Small Wars Journal

Institutional Learning in Responding to Violent Extremism

Sun, 08/05/2018 - 2:38am

Institutional Learning in Responding to Violent Extremism

Haider A. Haider

The increasingly complex security environment today has led to calls for greater whole of government approaches in responding to threats such as violent extremism.  The premise behind this approach is that threats can no longer be addressed through one lever of national power.  Such an approach requires coordination across agencies and at numerous levels of government running from the strategic level down to tactical operations.  A general perception within the US government is that collaboration at the country level tends to successfully compensate for poor interagency coordination at the strategic levels of government.  This may be attributed to political considerations at the strategic level weigh more heavily whereas technical considerations are more relevant at the country level.  Despite this recognition, few have taken a serious look at how to design whole of government coordination mechanisms based on what innovations have emerged naturally in the field to address violent extremism. This paper explores how special operations forces have adapted to working with counterparts at the US Agency for International Development (USAID) in addressing violent extremism at the country level and how these adaptations relate to broader policy discussions.  Two case studies will be used as the basis of the study to examine how civil affairs teams have integrated with missions in Jordan and Tajikistan.

The complexity of today’s security environment has led many people to accept the common wisdom that effective security responses now require a whole of government approach (WOG).  The concept of WOG is similar to that of 3D (Defense, Diplomacy & Development) and the military’s DIME-FIL (Diplomatic, Information, Military, Economic, Financial, Intelligence and Law Enforcement) in that they are constructs that reflect dimensions of Joseph Nye’s “soft power” concept (1999 & 2004).  Soft power expands the tools of national security beyond military and diplomatic activities to other levers of national influence in international relations and foreign policy to achieve national security objectives.  These constructs also acknowledge that each tool may have interdependencies with other tools.  Such interdependencies therefore must be considered if any of these levels are to be fully effective.  The result is an increased concern with the ability of various government agencies to successfully collaborate.  Unfortunately, government is no less complicated today than it was in 1887 when Woodrow Wilson observed that “It is getting harder to run a constitution than to frame one.”

What is examined here is a specific subset of broader attempts at interagency coordination.  It is concerned with the collaboration between the Department of Defense and the US Agency for International Development (USAID).  More specifically, the study is structured around the interactions of Civil Military Support Element (CMSE) teams with USAID Missions while assigned to various country teams under Chief of Mission authority.  The intent is to determine how special operations forces, such as CMSEs, adapt to working with their counterparts at USAID in addressing violent extremism.  Violent extremism was selected as the policy area for this study because, despite recent guidance such as the Joint State-USAID Strategy on Countering Violent Extremism (CVE), CVE still reflects a policy area with sufficient ambiguity requiring innovation at the field level. 

It is important to note that both USAID and DoD are entrenched in their own institutional structures.  This observation may seem evident.  Such structures guide and constrain acceptable practices unique to each institutional setting.  We often note the cultural differences between these two organizations, but institutional structures are better understood as norms that shape and inform individual behavior.  Such structures can be so rigid as to be referred to by some scholars as an iron cage - at its most extreme obviating any room for human agency in decision making (DiMaggio & Powell, 1983).  In the face of such rigid structures, how it is that institutions change is of critical importance.

There are two ways to think about how institutional structures change over time to accommodate new collaborative behavior.  The first approach reflects a top down outlook where changes are made directly to institutional structures, helping to encourage collaboration.  This is seen in efforts to incorporate interagency considerations in planning processes, moves to support the flexible funding between agencies, or the development of key shared definitions.  All these efforts broadly fall under the rubric of “institutional work” (Lawrence, Suddaby & Leca, 2009).  The belief is that putting such structures in place will help foster interagency collaboration.  The second approach is a bottom-up perspective in which collaborative exchanges themselves can lead to institutional change.  This is achieved through the development of proto-institutions that result from such collaborations.  Proto-institutions are a concept introduced by scholars Thomas Lawrence, Cynthia Hardy & Nelson Phillips (2002) as, “practices, technologies, and rules that are narrowly diffused and only weakly entrenched, but that have the potential to become widely institutionalized.”  In exploring the adaptations of special operations forces, and likewise, USAID’s adaptation in acceptance of working with them, this study adopts the bottom-up perspective and identifies proto-institutions that were observed in the two cases addressed by this study.

The study looks at two cases both occurring within the last several years of CMSE interactions with USAID Missions.  CMSEs are Special Operations Forces (SOF) Civil Affairs (CA) teams with presence in numerous US Central Command (CENTCOM) countries and globally.  The first case examines this interaction at the USAID Mission in Amman, Jordan, with the second examining CMSE interactions at the USAID Mission in Dushanbe, Tajikistan.  In both cases, stakeholder interviews were conducted with individuals dealing with aspects of civ-mil coordination across the US Government (USG).  The interviews were based on open ended questions regarding how CMSE and USAID counterparts learned to best to optimize interactions to maximize the benefit to each group.


