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Complex Operations Newsletter

Newsletter 10-46
June 2010

CALL 10-46: Complex Operations Newsletter

Chapter 3. Five Essays: Commanding Heights, Stratigic Lessons from Complex Operations


Effective Civilian-Military Planning at Operation Level: The Foundation of Operation Planning

BG H. R. McMaster

Reprinted with permission of the Center for Complex Operations

This article was originally published in Commanding Heights, July 2009

One of the most important lessons of the war in Iraq is that achieving an outcome consistent with U.S. interests demands effective interdepartmental and multinational planning at the operational level. Although it is clear that decentralization is an essential feature of effective counterinsurgency operations, success at the tactical level, if not connected to well-designed operational plans and a fundamentally sound strategy, is unlikely to be sustained. Moreover, junior leaders and soldiers must understand how their actions fit into the overall plan to defeat the enemy and accomplish the mission. Defeating insurgent organizations and addressing the fundamental causes of violence require a comprehensive approach that must be visualized, described, and directed by an operational commander. Commanders at the operational level-that is, the level of war that "links the tactical employment of forces to national and military and strategic objectives" through the integration of "ends, conditions, ways, and means"-must prioritize efforts and integrate them to achieve clearly defined goals and objectives.1 Clear operational objectives and plans help ensure that the full range of activities and programs are consistent with and contribute to the achievement of policy goals. Sound and continuously revised operational plans are also essential to ensure consistency of effort among units, between military organizations and civil military teams, and over time as the mission progresses.

In addition to integrating the efforts of subordinate organizations, operational commanders and senior civilian officials must also help ensure consistency of effort within multinational coalitions and the interdepartmental, civilian-military team. While an integrated interdepartmental effort in Washington will help in that respect, working together as an integrated team at the operational level is vital. A campaign plan that is understood and accepted by all members of the multinational, civilian-military team is the foundation for achieving unity of effort. The U.S. Army Counterinsurgency field manual emphasizes the importance of integrated civilian-military operational design.

Through design commanders gain an understanding of the problem and the COIN operation's purpose within the strategic context. Communicating this understanding of the problem, purpose, and context to subordinates allows them to exercise subordinates' initiative. . . . While traditional aspects of campaign design as expressed in joint and Service doctrine remain relevant, they are not adequate for a discussion of the broader design construct for a COIN environment. Inherent in this construct is the tension created by understanding that military capabilities provide only one component of an overall approach to a COIN campaign. Design of a COIN campaign must be viewed holistically. Only a comprehensive approach employing all relevant design components, including the other instruments of national power, is likely to reach the desired end state.2

The military commander and the senior civilian official must form interdepartmental, civilian-military planning teams. Planners must have relevant expertise, knowledge of the situation, and the seniority and Effective authority to speak for their departments.3 When possible, the planning team should include representatives of the supported government, including its security forces. If political sensitivities do not permit their direct participation, it will be essential to consult government representatives to ensure that the operational plan will help achieve unity of effort with the supported government.

Civilian-Military Planning at the Operational Level Areas of expertise include intelligence, security, security sector reform, diplomacy, international development, public finance, economics, reconstruction, rule of law, and governance.

Operational design begins with the commander and the senior civilian official deriving their mission and operational goals from policy guidance. A solid connection between policy and operational plans is critical to ensuring that plans are relevant and sufficient resources are available to accomplish the mission. Armed with an understanding of what is to be achieved, the commander and senior civilian official should use their planning team to help them understand the nature of the conflict.

Senior commanders and civilian officials must ask first-order questions to ensure that plans and efforts are feasible and appropriate. Inquiry might begin with an effort to identify and describe the causes of violence. Fundamental causes might include grievances or fears, actions of malign external actors (e.g., hostile states or transnational terrorist organizations), the weakness of the government, and communal competition for power and resources. Ultimately, operational design must address fundamental causes of violence if operational plans are to be effective. If operational design is inconsistent with policy or the nature of the conflict, planning is likely to be driven by what planners might like to do, such as minimize the number of forces committed, avoid difficult state-building tasks, or transition rapidly to indigenous government and security forces that are unprepared to assume full responsibility for security and critical government functions.

Because counterinsurgency operations are inherently complex and uncertain, planning will be based on assumptions. Planners at the operational level must identify assumptions explicitly and ensure that they are logical, essential to the plan, and realistic. If assumptions critical to the success of the plan are unrealistic, the plan is likely to have no effect, or do more harm than good. As the conflict evolves, commanders and their staffs must continue to reexamine assumptions, and adjust the plan if events or conditions invalidate them.

An accurate, comprehensive, and constantly revised intelligence estimate is the foundation for planning. Intelligence efforts at the operational level must place the military situation in the context of the political, social, and economic dynamics that are shaping events. The vast majority of intelligence in counterinsurgency comes from below, and from human, rather than technical sources. Although some believe that operational net assessment and other information-based processes can deliver a "system of systems" understanding of the situation, intelligence that is not placed in nuanced political, historical, social, and cultural context, and is not subjected to expert analysis, is useful only for targeting the enemy, and not for understanding the dynamics that are most critical in shaping the outcome of the conflict. Whenever possible, those charged with developing plans at the operational level should travel to sub-regions within the country to gain a detailed understanding of the enemy and political, economic, and social dynamics at the local level. Visits should include meetings with local government officials, tribal or community leaders, and security force leaders. Planning teams must include military and civilian officials with deep historical and cultural knowledge of the country and the region.

After developing the mission and broad objectives, and armed with a comprehensive intelligence estimate, operational planners assist the commander and the senior civilian official in developing the operational logic that will underpin the effort. The operational logic is communicated in the form of commander's intent4 and the concept of operations.5 The commanders' intent describes the broad purpose of operations and identifies key objectives that must be accomplished to ensure mission success. The concept of operations may be the most important part of an operational plan, because it describes to military and civilian leaders how they will combine their own efforts and coordinate those efforts with the partner government to accomplish the mission. The concept describes how the operational commander and senior civilian official see the effort developing over time based on the actions and programs they initiate, as well as the anticipated interaction of those actions and programs with the enemy and other sources of instability. A sound concept is essential for allowing subordinate units and civilian-military teams to take initiative. Moreover, a commonly understood concept serves as a foundation on which planners can develop detailed plans in critical focus areas, or along what are now commonly called "lines of effort," while ensuring that those plans are consistent with the overall concept and are mutually reinforcing.

The Essential Elements of Operational Plans

Because an insurgency is fundamentally a political problem, the foundation for detailed counterinsurgency planning must be a political strategy that drives all other initiatives, actions, and programs. The general objective of the political strategy is to remove or reduce significantly the political basis for violence. The strategy must be consistent with the nature of the conflict, and is likely to address fears, grievances, and interests that motivate organizations within communities to provide active or tacit support for insurgents. Ultimately, the political strategy must endeavor to convince leaders of reconcilable armed groups that they can best protect and advance their interests through political participation, rather than violence.

