundamental to COIN—stability operations are the ‘build’ in the COIN process of ‘clear, hold, build.’”[4]

Central to both the broad concept of stability operations and the more specifically defined counterinsurgency operations is the task of reconstruction.  The U.S. Army defines reconstruction as “the process of rebuilding degraded, damaged, or destroyed political, socioeconomic, and physical infrastructure of a country or territory to create the foundation for long-term development.”[5]  Reconstruction is not specifically linked to any single phase of a military operation and can be employed throughout all phases.  In other words, reconstruction can shape and deter before major combat emerges—acting as a conflict preventer—as well as address root causes of conflict and strengthen a nation’s governance—acting as a peace enabler.  Only during the “dominating” phases of an operation should reconstruction be considered a supporting effort, while in the early and late phases of conflict reconstruction plays a vital role and should be supported by combat operations.

The whole-of-government approach to stabilization and reconstruction places the Department of State as the lead agency in charge.  National Security Presidential Directive 44, Management of Interagency Efforts Concerning Reconstruction and Stabilization, created an inter-agency coordinator position in 2005.[6]  As outlined in JP 3-07, and under ideal circumstances, “the primary military contribution to stabilization is to protect and defend the population, facilitating the personal security of the people and, thus, creating a platform for political, economic, and human security.”[7]  The reality, however, is that the military takes on a much broader set of responsibilities when engaging in stabilization and reconstruction.  The duality between what “ought” to be practiced and what is practiced is the primary source of criticism among military leaders engaged in reconstruction.

What We Have Learned

The following paragraphs summarize reflections and critiques from three military professionals and several civilians on the U.S. military’s role in stabilization and reconstruction.

Peter Chiarelli was the commanding general of the 1st Cavalry Division in Iraq in 2004-05.  His co-authored article, “Winning the Peace: The Requirement for Full-Spectrum Operations,” argues that “synchronization and coordination of the battlespace was not to win the war, but to win the peace.”[8]  After toppling Saddam Hussein’s government, the U.S.-led coalition had to quickly engage in a multi-pronged approach to stabilizing Iraq.  General Chiarelli’s “full spectrum” of operations included combat operations, training security forces, providing essential services, promoting governance, and opening economic pluralism.[9]  Overcoming past training and instilled Army culture, General Chiarelli’s force had to go beyond thinking in “purely kinetic terms” that meant first providing security and then critical infrastructure and sound governance.  His multiple lines of effort employed in Baghdad resulted in short-term success to decrease violence; the “full spectrum” approach is now reflected in military doctrine on stability operations.  When surmising why the military should take on non-combat roles in lieu of other agencies or actors, the article argues that “it comes down to a simple answer of capacity relative to the situation.  The U.S. military is built to create secure conditions.”[10]  With the need to provide security and stability immediately and simultaneously, there was no “non-military” actor that could lead such a task.

Three economics professors take on the task of digging deeper into General Chiarelli’s argument for a “full-spectrum” approach to counter-insurgency.  Gathering empirical evidence, they seek to answer the question: “Can Hearts and Minds Be Bought?”  Their study identifies “where investments in service provision will yield the highest returns in terms of social order and program effectiveness, as well as in reduced violence.”[11]  Their findings show particular benefits of the Commander’s Emergency Response Program (CERP) and other, small-scale, decentralized programs.  CERP funds are available to commanders to execute small-scale projects for local communities, avoiding international construction companies and intermediate contracting processes.  By examining statistics in the Baghdad area during General Chiarelli’s command, the three economists find that “every additional dollar per capita of CERP spending predicted 1.59 fewer violent incidents per 100,000 population.”[12]  Their optimistic results are tampered, however, by the observations that other, large-scale reconstruction spending in Iraq had no violence-reducing effect.