The first case considers the activities of the Jordan CMSE team.  In 2012 Special Operations Command Central (SOCCENT) met with USAID Mission and Embassy officials to bring a four person Civil Affairs CMSE team to Amman.  The demand signal could at least be also partially attributable to the Mission director who anticipated greater need for USG collaboration in response to the spillover of the Syrian crisis into Jordan’s northern border.  Given the inflow of Syrian refugees across the border to Jordan, health and education infrastructure were strained in accommodating the increased population being served.  Those tensions continue even today as refugees integrate into various host communities in across Jordan.  The Ambassador at the time sought to find quick impact mechanisms to address this issue and the CMSAE team’s ability to program Overseas Humanitarian, Disaster, and Civil Aid (OHDACA) project quickly served the bill.  The joint agreement between SOCCENT and the USAID Mission stipulated that projects created by the CMSE team would be cleared with USAID and that the team would focus on refurbishing health clinics.  This was the perceived advantage of placing a CMSE team in Amman.

In 2013, the desired quick impact OHDACA projects did not materialize as quickly as had been hoped.  Projects took longer than expected, were more complex to execute than anticipated, and were severely hindered by the short six month rotation for CMSE team members.  More distressing, however, was the tension created with the technical USAID experts, brought about by the health and education projects being pursued by the CMSE teams.  This was cited as a particularly peculiar phenomenon as each project was able to be reviewed via OHDACA’s tracking system Overseas Humanitarian Assistance Shared Information System (OHASIS) by the USAID Mission.  One respondent noted that reviews of OHASIS projects were not necessarily pursued because the size of the project did not warrant the time or effort for review by technical experts even though their aggregate impact on health and education systems was undesirable.  These projects, in essence, became tolerable inconveniences rather than truly complementary efforts.

The CMSE Planner during this period was collocated with a USAID civ-mil coordinator at the Embassy.  Over the course of time the two came to agree on two critical determinations.  The first is that the relationship between USAID and the CMSE needed to be better defined beyond the CMSE’s role of providing OHDACA quick impact projects.  This resulted in a “rules of the road” document which outlined what each party could expect of the other.  This document also served to identify key junctures when the two entities should consult with one another, and serves as a potential best-practice for where CMSEs are co-located with USAID Missions.

The second critical decision was to focus less on project development and more on shared analytics.  As noted earlier, project development was a requirement developed by SOCCENT with the Embassy.  Actual development of projects, however, proved a poor fit at this Mission and did not result in the anticipated benefits.  The CMSE’s focus on access and influence was more directly impacted by their ability talk with various portions of the population.  Further, the CMSE had access to regions that were otherwise difficult to access by USAID.  This led to joint assessments being conducted between the two entities, reaching its most notable collaboration in the form of a CMSE–initiated, SOCCENT-funded joint CVE Assessment that was designed by both SOCCENT and USAID.  Such assessments help both organizations understand the critical elements CVE using the same language and the same indicators.


The second case looks at Tajikistan where the CMSE team had developed in a different manner than the Jordan model.  In 2014, a CVE Working Group (WG) was established to help coordinate the Embassy’s programs aimed at addressing violent extremism.  Although no one interviewed was present during the initial creation of the CVE Working Group, past participants noted that it was initiated at the request of the Ambassador at the time who wanted to get a handle on CVE issues.  The CVE Working Group, originally co-chaired by the USAID civ-mil coordinator and CMSE team lead, was formed around the idea of mapping the shared pool of resources which may fall under the umbrella of CVE.  While the group was formed at this stage, the WG did not yet achieve significant collaboration success.  The initial formation of the CVE WG was followed by three distinct stages.

The first stage began in 2015 during which the group engaged in “theoretical discussion.”  This stage was described as a prolonged phase in which various members of the WG grappled with foundational questions such as how CVE should be defined/identified compared to development more generally.  This can be contrasted with other WGs at the Mission such as the Gender WG which was more quickly established because it was: 1) better defined, 2) experienced less political sensitivity than CVE, and 3) had readily identifiable funding available.  Expertise and learning were derived from many sources to include studies on CVE from other countries in the region as well as lessons learned from other Missions such as Kosovo.  The Chair for the WG was changed at this time to reflect those offices with the most potential to contributed CVE programming which lead to the group being co-chaired by Special Operations Command Forward (SOC FWD )/CMSE, State Public Affairs, and USAID.

