Small Wars Journal

A New U.S. Framework for Stabilization: Opportunities for Civil Affairs

Mon, 10/22/2018 - 6:50am

A New U.S. Framework for Stabilization: Opportunities for Civil Affairs

Kevin Melton, Peter Quaranto, Patrick Quirk, Sara Reckless and Kelly Uribe - State-USAID-DoD Stabilization Assistance Review (SAR)

What have we learned from sixteen years of trying to consolidate hard-won battlefield gains and stabilize conflict-affected areas?  How can we apply those lessons to better support our defense, diplomatic, and development officials on the frontlines in the future?  And how can we show a better return on investment for U.S. taxpayers back at home who are understandably skeptical?  Those were the questions that guided the Department of Defense (DoD), Department of State (State), and U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) to undertake the Stabilization Assistance Review (SAR) in the summer of 2017.  The incoming U.S. Administration made clear that it wanted a new approach to how the United States engages in conflict-affected areas.  They wanted more discipline in how we use our resources and they expected our partners to share more of the burden.

The SAR resulted in a new policy framework, entitled “A Framework for Maximizing the Effectiveness of U.S. Government Efforts to Stabilize Conflict-Affected Areas,” which was endorsed by the Secretary of Defense, Secretary of State, and USAID Administrator as well as the National Security Council staff in mid-2018.  The SAR framework has also been hailed by wide-ranging audiences from the Government Accountability Office to the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction to the Alliance for Peacebuilding.  Perhaps most importantly, it has garnered support from key Congressional committees.  In the Fiscal Year 2019 State and USAID appropriations bill, the Senate Appropriations Committee – for the first time – directed specific funding for “stabilization assistance” and stipulated that assistance should be used for programs and activities in line with the SAR framework. 

Secretary Mattis, Secretary Pompeo, and Administrator Green have directed DoD, State, and USAID to work on implementing the SAR framework and mainstreaming the core principles into policy and practice.  Accordingly, we are working to ensure that the strategies and assistance plans for priority conflict-affected countries and regions – such as Iraq, Libya, and Somalia – reflect the SAR’s principles.  We are also working to ensure that our U.S. embassies, country teams, and military units deployed in those places have the tools and support they need to apply the SAR framework. 

The momentum created by the SAR presents a significant opportunity for especially civil affairs as it works to elevate its profile and renew its capabilities.  However, seizing this opportunity will require fundamental new ways of thinking about how civil affairs and other DoD elements work alongside State, USAID, and other civilian partners; how DoD structures security cooperation with host-nation security partners; and how the U.S. government ultimately measures and defines success. 

Why Stabilization is a Strategic Imperative

The National Security Strategy (2017) highlights that the United States continues to face threats from weak and failing states.  Despite global gains in prosperity, armed conflicts in many parts of the world – particularly internationalized and non-state conflicts – have increased and become more complex over the past decade.  U.S. and partnered forces have struggled to consolidate battlefield gains against ISIS and other transnational terrorist groups amidst persistent levels of conflict and instability. 

The human and financial costs of these conflicts are staggering.  More people today are displaced due to conflict than any time since World War II.  Over the past five years alone, overall international humanitarian funding requirements have increased by an estimated 70 percent.  At the same time, international peacekeeping costs have also surged.  A significant proportion of the U.S. and international foreign assistance budget continues to be dedicated toward these conflict-prone areas; although, according to a recent OECD report, less than 10 percent of that funding is devoted to conflict mitigation and peacebuilding.

This status quo is untenable on several levels.  More focus is needed on resolving conflicts and restoring peace and stability, vice responding to crises.  And yet this must be done in a more cost-efficient way.  There is declining public appetite in the United States and broader international community to intervene and engage in industrial-scale reconstruction efforts.  Taxpayers in the United States and other parts of the world are understandably wary of open-ended commitments.  New ways of thinking about these challenges are needed.