Eric Olson was the commanding general of the 25th Infantry Division in Afghanistan in 2004-05 and, after retiring from the Army, the deputy director of the Iraq Reconstruction Management Office at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad and the Principal Advisor to the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction in 2006-08.  With extensive experience in reconstruction, General Olson illustrates a “Catch-22” of challenges in providing both reconstruction and security: “reconstruction requires security, but reconstruction is an important precondition to addressing security problems in a given battle space.”[13]  Expressing an ambiguity of roles between civilians and the military, he assesses that “civilian agencies that have not trained or prepared their personnel to work in a combat environment will quite naturally push for the best security conditions possible before initiating any major reconstruction efforts.”[14]  He also warns that while the slow and methodical process of reconstruction does bring legitimacy—key to quelling an insurgency—it may give that legitimacy to the wrong leaders.[15]  Reconstruction, according to General Olson, is a useful tool in counterinsurgency and other military operations but must be carried out with a well-designed, interagency plan.

Such a plan that can be followed for every situation does not exist.  A framework to begin the planning process has been created, however, by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).  The framework “is designed to help indigenous and international practitioners conceptualize, organize, and prioritize policy responses” as they create a plan for reconstruction.[16]  At its outset, the framework describes that “indigenous actors should have the primary responsibility and should play central roles throughout the reconstruction process…building capacity among indigenous actors and institutions, then facilitating hand-offs to them are crucial to long-term success.”[17]  The framework, elaborated in the book Winning the Peace, breaks the tasks of reconstruction into four “pillars” including (i) Security, (ii) Justice and Reconciliation, (iii) Social and Economic Well-Being, and (iv) Governance and Participation.[18]  Tasks are functionally aligned to these pillars but the responsible agent for each is not specified as each reconstruction plan will have to consider the level of external support required based on the strength of the indigenous institutions after conflict.  While the CSIS framework and further elaboration of its concepts are useful, its influence on U.S. approaches to reconstruction has been limited.

Dan Bolger was the commanding general of the 1st Cavalry Division in Iraq in 2009-10 and then the commanding general of NATO Training Mission-Afghanistan in 2011-13.  His book, Why We Lost, is highly critical of senior military leadership in both campaigns and points to a military ill-suited for sustained counterinsurgency or reconstruction missions.  General Bolger argues that the only two feasible military options in Iraq and Afghanistan were a swift operation similar to Desert Storm with an immediate withdrawal, or a sustained, lasting presence supporting a willing indigenous population—not the counterinsurgency surges employed by the United States and its allies.  He describes that, in order to win, “the local people have to take the lead, and they have to have the sure knowledge that they've got a long-term U.S. commitment.”[19]

With much of the same directness as General Bolger, but delivered many years earlier, strategic defense planner Thomas Barnett identifies an institutional disconnect between the organizational structure of the Department of Defense and the wars it fights.  His 2004 book, The Pentagon’s New Map, and his popular TED Talk, “Let’s Rethink America’s Military Strategy,” break the core tasks of different elements of the U.S. military into two camps: the warfighter (what he calls the “Leviathan”) and the peace builder (called the “System-Administrators”).[20]  Under the current construct, the U.S. and its allies rely on a single force to conduct the disparate missions of winning wars and building peace.  Put bluntly, Barnett argues that “we cannot rely on the same 19-year-old to do it all…handing out aid, shooting back, handing out aid, shooting back…it’s too much!”[21]  The solution, argues Barnett, is to separate the two missions by breaking the Department of Defense in two.  A force of System-Administrators would be better trained and more capable of engaging with allies in post-conflict peace building as well as strengthening weak governments, training foreign militaries, and providing a lasting peacekeeping presence to deter conflict.  Meanwhile, the Leviathan force would continue in its role of being a warfighter, no longer tasked with engaging in the more nuanced and long-term role of nation-building.

Considering the array of lessons learned from U.S. experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan, the major themes are that (i) security is an essential and concurrent component of reconstruction, (ii) the transition from combat to stabilization operations must be as seamless as possible, and (iii) post-conflict environments will still rely on the military to execute much of the stabilizing activities, but they should be in support of non-military and indigenous lead actors.  Carrying these lessons to the present, there is still work to be done.