The political strategy must also foster and maintain a high degree of unity of effort between the supported government and the foreign forces and civilian authorities supporting them. Unity of effort depends, in part, on a common understanding of the nature of the conflict, definition of the problem set, and agreement on the broad approach necessary to defeat insurgent organizations and achieve sustainable security. If the indigenous government pursues policies or takes actions that exacerbate rather than ameliorate the causes of violence, the political strategy must address how to influence the government by demonstrating that an alternative approach is necessary to avert defeat and achieve an outcome consistent with its interests. If institutions or functions of the supported state are captured by malign or corrupt organizations that pursue agendas inconsistent with the political strategy, it may become necessary to employ a range of cooperative, persuasive, and coercive means to reverse that situation and restore a cooperative relationship.

The military component of operational plans must be derived from and support the political strategy. The concept for military operations must be grounded in the intelligence estimate. Planners must understand the nature and structure of enemy organizations, their ideology or political philosophy, the strategy that they are pursuing, their sources of strength, and their vulnerabilities. At a high level of generalization, operations should aim to isolate enemy organizations from sources of strength while attacking enemy vulnerabilities in the physical, political, informational, and psychological domains. Defeating the insurgents' campaign of intimidation and coercion through effective population security is a necessary precondition for achieving political progress and gaining the intelligence necessary to conduct effective offensive operations. Military forces pursue "irreconcilables" not only to defeat the most committed and dangerous enemy organizations, but also to convince "reconcilables" to commit to a political resolution of the conflict.

Operational plans must integrate reform of the indigenous government's security agencies and the development of capable and legitimate security forces into the overall security effort. To defeat an insurgency or end a communal struggle associated with an insurgency, people must trust their own government and security forces to fulfill their most basic need-security. While local military units and civilian-military teams focus on training and operating alongside indigenous police and Army units, senior commanders, civilian officials, and their staffs should focus on building the administrative capacity and professionalism of security ministries. Senior commanders must work with the host government to craft a plan for the development of ministerial capacity that is grounded in a common understanding of security force roles and missions, and the force structure necessary to perform those roles and missions. The plan must be long-term. Plans must initiate work on systems and capabilities that take time to mature, such as leader development, public financial management, personnel management, logistics, and infrastructure. Because indigenous forces will ultimately be responsible for maintaining security, security force capability and capacity must be sufficient to maintain security after foreign supporting forces depart.

Identifying and developing capable leaders who are committed to improving the security of all citizens rather than advancing a particularistic agenda or personal interests may be the most critical requirement. Because a lack of trust and confidence in security forces often fuels an insurgency, particular attention must be paid to the loyalty and professionalism of those forces (e.g., through leader development and thorough screening of recruits), and a sustained effort must be made to mediate between those forces and their own populations to build confidence. Because all insurgencies include a dimension of civil conflict, it is important that operational planning for security sector reform be closely integrated with the political strategy and ensure that security forces are generally representative of the population and contribute to improved security rather than to conflict between communities competing with one another. Operational plans must also emphasize fostering cooperation between indigenous military forces, police forces, and intelligence services.

The integration of reconstruction and economic development into security operations is critical to rekindling hope among the population and demonstrating that tangible benefits will flow from sustained cooperation with counterinsurgent forces. Local commanders and civilian-military teams need access to funds and development expertise. Technical assistance should put indigenous systems and leaders at the center of the effort and focus on such critical functions as public financial management. Programs that initiate sustainable economic growth and employment, such as agricultural programs and microloans and medium-size loan programs, are particularly valuable. Operational-level plans should identify and advance macroeconomic policies that remove obstacles to economic growth (e.g., legal impediments to foreign direct investment, and subsidies that provide a disincentive to entrepreneurship or incentivize corruption) and provide a stable economic environment (e.g., low inflation). Plans should also account for international and non-governmental organizations' development programs to reduce redundancies and identify opportunities for collaboration and burden-sharing. If improvements in this area are to be sustained, local efforts must be recognized by and connected to governmental institutions. For example, an effort to build clinics at the local level will fail without ensuring that the health ministry hires health care providers and funds maintenance of the facility in its operational budget. Similarly, efforts to improve governance and law enforcement at the local level must be tied to efforts at the provincial and national levels. Despite the best efforts to improve security and move communities toward political accommodation, the pool of popular discontent from which an insurgency draws strength will grow if local government is ineffective.

Because establishing the rule of law is a particularly important element of effective counterinsurgency operations, it must receive focused attention from military and civilian officials at the operational level. Senior commanders and civilian authorities must work with indigenous government personnel to help establish a legal framework that allows the government to defeat the insurgency while protecting basic human rights. Because effective rule of law poses a threat to the insurgent organization, insurgents will seek to intimidate police and judges. Counterinsurgents, therefore, must protect as well as build police investigative and judicial capacity. Until security conditions permit the normal functioning of the judicial system, government and counterinsurgency forces may have to develop a transparent, review-based detainee system that ensures humane treatment. While it is important to ensure that innocents are not imprisoned, it is also important to keep committed insurgents behind bars. As David Galula observed, if the counterinsurgent releases insurgents back into a violent environment, "the effects will soon be felt by the policeman, the civil servant, and the soldier."6 Because detention facilities are critical battlegrounds, it is important to assist the supported government in extending counterinsurgency efforts into those facilities. Important measures include the segregation of leaders, intelligence collection, and rehabilitation prior to release and reintegration.

Operational level commanders, civil authorities, and the local government must infuse all of their activities with effective communications to relevant audiences, especially the indigenous population and the leaders of the supported government and security forces. Critical tasks include clarifying the counterinsurgents' intentions, countering enemy disinformation and propaganda, and bolstering the legitimacy of the government and its security forces. It is also important to trace the population's grievances back to the enemy while exposing the enemy's brutality and indifference to the welfare of Effective Civilian-Military Planning at the Operational Level the population. Operational plans must connect themes and messages to appropriate media platforms and establish a means of assessing how communications are perceived by the population. Decentralization is critical, because local political and cultural dynamics (and their associated messages) will vary considerably. Senior commanders and civil authorities must, however, provide guidance such that local efforts in this area are mutually reinforcing.

Operational planning must also develop an "external solution" to complement the counterinsurgency effort inside the country. Diplomatic, economic, and international law enforcement efforts are necessary to help isolate insurgent organizations from external support. In general, diplomatic efforts should aim to integrate the supported government into the region and enlist the support of reluctant or uncommitted neighbors. Diplomatic or military efforts might also be necessary to convince malign regional actors to desist from activities that undermine the effort.