In its initial months, the current U.S. Administration convened a policy planning process to rethink U.S. efforts to address fragility and instability.  This process quickly affirmed the imperative for stabilization to consolidate security gains, particularly in ISIS-affected areas.  However, the process acknowledged the need for a new, leaner approach to stabilization focused on defined outcomes and increased international burden-sharing.  In this context, DoD, State, and USAID initiated the SAR to mobilize lessons learned and formulate such an approach.    

The SAR: Something Old, Something New

The SAR identified ten core lessons for effective stabilization (see below).  Many of the lessons are not new.  They are drawn from countless DoD studies (i.e., the Chairman of Joint Chiefs’ Decade of War study from 2012), multiple Inspector General lessons learned reports from Afghanistan and Iraq, and a wide body of peacebuilding literature.  As we reviewed the vast volumes of reports and talked to hundreds of conflict experts for the SAR, we were struck by the overwhelming consensus about the core principles of effective stabilization: focusing on the political dynamics driving conflict, targeting and layering assistance to bolster legitimate authorities, cultivating host-nation partner ownership, and fostering unity of effort, especially across civilian and military actors.

SAR’s Ten Lessons for Effective Stabilization

1. Set realistic, analytically backed political goals.

2. Establish a division of labor and burden-sharing among international donors that optimizes the strengths of each.

3. Use data and evaluation systems to assess strategic progress and hold partners accountable.

4. Forward deploy U.S. Government and partnered civilians and establish local mechanisms that enable continuous engagement, negotiation, targeted assistance, and monitoring.

5. Start with small, short-term assistance projects and scale up cautiously.

6. Prioritize, layer, and sequence foreign assistance to advance stabilization goals.

7. Link subnational engagements with national diplomacy to advance stabilization.

8. Reinforce pockets of citizen security and purposefully engage with security actors.

9. Seek unity of purpose across all lines of effort.

10. Employ strategic patience and plan beyond stabilization for self-reliance.

What quickly became clear during the SAR is that while these principles have been widely studied, they have not been systematically applied and institutionalized in practice.  In this regard, process matters.  Secretary Mattis once said, “If you take good people and good ideas and you match them with bad processes, the bad processes will win nine of out of ten times.”  Accordingly, the SAR framework focuses less on what stabilization entails and more on how we pursue it as an interagency team.

Our first step was to ensure that our Departments and Agencies have a shared vision of what we are trying to accomplish with stabilization and a clear sense of our roles and responsibilities.  For the first time, the SAR framework establishes an agreed U.S. government definition of stabilization: a political endeavor involving an integrated civilian-military process to create conditions where locally legitimate authorities and systems can peaceably manage conflict and prevent a resurgence of violence.  Transitional in nature, stabilization may include efforts to establish civil security, provide access to dispute resolution, deliver targeted basic services, and establish a foundation for the return of displaced people and longer-term development.  The SAR framework also defines State as the overall lead federal agency for U.S. stabilization efforts; USAID as the lead implementing agency for non-security U.S. stabilization assistance; and, DoD as a supporting element, to include providing requisite security and reinforcing civilian efforts where appropriate.

The SAR’s clear articulation of DoD as a supporting element is a significant new development and reflects the evolving thinking in the Pentagon following the Biennial Review of Stability Operations last year.  There is an ongoing effort to update DoD Instruction 3000.05 to reflect this new “defense support to stabilization” approach and to elevate it to a DoD Directive.  The draft Directive states clearly, “Stabilization must be incorporated into planning across all lines of effort for military operations as early as possible to shape operational design and strategic decisions.”  The Directive further states, “DoD’s core responsibility during stabilization is to support and reinforce the civilian efforts of the USG lead agencies consistent with available statutory authorities…”

Meanwhile, State and USAID are taking initial steps to evaluate and upgrade their capabilities to perform leadership roles in stabilization efforts.  State’s Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations is convening stakeholders to establish planning guidelines and tools for U.S. embassies in conflict-affected areas.  As part of an agency transformation, USAID is proposing to establish a new Bureau of Conflict Prevention and Stabilization, which will incorporate and elevate the important role played by the Office of Transition Initiatives.  USAID will work to mainstream certain core principles into how it works across fragile and conflict-affected areas.