Where to Go Next

In National Security Presidential Directive 44 (NSPD 44), the State Department is explicitly designated as the lead agency “to prepare, plan for, and conduct stabilization and reconstruction activities.”[22]  NSPD 44 intended to clarify roles between the Departments of State and Defense as well as other federal agencies by synchronizing efforts under the leadership of a new position: Coordinator for Reconstruction and Stabilization (abbreviated to S/CRS).  While NSPD 44 called on S/CRS to be a direct advisor to the Secretary of State, the present State Department organizational chart lists S/CRS as an Assistant Secretary within the Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations (led by a Deputy Secretary of State), placed within the “J Enterprise” of multiple Bureaus that are led by the Under Secretary of State for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights.[23]  In other words, being relegated to three administrative layers below the Secretary of State does not provide S/CRS the clout to lead U.S. inter-agency efforts. 

Even after NSPD 44, the “heavy lifting” of stabilization and reconstruction in zones of conflict continues to be the military; that is, the de facto lead actor, despite directives to reorganize, is the Department of Defense.[24]  A new cadre of inter-agency personnel was briefly created under S/CRS called the Civilian Response Corps (CRC).  In total, it was to be comprised of 250 active personnel with another two standby (reserve) forces of 2000 personnel each—plus one military “fellow” or liaison position.[25]  After a pilot program, the CRC was dissolved in 2012.

Even if the political atmosphere after Iraq and Afghanistan makes it seem unlikely that the United States will take on another large-scale “nation building” campaign, the issue of inter-agency coordination remains unresolved.  The demotion of S/CRS and the dissolution of the CRC do not put the State Department in good position to lead inter-agency planning for future, large-scale stabilization and reconstruction operations.

General Chiarelli recognized in 2005 that U.S. military training and culture needed to be refocused to see security as a holistic endeavor not limited to the traditional tools of military might: “critical thinking, professionally grounded in the controlled application of violence, yet exposed to a broad array of expertise not normally considered as a part of traditional military functions, will help create the capacity to rapidly shift cognitively to a new environment.”[26]  Institutional change is slow, but his recommendations are starting to be reflected in joint military doctrine.

Another refocusing of military strategy has been on the emphasis of boosting our allies through programs of Building Partner Capacity (BPC).  Long-lasting foreign military involvement is unpopular both for the host country and the outsider—a point very evident during the sustained campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan.  The preferred method to deter conflict or enable peace after conflict has transitioned to BPC.  BPC programs “are designed to advance partner nation capacity and capabilities through the provision of training and equipment,” to include disaster-relief and humanitarian aid, foreign military sales, military-to-military training, and professional military education.[27]  As pointed out by Tom Bruneau in his 2015 article “Challenges in Building Partner Capacity,” the 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review “uses the term partner or partnership 115 times, plus another 11 referring to building capacity in these partners or partnerships.”[28]  Furthermore, in his 2012 strategic guidance to the military, President Obama called on the DoD to retain a capacity to conduct stability operations as a primary mission, but “to maintain our support for allied and partner interoperability and building partner capacity” as well as to “emphasize non-military means and military-to-military cooperation to address instability and reduce the demand for significant U.S. force commitments to stability operations.”[29]

In the last four years, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) has conducted two studies on BPC with another done by the Rand Corporation.  The 2013 GAO report reviewed expenditures in BPC and concluded that the DoD lacks clear goals, must improve in its coordination with other BPC actors, and does a poor job of evaluating progress.[30]  The Rand Corporation’s report sought to identify best practices in conducting BPC.  Its conclusions highlighted that all BPC efforts should have a sustainment component to ensure accountability and oversight of American investments, and that the best efforts have been at the discretion of both the U.S. and the host nation under aligned and mutual interests.[31]  Each report highlights that there is room for improvement in two areas: adopting a clear, overarching strategy and committing to a sustainable approach to BPC.

American foreign policy, at least as it exists today, places much less emphasis on the “nation-building” activities of U.S.-led stabilization and reconstruction.  Even if it is presently unforeseeable, there is a need to adopt a coherent strategy on how the various U.S. agencies will execute the inter-connected elements of post-conflict reconstruction as well as who will lead it.  Furthermore, with the present focus on Building Partner Capacity, there is the twofold shortcoming of developing an overarching strategy and measuring progress.