Once the plan is framed and broadly consistent with the nature of the conflict and the situation, it is important to identify long-term, intermediate, and near-term goals in each focus area and identify the key tasks, programs, and actions necessary to achieve those goals over time. Planners and analysts should identify obstacles to progress in each focus area and propose how to overcome those obstacles. Plans must identify and allocate the resources necessary to accomplish tasks and affix clear responsibility for accomplishing them. Near-term goals should contribute to the first priority of achieving sustainable security and stability. Longer-term goals should aim to help transform the society such that the fundamental causes of violence are dramatically reduced. Ideally, actions and programs undertaken in the near term build toward achieving long-term goals. While it is important to keep long-term objectives in mind, it is also important to understand that there may be no long term if the supported government is unable to achieve visible progress and gain the trust of the population. Critical, long-term efforts, such as civil service reform, the implementation of anticorruption measures, establishment of the rule of law, and the development of leaders in the security sector must be initiated early if adequate progress is to be made in time to stabilize the situation.

Continuous Reassessment

It is difficult to overstate the importance of constant reassessment. The nature of a conflict will continue to evolve because of continuous interaction with enemies and other destabilizing factors. Progress will never be linear, and there will have to be constant refinements and readjustments to even the best plans. Commanders and senior civilian officials should be aware that overreliance on systems analysis can create an illusion of control and progress. Metrics often tell commanders and civilian officials how they are executing their plan (e.g., money spent, numbers of indigenous forces trained and equipped, districts or provinces transferred to indigenous control), but fail to highlight logical disconnects. Estimates of the situation often underestimate the enemy and other sources of instability. These estimates, in turn, serve as a foundation for plans that are inconsistent with the nature of the conflict. An overreliance on metrics can lead to a tendency to develop short-term solutions for long-term problems and a focus on simplistic charts rather than on deliberate examinations of questions and issues critical to the war effort. Moreover, because of wide variations in conditions at the local level, much of the data that is aggregated at the national level is of little utility.

This article was originally published in Commanding Heights, July 2009.


1. Joint Publication 3.0, Joint Operations (Washington, DC: Department of the Army, September 17, 2006), xiii, xx, available at "".

2. Field Manual 3-24 Counterinsurgency (Washington, DC: Department of the Army, December 2006), available at ""., 4-4.

3. Areas of expertise include intelligence, security, security sector reform, diplomacy, international development, public finance, economics, reconstruction, rule of law, and governance.

4. "A concise expression of the purpose of the operation and the desired end state. It may also include the commander's assessment of the adversary commander's intent and an assessment of where and how much risk is acceptable during the operation," DOD Dictionary, available at".

5. "A verbal or graphic statement that clearly and concisely expresses what the joint force commander intends to accomplish and how it will be done using available resources. The concept is designed to give an overall picture of the operation. Also called commander's concept or CONOPS," DOD Dictionary, available at "".

6. David Galula, Counterinsurgency Warfare: Theory and Practice (Westport, CT: Praeger Security International, 1964), 62.

Complex Operations in Practice

Gen Peter W. Chiarelli

Reprinted with permission of the Center for Complex Operations

This article was originally published in Commanding Heights, July 2009

The U.S. experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan underscore the complexity of modern conflict and the lack of U.S. Government organizational constructs that can effectively deal with this complexity. Despite some useful adjustments since 2001, the U.S. Government fundamentally remains organized for an era of bipolar containment and deterrence rather than the challenges of stabilizing failed and failing states. The multi-dimensional challenges of modern conflicts have resulted in ad hoc orchestrations of all the instruments of national power that are not in tune with the strategic context.

As the commander of the 1st Cavalry Division in Baghdad during Operation Iraqi Freedom II (OIF II), and subsequently as the commander of Multi-National Corps-Iraq in 2006, I learned that managing the interwoven kinetic and non-kinetic complexity of modern conflict, not only within the host nation, but within the joint, interagency, and international environments, is the defining characteristic-therefore the challenge-of future operations.

The only national security instrument organizationally designed to operate in complex environments-the military, with its numbers and resources-swamps the capabilities of other, often more appropriate agencies designed for the non-kinetic aspects of complex environments. Short of full-scale overhaul of the U.S. Government, how can we create the capacity to manage and dominate these environments while our national security functions catch up to the speed and flexibility needed in an information age security environment? Part of the answer is to make adjustments to our military forces so they can respond to a greater range of challenges. The Army has taken some major steps in this direction. The other part of the answer is to get our strategy right, being able to identify, understand, and rapidly adjust ways and means to achieve strategic objectives to events on the ground.

A Full Spectrum Army

The Army concept of full spectrum operations1 recognizes that we must work in tandem with joint, interagency, and international stakeholders to balance the application of all the instruments of national power. It assumes that purely kinetic operations are no longer the norm, and in most cases the decisive elements in complex operations are more likely to be non-kinetic and informational than kinetic. It fully recognizes Sir Rupert Smith's dictum:

War amongst the people is different: it is the reality in which the people in the streets and houses and fields-all the people, anywhere-are the battlefield. Military engagements can take place anywhere: in the presence of civilians, against civilians, in defence of civilians. Civilians are the targets, objectives to be won, as much as an opposing force.2

The Army recently published a field manual on stability operations, FM 3-07.33 Written with the assistance and collaboration of multiple government and nongovernmental organizations, it provides a framework within which Army forces can work in concert with other agencies and interested stakeholders. FM 3-07 prescribes a level of coordination that will facilitate more rapid movement from concept to action to results.

The Army has also moved away from an organizational model based on large divisions to a much more flexible, brigade-centric structure. This new approach allows the Army to provide a versatile mix of "tailorable" organizations operating on a predictable, rotational cycle to provide a sustained flow of trained and ready forces for full spectrum operations and at the same time hedge against unexpected contingencies at a rate sustainable for our all-volunteer force.

Operational and Strategic Flexibility

FM 3-07 captures many of the difficult civil-military lessons I learned as the operational commander in charge of day-to-day operations in Iraq in 2006. This transitional period was complicated by a political stalemate and an internally and externally fueled sectarian conflict. Sunni and Shia extremist groups were waging not only a counter-government campaign, but also a broader, ethno-sectarian struggle for power in the country. Once the Government of Iraq (GOI) was seated in late May 2006, the level of sectarian chaos that ensued stunted the political and economic progress that had been achieved in 2004 and 2005.

It was difficult for many to see the Iraqi government as anything more than an agent of a Shia conspiracy rather than the hoped for unity government. The operational themes, or lines of effort, were no longer balanced to support the desired outcome; a pronounced adjustment was identified but did not materialize. The design of the operation needed to adjust to the shifting context.

As an enduring lesson for the execution of complex operations, I would submit that not only recognizing transitions, but changing the campaign design in light of changing realities is fundamental to success. This requires structure and leaders who can create and exercise strategic flexibility, even in the face of seemingly insurmountable bureaucratic inertia.

Shared Objectives

Though we approached the GOI strategically as though it were a monolithic rational actor, it was clear there were diverse organizational dynamics complicated by historical sectarian precedent and contemporary politics. During division operations, and later as the Multi-National Corps-Iraq commander, I learned the importance of cultural awareness to force protection. We intuitively recognized the tactical importance of understanding culture and enforced the strategy through training and re-training.