Integrating Civil Affairs with State and DoD to Advance Stabilization

At the heart of the SAR’s stabilization definition is the recognition that stabilization must involve an “integrated civilian-military process” at the strategic, operational and tactical levels.  While DoD plays a supporting role during stabilization, it is imperative that all elements of national power – both military and civilian – are synchronized during these complex crises.  These civil-military connections are well-honed in the humanitarian assistance space, but integrating stabilization efforts remains ad hoc and unrefined.  This imperative requires new capabilities, authorities and approaches.

As the SAR continues to integrate through the Doctrine, Organization, Training, Materiel, Leadership, Personnel, Facilities and Policy (DOTMLPF-P) process, civil affairs has a key role from the strategic to the tactical levels in enabling collaborative interagency and inter-organizational structures and processes necessary to support more effective and efficient stabilization endeavors.  The integration of the SAR principles into DoD’s new Stabilization Directive 3000.05 combined with the new release of the Army Civil Affairs Operations manual (FM 3-57) provides an opportunity to develop DoD’s support to civilian stabilization efforts, and to strengthen civil-military engagement across State, USAID, and DoD.

Although the United States attempted to create a unified stabilization strategy in Iraq and Afghanistan that would sequence and transition security, governance, and development lines of efforts, there remain abundant challenges to ensuring a “whole of government” approach across different conflict and contingency environments.  DoD’s “shape, clear, hold, and build” counter-insurgency framework recognized the importance of sequencing necessary to drive security objectives and create space for governance and economic development.  Yet, interagency integration of sequenced objectives and resourcing at the local levels was less clear and often not linked across security, governance, and development gains.  There is a need for more coordinated planning and operations that better align civilian and military efforts around bottom-up, locally-owned approaches to ensure host government accountability and citizen participation.

As the national strategic capability for civil-military transition and conflict management within DoD, civil affairs is the natural partner for State and USAID civilian stabilization efforts. As emphasized at Civil Affairs Association symposia we have participated in, CA is an indispensable strategic conflict management capability for U.S. interagency, Joint, and Army missions across the full range of operations. For the Army in particular, it is an essential capability in each of the Army’s four strategic roles (shape, prevent, prevail in large scale combat operations, and consolidate gains).

Among its critical roles in interagency stabilization is civil-military integration. Civil affairs forces regularly cross the civilian-military divide at the operational and tactical levels.  Their capabilities and access both into commands and locally on the ground can provide a unifying civil-military platform for strengthened communication, coordination, and collaboration between security, development, and diplomatic efforts.  However, this integration needs to be standardized through integrated civil-military training and exercises, standard operating procedures, and new doctrine.  Strengthened joint and synchronized civil-military capabilities are required across the strategic, operational, and tactical levels to deepen coordinated planning, align resources, build a common operating picture, and enable interoperability. 

Synchronization of civil-military efforts necessitates a careful review of civil affairs core competencies and how they can reinforce comparative advantages and minimize overlapping functions with State and USAID capabilities.  In line with the new DoD Directive 3000.05, civil affairs should work to ensure mechanisms are in place to enable civilians to be engaged and integrated into civil affairs operations during every stage of planning and implementing stability operations.  At the same time, State and USAID need to ensure that civil affairs planners are incorporated into country-level stabilization planning processes from the outset to align with overarching political outcomes, identify common theories of change, and to sequence diplomatic, development, and security activities.

During execution, SAR principles highlight the importance of an integrated approach that can monitor both the desired political outcomes and whether desired theories of change impact those outcomes.  Increasing civil-military interoperability for knowledge management, co-deployment, and information sharing will prove to be a key operational and tactical challenge.  Merging Civil Information Management (CIM) capabilities and functions, especially to ensure information is available on unclassified systems, will play a critical role in building a common operating picture.  Furthermore, the SAR provides recognition that it is critical to have civilian experts on the ground working alongside our military colleagues to enable a unified, civilian-led approach that can appropriately layer and sequence security and non-security assistance.  Working alongside civil affairs teams will enable State and USAID access and visibility for difficult to reach areas critical to adequately plan, monitor, and assess local conditions vital to furthering stabilization objectives.