As described by the principal architect for the CSIS Framework for Post-Conflict Reconstruction, “creating and applying a conscious American strategy for rebuilding states after conflict is a pressing need for both the United States and the world.”[32]  Fragile states around the world are havens for criminal organizations and breeding grounds for violent extremism.  Whether employed through robust activities of stabilization and reconstruction or by building the capacity of allies, there should be consideration for the lessons learned in recent experience.  There still exists a shortcoming in U.S. inter-agency strategy and structure to define who takes lead in reconstruction.  Furthermore, U.S. military success in reconstruction cannot be measured by standard military metrics.  The process of reconstruction must be led by indigenous actors and only at the pace that native institutions can handle.  As such, reconstruction must be an endeavor of patience and resolve.  A more suitable metric of success is the growth and maturity of native institutions.  There are no short cuts to reconstruction; in fact, short cuts may degrade rather than improve the situation.  Despite its complexities—and if engaged smartly—reconstruction can be a cheaper and more humane alternative to other instruments of American power.

End Notes

[1] The author wishes to thank two professors at the Naval Postgraduate School who guided his study of this topic: Professors Robert McNab and Tom Bruneau

[2] The term “Military Operations Other Than War” (MOOTW) is no longer in use, although it was previously codified in Joint Publication 3-07, the designator now assigned to “Stability Operations.”

[3] U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Joint Publication 3-07: Stability Operations, September 29, 2011.

[4] Ibid.

[5] US Army Field Manual 3-07: Stability Operations.

[6] George W. Bush, National Security Presidential Directive (NSPD) 44: Management of Interagency Efforts Concerning Reconstruction and Stabilization, December 7, 2005,

[7] Joint Publication 3-07.

[8] Peter W. Chiarelli and Patrick R. Michaelis, “Winning the Peace: The Requirement for Full-Spectrum Operations,” Military Review (Jul-Aug 2005), 4.

[9] Chiarelli and Michaelis, “Winning the Peace.”

[10] Ibid., 17

[11] Eli Berman, Jacob N. Shapiro, and Joseph H. Felter, “Can Hearts and Minds Be Bought? The Economics of Counterinsurgency in Iraq,” Journal of Political Economy 119, No. 4 (2011), 811.

[12] Ibid., 810.

[13] Eric T. Olson, “Some of the Best Weapons for Counterinsurgents do not Shoot,” The Letort Papers, Strategic Studies Institute (October 2010), 136.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid., 138.

[16] Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) and the Association of the United States Army, “Post-Conflict Reconstruction Task Framework,” (May 2002), 2.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Robert C. Orr, Winning the Peace: An American Strategy for Post-Conflict Reconstruction, Center for Strategic and International Studies, (2004).

[19] Daniel P. Bolger, Why We Lost: A General’s Inside Account of the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014);  Daniel P. Bolger, interview by NPR, November 11, 2014,

[20] Thomas Barnett, The Pentagon’s New Map: War and Peace in the 21st Century, Putnam Publishing (2004); Thomas Barnett, “Let’s Rethink America’s Military Strategy,” TED Talks, February 2005,

[21] Ibid.

[22] NSPD 44.

[23] State Department website, “Organizational Chart,”

[24] Brendan Ballou, “Why America’s Nation Building Office Failed and What Congress Had to Do With It,” Stability: International Journal of Security & Development 3(1): 30, pp. 1-17

[25] U.S. Agency for International Development, “Building the Civilian Response Corps,”

[26] Chiarelli and Michaelis, “Winning the Peace,” 15.

[27] Defense Security Cooperation Agency Website, Directorate of Building Partner Capacity, accessed March 13, 2015,

[28] Thomas C. Bruneau, “Challenges in building partner capacity: civil-military relations in the United States and new democracies,” Small Wars & Insurgencies 26, No.3 (2015), 429.

[29] Barack Obama, “Sustaining U.S. Global Leadership: Priorities for 21st Century Defense,” January 3, 2012.

[30] Government Accountability Office, “Building Partner Capacity: Key Practices to Effectively Manage Department of Defense Efforts to Promote Security Cooperation,” February 14, 2013.

[31] Christopher Paul, et. al., “What Works Best When Building Partner Capacity and Under What Circumstances,” Rand Corporation, 2013,

[32] Orr, Winning the Peace, 303.