Understanding the basics of culture is not the same thing as sharing objectives with the host-nation government. While the United States saw the escalating violence in Baghdad in 2006 as a crisis requiring immediate action, the Iraqis did not always share our sense of alarm. It seemed the Iraqis were going through a massive, societal convulsion as they worked through their differences. As the body count in Baghdad continued to rise, I confronted senior Iraqi leaders in an effort to push for a coordinated Coalition-GOI solution. Our differing perceptions became clear in their response: "What's the problem? It was worse under Saddam." The cultural disconnect created a mismatch between Coalition and GOI visions for the country. This disconnect had major tactical, operational, and strategic consequences.

Fighting the Mission, not the Plan

According to FM 3-07, unified action is "the synchronization, coordination, and/or integration of the activities of governmental and nongovernmental entities with military operations to achieve unity of effort."4 From a Coalition and interagency perspective, clearly working to define operational objectives at an interagency as well as the joint Coalition Force/GOI level ensures a unified operational approach. An important corollary is to continuously fold into the design the strategic value of tactical actions. When actions on the ground significantly alter the construct of the campaign, it is time to reevaluate the ways and means.

The actions of Multi-National Force-West in the Al Anbar region in leveraging a shift of alliances of key informal governance (tribal) powerbrokers at the same time the GOI was struggling to establish legitimacy and capacity revealed a strategic opportunity that could have been leveraged earlier. A unified approach cannot become so rigid that parties become slaves to their plan. The approach must adapt as the actions and results on the ground reveal tactical opportunities that have strategic value.

At the same time, the collaborative approach to unified action needs to optimize and leverage the strengths each partner brings to the operation and the impact it could have on a joint-campaign plan.

As the Task Force for Business and Stability Operations, under Paul Brinkley, worked diligently to reopen many of Iraq's 162 SOEs, resistance began to emerge in an operational context, where development, diplomacy, and defense were pragmatically linked. Ideology replaced pragmatism along a critical line of effort focused on the Iraqi economy. Incorporating different contextual lessons from Eastern Europe, some could not see the impact of employment on the force protection of our servicemen and women and the direct impact creation of jobs would have in marginalizing extremist elements. Opening even a third of the Iraqi SOEs represented a boost in employment, which, as demonstrated in OIF II, has a direct and visible impact on extremist platforms. Yet, at the national level, there was little understanding of complex operations past the establishment of security.

Keeping it Real

The hybrid nature of modern wars demands that we address information as a domain of the global environment. As we waited for the Iraqi government to define itself through the first half of 2006, we simultaneously engaged in an intense information campaign targeting the Iraqi populace in an effort to marginalize extremists and enhance the legitimacy and capacity of the incoming "unification" government. Transplanting a Western concept, we developed many suggestions for tasks that the GOI could accomplish in its first 100 days. An expectation began to emerge of great things to come.

But we failed to understand that the Iraqis had other priorities. For those involved in complex operations over extended periods, the lesson is, don't become too enamored of your own message. The expectations we created in the process impacted the expectations not only of the populace, but also the Coalition. We created our own perception of capacity in a situation where capacity was almost nonexistent, and the organizational dynamics of diverse GOI entities-both legitimate and illegitimate-did not fit the expectations created in the information campaign.

In many ways we repeated the mistakes of past wars. Robert Komer's 1972 DARPA report on the organizational dynamics and institutional constraints in the U.S. approach to the Government of Vietnam is eerily prescient. Replace "GVN" with "GOI" and "Vietnamese" with "Iraqi" and you get a sense for how our own optimism may have impacted our approach:

The sheer incapacity of the regimes we backed, which largely frittered away the enormous resources we gave them, may well have been the greatest single constraint on our ability to achieve the aims we set ourselves at acceptable cost ... for many reasons we did not use vigorously the leverage over the Vietnamese leaders that our contributions gave us. We became their prisoners rather than they ours; the GVN used its weakness far more effectively as leverage on us than we used our strength to lever it.5

Our intense desire for the GOI to succeed blinded us to the facts on the ground. We failed to leverage the control we had over ministry and national level capacity and legitimacy because of an optimistic belief created by ourselves that unification across the sects and a rational-actor approach to governance would emerge. Our own doctrine now incorporates this lesson in stark language: "Stability operations leverage the coercive and constructive capabilities of the military force."6

The Value of Values

The U.S. military is an incredible learning organization. No other government organization I know can so fundamentally change its approach to how it does business with such efficiency and effectiveness as the U.S. Military. Yet the force during 2006 was uneven in understanding the complexities of counterinsurgency and stability operations. We had not yet completed the cognitive transformation to full spectrum operations and Rupert Smith's understanding of how integral the populace was to creating progress.

It is important to note that, as the complexity of operations rises over extended periods, the challenges to ethical and moral decision-making increase. Exposure to brutal acts grinds on the fundamental belief systems of our servicemen and women. The clarity of a "just cause" in the grey area between peace and war becomes questioned in the mind of even the strongest. Balancing the cultural understanding needed in complex operations, the impact our culture can have on a host nation, and the horrific acts that are witnessed requires leader attention and consistent "retraining" of the value sets that define our Nation. When the espoused values of the profession of arms are tested by the brutality of extended operations in the harshness of a culturally foreign place like Iraq, the emerging actual values must be addressed. As Abu Ghraib and other incidents have clearly demonstrated, slips in our value set, no matter how "grey" the operating environment may become, can have clear strategic consequences.


Sir Rupert Smith gives us a view into the future of conflict, while Robert Komer starkly reminds us that, "we have been here before." As the fundamental nature of how we define war changes-where linearity is replaced by the interplay of intertwined operational themes, and the populace becomes the battlefield-complexity will rise exponentially.

The balance between lines of effort must be backstopped by cultural understanding, interagency cooperation, unified action, an acknowledgement of our values within the operational context, and flexibility of operational design. If we are to exist and dominate the current and near-term strategic environment, we must address the nature of warfare with a singular focus across the instruments of national power.

What we learned from history we are relearning in Iraq and Afghanistan: lack of any overall management structure contributed to [the strategy's] over-militarization . . . the absence of a single agency or directing body charged with [counterinsurgency or pacification] contributed greatly to the prolonged failure to carry it out on any commensurate scale.7

The complexity of modern wars and the inability to create a government-level, unified, security apparatus for the contemporary strategic environment forced an ad hoc interagency approach and a personality-driven strategic realignment in early 2007 that was, in fact, quite successful.

However, without true understanding of the essence of decision, how bureaucracies create their own inertia, the complexity of modern wars, and the importance of unified efforts, we risk repeating ourselves as we continue forward into an era of persistent commitment.

This article was originally published in Commanding Heights, July 2009.


1. "The Army's operational concept: Army forces combine offensive, defensive, and stability or civil support operations simultaneously as part of an interdependent joint force to seize, retain, and exploit the initiative, accepting prudent risk to create opportunities to achieve decisive results. They employ synchronized action-lethal and nonlethal-proportional to the mission and informed by a thorough understanding of all variables of the operational environment. Mission command that conveys intent and an appreciation of all aspects of the situation guides the adaptive use of Army forces." FM 3-0, Full Spectrum Operations.