The Syria Transition Assistance Response Team – Forward (START-FWD) provides a good model for future endeavors.  Recognizing the necessity to co-deploy State and USAID civilians with military forces to plan and monitor stabilization, humanitarian assistance and diplomacy activities with local partners, the Civil Military Support Element (CMSE) provided critical administrative and operational support to the Special Operations Joint Task Force – Operation Inherent Resolve (SOJTF-OIR) for START-FWD.  To address differences between State and USAID authorities and mandates for START-FWD versus those that governed Iraq and Afghanistan Provincial Reconstruction Teams, the CMSE helped develop innovative solutions that allowed DoD to provide security and life support requirements under both Title X and Title XXII authorities.  This produced an operational blueprint that is now feeding into an interagency process to standardize co-deployment of civilians alongside DoD elements in non- and semi-permissive environments.

To reinforce and facilitate this integrated approach, the Office of the Secretary of Defense is pursuing a new legislative proposal in Fiscal Year 2020 that would establish a targeted authority for the Secretary of Defense, with the concurrence of the Secretary of State and in consultation with the USAID Administrator, to support designated U.S. Government stabilization efforts by providing logistic support, supplies, services, and training to other U.S. departments and agencies.  It would also allow the Secretary of Defense to conduct transitional stabilization activities in the interest of U.S. national security with the concurrence of the Secretary of State and in consultation with the USAID Administrator.  DoD’s existing humanitarian assistance authorities enable civil-military collaboration to address humanitarian needs in contingency environments but cannot fund crucial stabilization activities such as minor repairs to electrical, water or sewage lines, supporting local councils or removing rubble so that long-term development efforts can begin.  This new authority – if approved by Congress – would change that.

New Models for Security Cooperation in Conflict-Affected Areas

The provision of security and justice – and how that is perceived – is at the heart of many of the conflicts that we see today.  The SAR report highlights that the U.S. government and international community continues to devote substantial amounts of security sector training and assistance to some of the most conflict-prone countries.  For example, over the past four years, the top fifteen bilateral recipients of U.S. security sector assistance have included at least nine countries where we have been engaged in stabilization in recent years.  This includes - in no particular order: Afghanistan, Colombia, Iraq, Lebanon, Pakistan, the Philippines, Somalia, Syria, and Ukraine.  However, the SAR report notes that security sector assistance programs in many of these countries are often disconnected from political stabilization strategies and do not address the primary drivers of conflict. 

The SAR calls for more programs to focus on the civil-military aspects required for transitional public and citizen security.  Civil affairs has significant expertise in this regard, which needs to be elevated in ongoing security cooperation plans and programs.  In some cases, this could mean incorporating civil affairs perspectives and capabilities into existing training and mentoring programs.  In other cases, it could mean dedicated programs to help partner nation forces to develop their own civil-military operations capabilities.  The UN has developed some capacity in this regard, but their efforts are limited to those places where peacekeeping missions are actively deployed.  Many of these efforts also require greater engagement with non-military elements providing civilian security, such as local law enforcement.  In those cases, it’s important that DoD coordinate more closely with State and USAID actors who are leading engagement with these non-military elements.  Civil affairs can provide a critical bridge in this respect.

The FY 2017 National Defense Authorization Act initiated major changes in how DoD, in partnership with State, undertakes security cooperation activities.  This included consolidating and expanding several funding authorities, elevating the importance of defense institution building, and establishing new requirements for DoD to develop a dedicated security cooperation workforce.  Efforts are underway, led by the Defense Security Cooperation Agency, to implement these reforms.  As the new security cooperation processes and frameworks are put into place, it is critical that they institutionalize lessons learned for conflict-sensitive approaches.  More focus needs to be placed on how we can help security forces to secure population centers and restore trust with local communities.