About the Author(s)

John Richard Berg is a civil engineer and foreign area officer in the United States Air Force.  He has deployed twice as an engineer with NATO forces in Afghanistan and once to Colombia.  As a foreign area officer, he is currently assigned to the Inter-American Air Forces Academy as a Professional Military Education instructor.  He has a B.S. in Civil Engineering, an MBA in Project Management, and a M.A. in Security Studies from the Naval Postgraduate School.


The central underlying problem, of course, is that in this article itself (and many/most like it) -- and in this article's enclosed reflections and critiques of certain military professionals and several civilians --

None of these address the fact that what the U.S./the West characterizes as "stability operations" is really (a) an attempt to use the opportunity presented by the conflict to (b) transform these states and societies more along modern western political, economic, social and value lines.

Given that, for the populations concerned, they (a) have no great familiarity with our way of life, our way of governance, our values, etc., and, thus, (b) are more likely to repelled rather than attracted to what amounts to their "forced transformation" more along our alien and profane political, economic, social and/or value lines,

Then this, I suggest, dooms our "stability operations" (actually, massively "destabilizing operations;" see the Greater Middle East today) even before we get started. (The U.S./the West wears its "forced transformation" heart on its sleeve; thus, the populations know what we have in store for them, even before we come ashore/invade. In this exact light, to see the rise and resilience of such entities as AQ, ISIS, etc.?)

In this regard, consider the following from Sir Adam Roberts' 2006 "Transformative Occupation: Applying the Laws of War and Human Rights:


The assumption that, the occupant’s role being temporary, any alteration of the existing order in occupied territory should be minimal lies at the heart of the provisions on military occupation in the laws of war.

END QUOTE (See Page 582)

Thus, according to the laws of war it would seem, should we occupy a state following a conflict, then we must do everything in our power to ensure that the political, economic, social and value "order" -- which existed before we defeated the offending regime -- be restored exactly as it was.

If we actually did this, instead of blatantly violating the laws of war as we do presently, then should we not expect that our current "stability operations" problems and headaches (incurred due to attempts at "forced state and societal transformation;" in violation of the laws of war) might never present themselves/might never come forward?

Herein, and by adhering to the these "restore the old political, economic, social and value order" requirements of the laws of war, the "hearts and minds" of the populations are immediately "won"/are more easily "won?"

This, rather than having same turned over to the extremists, as the following example -- of such things as "girls schools" and other attempts to dramatically change the role of women in Afghanistan -- clearly illustrates:


"The overt attack on Afghan social values was presented, by the resistance forces, as an attack on Islamic values. This was also seen as an attack on the honor of women. The initiatives introduced by PDPA -- to impose literacy on women and girls -- inevitably raised questions as to the potential role of women outside the home. This provoked defensive actions from men, concerned with protecting the honor of women with their families, and to also ensure that traditional roles of women within the domestic sphere continued to be performed. It also generated fears that the important roles of women, as the primary vehicles for passing traditional and Islamic values from one generation to another, would be undermined if they were exposed to external and, particularly, non-Islamic values. This enabled the exiled radical Islamic parties to claim leadership of the resistance and to also declare a jihad."…

(Although the above relates to the Soviet/the communist case of [a] ignoring the laws of war and [b] attempting the transform Afghanistan more along, in this case, alien and profane communist political, economic and social lines; this obviously applies to the exceptionally similar, and current, U.S./Western case as well.)

Bottom Line

Do not violate the laws of war -- by using the opportunity presented by the conflict to attempt to transform a state and its societies more along our alien and profane political, economic, social and value lines -- and watch:

a. Our "stability operations" become so much easier, quicker and successful? And

b. Our corresponding "winning the population's hearts and minds" mission, likewise, be achieved much more quickly and much more easily as well?

J Harlan

Sun, 02/19/2017 - 9:26pm

Are we really still trying to convince ourselves that there was a way to fix Iraq and Afghanistan that wouldn't have led to the messes that exist now?

People don't like armed foreigners telling them what to do. If they have weapons they'll use them to resist. The local people who help the foreigners are seen as collaborators. The result will be chaos especially if the incentive system for the occupiers rewards stalemate and encourages corruption.