2. Rupert Smith, The Utility of Force, The Art of War in the Modern World (New York: Penguin Books, 2005), 3.

3. Field Manual 3-07, Stability Operations (Washington, DC: Department of the Army, October 2008), available at " cac2/repository/FM307/FM3-07.pdf".

4. FM 3-07, 1-3.

5. Robert W. Komer, Bureaucracy Does Its Thing: Institutional Constraints on U.S.-GVN Performance in Vietnam, RAND Report R-967-ARPA, August 1972, iv, available at "".

6. FM 3-07, 2-2.

7. Komer, ix.

Command in Afghanistan 2003-2005: Three Key Lessons Learned

LTG David Barno, USA (Ret)

Reprinted with permission of the Center for Complex Operations

This article was originally published in Commanding Heights, July 2009

The operational experience and lessons learned described in this article result from my 19 months as the overall commander of U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan from 2003-2005. As the senior U.S. commander, I held geographic responsibilities to U.S. Central Command for a sub-region that included all of Afghanistan, most of Pakistan, and the southern portions of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan-a four-country joint operations area. My first task upon arrival in theater was to establish a new three-star headquarters in Kabul from the ground up, while concurrently assuming overall command of ongoing training and combat operations across the entire area of operations. This unique opportunity provided a host of "lessons learned" stemming from a set of challenges few other commanders at that time faced. My command responsibilities spanned a set of tasks best described on the spectrum of operations as reaching from theater-strategic/pol-mil through the high end of the operational level; my subordinate two-star combined joint task force held tactical and lower end operational level responsibilities across our battlespace.

Three key lessons pertaining to strategic and operational command in irregular warfare during this demanding period stand out. First, focusing on the big picture: strategy not tactics, winning not simply battles, but the war became the central task. Second, the vital importance of integrating the civil-military effort, beginning at the most senior levels, was crucial to success. Finally, the essential task of communicating and building relationships of trust with key players of disparate backgrounds was a prerequisite to achieving effective results. Each of these topics is worthy of an extensive discussion, but this piece will attempt to summarize the most salient points related to each.

Focusing on the big picture seems an obvious principle to promote at the senior level of military command. Unfortunately, the U.S. Army's cultural predisposition toward "war-fighting" (fighting and winning battles) versus "war-winning" (bringing conflicts to a successful conclusion) remains a powerful influence affecting theater level leadership, so emphasizing the primacy of the big picture deserves strong reinforcement.

Senior commanders are drawn from an environment that rewards tactical level performance. Successful two-star division commanders are drawn from successful colonels and brigadiers who have proven their mettle not as strategic leaders, but as master tacticians. Three- and four-star leaders are chosen from successful two-star commanders-thus a predilection toward the importance of tactical performance is reinforced by our promotion and selection system. Senior commanders are often unwittingly pulled toward operating and prioritizing in ways that have delivered success in their career-a dynamic that often works at cross purposes with the need to understand leadership in new ways, which is the sine qua non of successful operational and strategic command.

Moreover, despite the central civil-military dynamic that defines effective counterinsurgency, the temptation for the U.S. military to "go it alone" and conduct military operations not fully harmonized with civil action remains a challenge-and one played out on several occasions in Afghanistan from 2002-2008. "War-fighting" may not always require civil players to achieve success-"battles" are won, after all, by soldiers-but the much more complex notion of "war-winning" almost always requires a whole of government approach. Successful counterinsurgency campaigns, in the famous characterization of French COIN expert David Galula, are often 80 percent non-military and only 20 percent military.1

Focusing on the big picture requires a clear understanding of the policy goals that the military effort is designed to serve. In most cases those goals will not be simply military in nature; some degree of interagency (and sometimes, international) effort will be required to achieve most policy objectives. This presents military commanders with a dilemma: how much should they get involved outside the military sphere? Commanders will not "command" many of the interagency actors whose combined actions will be needed to achieve the policy goals handed down from Washington. Conversely, in such situations, military leaders may not be held fully accountable for the outcome. Do military commanders simply "stay in their lane," work on the military and security lines of operation, and define their mission statement narrowly to deliver the "military requirement?" Or do commanders extend their horizons, seek maximum flexibility in their mission statements, leverage their military capacity (nearly always the biggest resource available), and drive their organization toward a broader set of whole-of-government policy goals to enable the overarching policy objectives to be met?

From 2003-2005 in Afghanistan, my approach was the latter. As I shared with an overworked staff officer in my headquarters in late 2003, "We own it all." This outlook was strikingly different from the approach taken by previous commanders (likely operating under other guidance). Previous commanders had limited interaction with the civilian leadership and were operating from a military headquarters that was a 90-minute drive outside the capital of Kabul. In fact, my orders in standing up a new headquarters were explicitly to position it in Kabul and build closer connections with the U.S. embassy and newly arriving U.S. ambassador. This guidance was in belated recognition that (by 2003 at least) geographically separating the U.S. civilian and military leadership during a prolonged engagement in Afghanistan was not a productive approach.

Creating a unified, civil-military approach was a second major challenge. Fortunately, our new U.S. ambassador, Zalmay Khalilzad, fully understood this necessity and became an ideal partner in this formidable task. Personalities matter immensely in conditions of crisis, and ours meshed-no small bit of good fortune! Our staffs began to recognize that there would be no seams or "white space" between the U.S. ambassador and the senior military commander, and that expectations were being set for strongly integrated efforts between the two organizations. I understood that if the U.S. military "succeeded" in Afghanistan-won every tactical engagement, killed more of the Taliban-yet the U.S. embassy failed-could not facilitate a nation-wide presidential election, could not complete the Ring Road project, failed to disarm and separate warlords-the overall mission would fail, and U.S. policy goals would not be achieved. This was a fundamental realization that quickly began to shape all of our military endeavors.

The implementation of a unified civil-military approach took a myriad of forms. My day began and ended at the U.S. embassy (where I also resided in a half-trailer)-to better encounter the ambassador at off moments. The first 2 hours of the day included meetings with the ambassador for country team meetings (to demonstrate our one-team approach) and security core group meetings to cross talk among all the senior U.S. military and interagency players in Afghanistan and synchronize directions. U.S. military officers were seconded to many embassy offices, and five senior military planners were provided to the ambassador to form an "Embassy Interagency Planning Group" that would provide strategic planning for the ambassador and devise metrics and performance measures for the overall U.S. mission in Afghanistan. Ambassador Khalilzad and I would often travel together to key events outside Kabul, and we attended all openings of provincial reconstruction teams (PRTs) together. This close relationship paid us both huge dividends and was a benchmark for our military and diplomatic organizations (Defense coming from "Mars" and State from "Venus"), clearly demonstrating the expectations for close and supportive relations at all levels.