Rethinking Stabilization Success

At its core, the SAR calls for rethinking the way the U.S. government measures success in stabilization environments.  It is not enough to just count completion of projects, number of people engaged, and other output-based indicators.  If stabilization is a fundamentally political endeavor, we need to think rigorously about how our collective efforts are making progress toward defined political end states.  This requires better metrics, indicators, and analytics to assess on a routine basis how the political economy is changing in conflict-affected areas.  It also requires better indicators to assess the level of commitment and buy-in from our partners.  The SAR makes clear that the United States will expect our host-nation partners to take greater ownership over these efforts and our international partners to share more of the burden.  Civil affairs can play an important role in helping to develop these metrics and to incorporate them into ongoing operations.

One of the things we heard over and over again as we conducted the review is that we need to be more realistic about what success looks like in places like Afghanistan or Somalia.  Rather than focusing on broad state-building efforts, the U.S. government, host nation, and other partners should target those dynamics that are fundamental to establishing basic peace and stability.  The goal of stabilization is not to remake societies, but to help those with legitimacy to peaceably manage conflict.  This approach requires more humility and more realism as we work to understand the dynamics in places where we are operating and how we can influence them.


As we completed the SAR, far more than breaking new intellectual ground, we were more interested in breaking bureaucratic barriers.  The lessons learned from stabilization efforts have been widely studied and written about, including among civil affairs forces.  The challenge remains how to apply and institutionalize those lessons within our organizational structures and ways of doing business.  We need to create more incentives for strategic discipline, integration, and accountability in how we work together across the U.S. government and with our partners in conflict-affected areas.  We need new mindsets and ways of thinking about success.

The SAR has garnered significant interest and enthusiasm from key elements across the U.S. Administration, Congress, and non-governmental communities.  Now comes the hard part of trying to translate that momentum into lasting reforms.  As this process moves forward, the civil affairs regiment can lead the way by integrating new approaches at the strategic, operational, and tactical levels.  Working together, we can reinforce the importance of civil affairs and position the United States to “secure the victory” in the years ahead.

The authors were among the lead architects of the Stabilization Assistance Review (SAR).  Melton is the Senior Civil-Military Transition Advisor in USAID’s Office of Transition Initiatives.  Quaranto is a Senior Policy Advisor for the Department of State’s Office of Foreign Assistance.  Quirk is a Senior Advisor for the Department of State’s Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations.  Reckless is a Senior Transition Advisor in USAID’s Office of Transition Initiatives.  Uribe is a Senior Policy Advisor in the Office of the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Stability and Humanitarian Affairs.


About the Author(s)

The Department of State, U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), and Department of Defense (DoD) are pleased to announce the release of the final report of the “Stabilization Assistance Review” (SAR). With support from the National Security Council, State, USAID, and DoD launched the SAR to identify ways that the United States can more effectively leverage diplomatic engagements, defense, and foreign assistance to stabilize conflict-affected areas.

The President has been clear that the United States will be more selective and measured about how we use taxpayer dollars overseas and expect our partners to share the burden. The SAR outlines a framework for targeting U.S. resources to stabilize conflict-affected states based on our national security interests and an assessment of where we can have the greatest impact. Based on past experience, the SAR establishes a U.S. government-wide definition of stabilization as an inherently political endeavor to create conditions where legitimate authorities and systems can manage conflict and prevent violence. The SAR makes it clear that stabilization is transitional in nature and meant to establish a foundation for longer-term development.

The SAR identifies principles for effective stabilization and lays out a framework for making diplomatic, development, and defense engagements more efficient and accountable to taxpayers by aligning stabilization efforts toward supporting defined political outcomes. The SAR outlines how the United States can improve the outcomes of our stabilization efforts through more efficient and disciplined bureaucratic structures, processes, and engagement with international partners. In this regard, the SAR formally defines agency roles for stabilization missions, with State as the overall lead agency for stabilization efforts; USAID as the lead implementing agency for non-security stabilization assistance; and, DoD as a supporting element.

The SAR is the result of strong collaboration between State, USAID, and DoD over the past year. The final report has been approved by the Secretary of State, Secretary of Defense, and USAID Administrator, all of whom are committed to translating the SAR framework into policy and practice. This commitment will ensure smooth implementation, which is already underway.