The second stage of the WG began in early 2016.  This phase aimed to build on its foundational shared understanding of the CVE challenge in Tajikistan.  The group began to define key ideas, themes and projects that it could choose to pursue.  This included prioritizing regions and projects, reducing its scope to those activities that would be most productive.  The group began to investigate avenues through which they could find support, expertise and, most importantly, funding for their initiatives moving forward.  The WG is currently in this phase and remains engaged in the creation of a Mission-level CVE strategy nearing completion. 

The third and final stage of the CVE WG is forthcoming.  This will be an aspirational phase of the WGs development in which the group engages in deeper cooperation on projects.  This would see a shift from de-conflicting projects to leveraging various expertise to jointly create effective CVE programming.  This would also allow the office best positioned to address a challenge, due to their relations with the host country and resident expertise, to benefit from the inputs of the other CVE WG members.

It is important to note here that these stages were neither planned nor were they well defined.  It may be more appropriate to state that these stages were recognized in hind sight as they occurred as a natural progression of the group’s growth into a more sophisticated structure.  The group is still relatively nascent and will continue to progress, but its endurance in spite of numerous personnel changes during this period is an encouraging sign that it will continue its progress.  This group represents a potential proto-institution that may help foster better civ-mil collaboration at the Mission.  The DCM at this particular Mission noted the CVE WG was valuable not only as a means to address CVE challenges in Tajikistan but as a vehicle for teaching the Mission to work together.

Analysis and Conclusion

In both these examples, CMSE and USAID personnel were placed in a position where they were forced to rely on each other to serve the needs of the Embassy.  The resulting manner of collaboration was neither prescribed or anticipated by the Embassy and in the case of Jordan, ran counter to the original intent.  In Jordan, this took the form of developing a country wide joint CVE Assessment.  In Tajikistan, this took the form of a CVE WG.  Both these developments represent potential proto-institutions which may have the ability to change how civil affairs teams, and special operations forces broadly, interact with USAID.  Should each of these practices find wider use, we may find an example of institutional change coming about from the bottom-up.  This is being observed.  The Mission in Tajikistan at the time had been considering the pursuit of a Joint CVE Assessment with SOCCENT.  The replication of CVE WGs was also being considered at Missions in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and elsewhere outside of Central Asia.

There are a few final thoughts to touch upon here.  The first point is to address the inevitable question of whether these are indeed bottom-up developments considering they came about based on the desire of the Ambassador.  The Ambassador, as chief of Mission, has ultimate authority for those that fall under his/her authority, including both the CMSE and USAID personnel in these cases.  But that is not the correct scale at which to consider the question.  The correct scale would look well beyond the country to team to its larger context.  The potential for wider institutional change stretching horizontally (across countries) and vertically (back to SOCCENT and CENTCOM and USAID/Washington) is the scope of the institutional change being considered.  This broader context does indeed suggest that these changes are coming from the bottom-up.  The second point is to touch upon why a bottom-up approach is necessary in studying inter-organizational dynamics.  This point is illustrated through a definition of collaboration put forth by a management scholar, Ranjay Gulati.  Gulati (2012) and his colleagues note that collaboration between organizations is made up of two elements.  The first element is cooperation which he uses to refer to a wide range of literature that describes how incentive structures can serve to either support or undermine collaboration (Coase, 1937;  Demsetz, 1988).  But this is not sufficient for collaboration because while two groups may want to work together they may not know how to best work together.  This is where Gulati points to coordination as the second necessary element.  Coordination refers to a second body of literature which focuses on the organization as an information processing entity (Grant, 1996).  Coordination concerns itself with how actors adjust their behavior with respect to other actors.  This second aspect of collaboration, Gulati has argued, is both underspecified and under examined by scholars.   The reason a bottom-up approach focusing on proto-institutions is necessary is because it helps us better understand the dynamics of coordination which appears under specified in this area.

Finally, it is noteworthy that in both cases a civ-mil coordinator was present as part of USAID’s collaboration.  It is true, and perhaps will remain true, that as organizations attempt to learn how best to work with one another, a great deal of the success will be determined by personalities of the individuals involved.  The point in these two cases, however, is there was a dedicated individual present with whom the CMSEs could work.  Such positions may act as a pre-requisite for coordination to be most effective with CMSE teams but perhaps with the military more broadly as well.  As these positions are normalized at USAID, it may be reasonable to assume that more proto-institutions may arise that can be used to promulgate best practices in the future.


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About the Author(s)

Haider A. Haider holds a PhD from Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in Public Administration & Public Affairs writing on Institutional Logics and Decision Making.  He is currently a desk officer within USAID’s Africa Bureau and has held previous positions in USAID’s Democracy Conflict and Humanitarian Assistance Bureau (DCHA) as well as the Joint Staff J5.  His work has focused on the coordination of US military efforts with civilian agencies.  The views expressed in this paper are those of the author and do not represent USAID nor the U.S. government.


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