Communicating and building relationships with actors of all different backgrounds was another critical lesson learned. Military officers are raised and schooled in environments consisting largely of other military officers. The political-military environment of senior command in Afghanistan was anything but military in nature. As the commander of U.S. Central Command, General John Abizaid, noted in his concise initial guidance to me: "Your job, Dave, is big Pol and little Mil," alluding to the scope of the political-military challenge and the priorities needed in our new approach. To implement this guidance, I began to spend large portions of my time interacting with the many actors in Kabul who significantly influenced the overall international effort in Afghanistan. They too would have immense impact on the success or failure of U.S. policy objectives-whether Afghan ministers, ambassadors from NATO nations, or key UN officials.

Key to achieving some degree of synergy of effort between this diverse set of players were personal relationships. I began to realize early in my tenure that building a personal relationship with each of these key individuals-something which extended beyond simply good manners in office calls-became a "force multiplier," in military parlance, and created a wellspring of good will and trust that might be of substantial future importance. Mutual trust became an essential ingredient to resolving thorny and contentious issues that were inherent in the international effort in Kabul.

A salient example of the importance of trust-building was the relationship that evolved between the U.S. military and the United Nations in Afghanistan. On a personal level, this was embodied in the relationship that developed between the U.S. military commander and the Senior Representative of the UN Secretary General (SRSG). Institutionally, these two organizations were highly dissimilar-in some ways from opposing cultures, and populated by dedicated and committed individuals of very different backgrounds who largely viewed each other with suspicion. Given the central importance of the UN mission in Afghanistan to the legitimacy of the international mission, as well as to the looming first-ever Afghan presidential election, an uncooperative or contentious relationship between the UN and the U.S. military was fraught with peril.

At his invitation, the SRSG, Jean Arnault, and I began to have breakfast every Monday morning at his residence. A Frenchman who was a career diplomat, Jean was of dramatically different background and interests than any American general. Yet, these informal get-togethers produced not only useful discussions on issues of mutual importance, but laid the foundation for an increasingly strong personal connection between Mr. Arnault and myself-one that continues to this day. We grew to trust each other and to clearly see where our two organizations had much in common as we looked to the desired outcome in Afghanistan. Moreover, we intuitively realized that neither of our organizations could accomplish its objectives without the help of the other.

The importance of a genuine relationship of shared trust and confidence between two leaders of different organizations was immense. Just as with the institutional diplomatic-military benefits accruing to my ties to the U.S. ambassador, SRSG Arnault's and my organizations (the UN mission and the U.S. military) quickly began to understand that "the bosses got along" and would not brook the "staff wars" that often endanger good relations between institutions with different outlooks and missions. Conversely, the close relationship between the two senior leaders fostered an environment in which subordinates could take broad initiatives on a host of issues knowing that over-arching institutional goals and objectives were shared. When a crisis might erupt in Afghanistan that threatened the security of international aid workers-four M�decins Sans Fronti�res physicians were murdered in early 2004, and MSF left the country-our personal relationship of trust helped both the United States and the UN evaluate the threat and react in ways that, absent that personal relationship, might have caused the UN to shut down key parts of its vital operations across Afghanistan.

Relationships of mutual respect and confidence with host-nation counterparts are equally crucial in an irregular warfare environment. My senior leader engagements regularly took me to meet with the Chief of General Staff of the Afghan National Army (ANA), General Bismullah Khan. General Bismullah was a Tajik and former mujahid who had fought the Soviets and then the Taliban for his entire adult life. Though only in his mid-40s, he was prematurely aged by long, hard fighting. He spoke always through an interpreter, which further complicated dialogue. That said, we struck a very close relationship and built close ties between our two organizations. Our discussions over tea in his office were always wide-ranging and often very indirect. The highest compliment I ever received from an Afghan came from Bismullah after I has returned to the United States: "(General Barno) never told us what to do in our meetings, but when he left the office, we always knew what he wanted us to do." Indirection and respect for cultural norms had a powerful influence when coming from a commander whose forces were in very real terms guests within the sovereign nation of Afghanistan.

In sum, my "lessons learned" boil down to this: theater level command in an irregular warfare setting demands a broader set of skills than those required of conventional war at the same level. Some basic questions arise as to whether our selection and development of senior officers for command in this environment adequately recognize this fact. Our military leaders today are superbly trained and equipped by their lifelong experience to lead difficult military contingency operations anywhere in the world. Where they may fall short is in understanding the leadership requirements across the increasingly important non-military sphere and their centrality to success in irregular warfare.

Lack of civil resources in most conflict settings will demand that military leaders and their organizations play a very large role in the non-military dimension of irregular warfare and stability operations. Senior military leaders have limited experience and often even less preparation for this role-although 8 years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan have now provided some hard-won knowledge that is slowly becoming more common at senior levels. More and more, senior commanders must clearly see the big picture, understand how the military can engage to deliver whole-of-government policy objectives to achieve strategic ends, and possess the personal and cross-cultural skills to build relationships of trust with key actors outside the military sphere. In today's environment of prolonged complex contingencies, these talents are paramount requirements for overall success. We need to closely examine whether our process of educating, developing, and selecting our senior military leaders can meet this strategic leadership challenge.

This article was originally published in Commanding Heights, July 2009.


1. David Galula, Counterinsurgency Warfare: Theory and Practice (Westport, CT: Praeger Security International, 1964).

Retaining the Lessons of Nation-Building

Ambassador James Dobbins

Reprinted with permission of the Center for Complex Operations

This article was originally published in Commanding Heights, July 2009

Observing America's first year in Iraq, one might be forgiven for thinking that this was the first time that the United States had embarked upon such an enterprise. In fact, this was the seventh occasion in little more than a decade that the United States had helped liberate a society and then tried to rebuild it, beginning with Kuwait in 1991, and then Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan, and finally Iraq. Six of these seven societies are dominantly Muslim.

Thus, by 2003, there was no army in the world more experienced in nation-building than the American, and no Western army with more modern experience operating within a Muslim society. How, one might ask, could the United States perform this mission so frequently, yet do it so poorly? The answer is that neither the American military nor any of the relevant civilian agencies had regarded post-conflict stabilization and reconstruction as a core function, to be adequately funded, regularly practiced, and routinely executed. Instead, the U.S. Government had tended to treat each of these missions as if it were the first ever encountered, sending new people with new ideas to face what should have been familiar challenges. Worse yet, it treated each mission as if it were the last such it would ever have to do. No agency was taking steps to harvest and sustain the expertise gained. No one was establishing an evolving doctrine for the conduct of these operations, or building a cadre of experts available to go from one mission to the next.

Since the end of the Korean War, America's conventional battles have ended in a matter of days in overwhelming victories with few if any friendly casualties. Nation-building, counterinsurgency, and post-conflict reconstruction, on the other hand, have always proved much more time-consuming, expensive, and problematic. One reason for this disjunction is that the U.S. Government is well structured for peace or war, but ill-adapted for missions that fall somewhere in between. In both peace and conventional war, each agency knows its place. Coordination between agencies, while demanding, does not call for endless improvisation. By contrast, nation-building, stability operations, counterinsurgency, and irregular warfare all require that agencies collaborate in ways to which they are not accustomed. Consequently, these missions are among the most difficult for any President to direct. The U.S. Government simply is not structured for the purpose.

Administrations get better at these types of operations as they gain experience. Unfortunately, their improved capacity does not automatically carry over to their successors. The expertise acquired has been developed on an ad hoc and largely personal basis, and is not built into the relevant institutions. Therefore, it can be easily lost. One can trace this process of progress and regression in the decade following the end of the Cold War, which saw an upsurge in nation-building-type missions.


During his 8 years in office President Clinton oversaw four successive efforts at stabilization and post-conflict reconstruction. Beginning with an unqualified failure in Somalia, followed by a largely wasted effort in Haiti, his administration was eventually able to achieve more enduring results in Bosnia and Kosovo. Each successive operation was better conceived and more competently conducted than its predecessor, as the same officials repeatedly preformed comparable tasks.

The Clinton administration derived three large policy lessons from its experience: employ overwhelming force, prepare to accept responsibility for the provision of public security, and engage neighboring and regional states, particularly those making the most trouble.

Overwhelming force should be applied until security is established

In Somalia, President George H.W. Bush originally had sent a large American force to do a very limited task: protecting humanitarian food and medicine shipments. Bill Clinton reduced that American presence from 20,000 soldiers and marines to 2,000, and gave the residual force the mission of supporting a UN-led, grass roots democratization campaign that was bound to antagonize every warlord in the country. This sent capabilities plummeting even as ambitions soared. The reduced American force was soon challenged. The encounter chronicled in the book and movie "Blackhawk Down" resulted in a firestorm of domestic criticism and caused the administration to withdraw American troops from Somalia.

From then on, the Clinton administration embraced the "Powell doctrine" of applying overwhelming force, choosing to super-size each of its subsequent interventions, going in heavy and then scaling back once potential adversaries had been deterred from mounting violent resistance and a secure environment had been established.

Planners and policymakers should assume the responsibility for public security until local forces can meet the local security challenge

In Somalia, Haiti, and Kosovo, the United States had arrived to find local security forces incompetent, abusive, or nonexistent. Building new institutions and reforming existing ones took several years (and in Somalia was not even seriously attempted). In the interim, responsibility for public security devolved on the United States and its coalition partners. The U.S. military resisted this mission, to no avail. By 1999, when they went into Kosovo, U.S. and NATO military authorities accepted that the responsibility for public safety would be a military task until international and local police could be mobilized in sufficient numbers.

Engage all neighboring parties, including those that are most obstructive

Neighboring states played a major role in fomenting the conflicts in Somalia, Bosnia, and Kosovo. This problem was largely ignored in Somalia, but faced squarely in Bosnia. The Presidents of Serbia and Croatia, both of whom bore heavy responsibility for the ethnic cleansing that NATO was trying to stop, were invited by the United States to the peace conference in Dayton, Ohio. Both men were given privileged places in that process, and continued to be engaged in the subsequent peace implementation. Both men won subsequent elections in their own countries, their domestic stature having been enhanced by their exalted international roles. Had Washington treated them as pariahs, the war in Bosnia might be underway still.

By 1999, the Serbian leader, Slobodan Milosevic, had actually been indicted by the international tribunal in The Hague for genocide and other war crimes. Yet, NATO and the Clinton administration negotiated with his regime again to end the air campaign and the conflict in Kosovo.

Starting Over

Each of these lessons was rejected by a successor U.S. administration initially determined to avoid nation-building altogether, and subsequently insistent on doing it entirely differently, and in particular more economically.

Ironically, the Powell doctrine of overwhelming force had been embraced only after General Powell left office in 1993, and was abandoned as soon as he returned in 2001. Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld's views were diametrically opposed. He argued in speeches and op-ed articles that flooding Bosnia and Kosovo with military manpower and economic assistance had turned these societies into permanent wards of the international community. The Bush administration, he explained, by stinting on such commitments, would ensure that Afghanistan and Iraq more quickly become self-sufficient. This line of thinking transposed the American domestic debate over welfare reform to the international arena. The analogy could not have proven less apt. By making minimal initial efforts at stabilization in Afghanistan and Iraq, and then reinforcing its commitments of manpower and money only once challenged, the Bush administration failed to deter the emergence of organized resistance in either country. The Rumsfeld vision of defense transformation proved well suited to conventional combat against vastly inferior adversaries, but turned out to be a much more expensive approach to post-conflict stabilization and reconstruction.

During the 2000 Presidential campaign, Condoleezza Rice wrote dismissively of stability operations, declaring that "we don't need to have the 82nd Airborne escorting kids to kindergarten." Consistent with this view, the Bush administration, having overthrown the Taliban and installed a new government in Kabul, determined that American troops would do no peacekeeping in that country, and that peacekeepers from other countries would not be allowed to venture beyond the Kabul city limits. Public security throughout the rest of the country was to be left entirely to the Afghans, despite the fact that Afghanistan had no army and no police force. A year later, President Bush was asking his advisers irritably why such reconstruction as had occurred was largely limited to the capital.

The same attitude toward public security informed U.S. plans for post-invasion Iraq. Washington assumed that Iraqi police and military would continue to maintain public order after Saddam's regime was removed. The fact that this had proved impossible not just in Afghanistan a year earlier, but also in Somalia, Haiti, and Kosovo, was ignored. In the weeks leading up to the invasion, the Pentagon leadership cut the number of military police proposed for the operation by U.S. military authorities, while the White House cut even more drastically the number of international civilian police proposed by the State Department. Lest there be any doubt that these police were not to do policing, the White House also directed that any civilian police sent to Iraq should be unarmed. For the next several years, as Iraq descended into civil war, American authorities declined to collect data on the number of Iraqis getting killed. Secretary Rumsfeld maintained that such statistics were not a relevant indicator of the success or failure of the American military mission. Only with the arrival of General Petraeus in 2007 did the number of civilian casualties become the chief metric for measuring the progress of the campaign.

America's quick success in overthrowing the Taliban and replacing it with a broadly based government owed much to the assistance received from nearby states, including such long-term opponents of the Taliban as Iran, Russia, and India. Yet, no sooner had the Karzai government been installed than Washington rebuffed offers of further assistance from Iran and relaxed the pressure on Pakistan to sever its remaining ties with violent extremists groups. The broad regional strategy, so critical to both Washington's initial military victory and political achievement, was effectively abandoned.

A regional strategy was not even attempted with respect to Iraq. The invasion was conducted not just against the advice of several of Washington's most important allies, but also contrary to the wishes of most regional states. With the exception of Kuwait, none of Iraq's neighbors supported the intervention. Even Kuwait cannot have been enthusiastic about the announced American intention to make Iraq a democratic model for the region in the hopes of inspiring similar changes in the form of government of all its neighbors. Not surprisingly, neighborly interference quickly became a significant factor in stoking Iraq's sectarian passions.

In his second term, President Bush worked hard to recover from these early mistakes. In the process, his administration embraced the mission of post-conflict stabilization with the fervor of a new convert. The President issued a new directive setting out an interagency structure for managing such operations. Secretary of State Rice recanted her earlier dismissal of nation-building. The State Department established an Office of Reconstruction and Stabilization charged with establishing a doctrine for the civilian conduct of such missions and building a cadre of experts ready to man them. The Defense Department issued a directive making stability operations a core function of the American military.

In Iraq, more forces and money were committed, public security was embraced as the heart of a new counterinsurgency strategy, and efforts were made to better engage neighboring states, not even excepting Iran. The lessons of the 1990s had been relearned, and Iraq was pulled back from the abyss.

Retaining Hard Won Lessons

The 2008 American elections returned a new President of a different party, and consequently offered every prospect of another abrupt fall off this hard-won learning curve. Fortunately, President Obama decided to keep Robert Gates as Secretary of Defense, General David Petraeus at Central Command, and Lieutenant General Douglas Lute, along with a team of professional military, diplomatic, and intelligence officers advising him and organizing the interagency management of both wars. The result has been a degree of continuity that leaves some Democrats uneasy, but offers hope that the lessons of the past two decades will not be lost once again in the transition from one administration and governing party to the next.

As articulated so far, the Obama strategy for Afghanistan is an effort to replicate the success achieved in Iraq in 2007 by employing many of the same elements: a counterinsurgency doctrine focused on public security, increases in U.S. and Afghan military manpower needed to execute such a mission, financial incentives to economically motivated insurgents to change sides, intensified regional diplomacy-particularly with Pakistan, but also Iran, Russia and India-and a willingness to envisage accommodation with some elements of the insurgency. President Obama has sought to distinguish his approach rhetorically from that of his predecessor by downplaying nation-building and focusing instead on counterterrorism as the reason for being in Afghanistan. Yet he accompanied this apparent narrowing of the American mission by increasing manpower and money devoted to it. Further, the President's immediate rational for an increase in American troop strength was the need to secure the upcoming Afghan elections. Nation-building thus remains at the core of the American strategy for Afghanistan (and Iraq), even if the term is still officially eschewed.

While the Bush administration made a start, after 2005, in building institutional capacity for stability operations, much still needs to be done if the current level of expertise is not to degrade again after the immediate crises recede. Forestalling such a regression will require the establishment, by legislation, of an enduring division of labor between the White House, State, Defense, and USAID. There must be an allocation of responsibilities that cannot be lightly altered by each passing administration, for no agency will invest in activities it may not long need to carry out.

In assigning these responsibilities, the role of the White House should be to set policy and make sure agencies adhere to it. The role of the State Department should be to ensure that all programs conducted overseas, by any agency, support the President's policies and are optimized to achieve his objectives. The Defense Department should execute only those programs for which the military has a comparative advantage. Other programs should be executed by civilian agencies-the default agency should be a reformed and expanded USAID, which should be given cabinet status and renamed the Department for Development and Reconstruction. But control over funding for all non-military activities conducted in stabilization missions should remain with State, as this is the only means that agency has to play its assigned role as the operational link between a policy-setting White House and the multiple program-executing agencies.

America's experience in Afghanistan and Iraq has illustrated the costs of unprepared nation-building. The cost of sustaining the capacity to conduct these operations, and thus retaining the lessons of the past two decades, is trivial by comparison.

This article was originally published in Commanding Heights, July 2009.

The Politics of Complex Operations

James Kunder

Reprinted with permission of the Center for Complex Operations

This article was originally published in Commanding Heights, July 2009

While serving as Director of the Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance at USAID, I was ordered to Somalia in November 1992, when that nation was in the throes of a major humanitarian and political crisis. In January, 2002, while working as a private consultant, I was asked to rejoin the U.S. Government and was ordered to Afghanistan to reopen the USAID mission there. Aside from these two deployments, from the early 1990s until leaving USAID in January 2009, I conducted assessment missions or managed government or non-governmental programs in a range of complex operations venues, including Angola, Bosnia, Colombia, Georgia, Iraq, Liberia, Mozambique, Nicaragua, Sri Lanka, Sudan, and the West Bank/Gaza. From these varied experiences I have distilled three lessons I would like to share in this essay.

Let me begin in a spirit of sincere humility. Complex operations are, as the term suggests, inherently difficult. My Chief of Mission when I arrived in Kabul, Ryan Crocker, had previously served as U.S. ambassador to Pakistan, Syria, and Lebanon, before going on to high achievement in Iraq. Ambassador Crocker was fond of noting the number of difficult assignments he and I had attempted before arriving in Kabul, then dryly joking that, "it is obvious Jim and I will continue to be sent to these places until we get it right!" That is to say, I recognize that whatever lessons learned I convey here can serve only as data points, not formulas, for those grappling with complex operations in the future.

My first observation or lesson is that every one of these complex operations in which I have served was, pure and simple, a political event. Now, it may seem unnecessary to state this simple lesson, but I do so for a purpose: to urge that we practitioners in complex operations not become excessively enamored of technique, or prisoners of our own elegant programs. Let me elaborate.

One of the positive developments in complex operations in recent decades is progress in the techniques available to practitioners, both civilian and military. To our credit, we have developed military doctrine to enshrine the advantages of working closely with civilian partners. Commanders now arrive at the site of complex operations with Commander's Emergency Response Program (CERP) funds to address local community needs. USAID has developed stand-by rosters of specialists in complex operations, a precursor to a much expanded Civilian Response Corps, We link State, Defense, and USAID personnel in provincial reconstruction teams. And the linkages between demobilized fighters, jobs, and recruitment are better delineated. This list of enhanced techniques could be extended. In short, the civilian crisis manager or military commander shows up at a complex operation today with a much more effective toolkit than his or her predecessor of just two decades ago.

The downside of having this 21st-century toolkit is that we spend a very large amount of time, from the highest levels of the U.S. Government to the most isolated forward operating base, sorting through our tools for the array of programs that we will employ. And each tool in the kit has a bureaucratic constituency. Will we focus on microenterprise job creation to offset the recruitment appeal of insurgent groups? What increment of additional power generation will best promote restoration of stability? Are the critical ministries functioning properly, with good financial accounting systems and home-grown inspectors general? Are we tracking revenue collection closely enough? Now, all of these issues, in a given complex operation, may be important, even essential. But they may also cloud the essentially political nature of the crisis.

In each of the complex operations in which I have served, I have been struck by the deep-rootedness of the underlying political conflict that spawned the complex crisis. The political conflict often goes to the heart of identity issues, those dynamics-driven by religion, ethnicity, tribe, clan, language, heritage-that are close to the core of the human condition. And, although complex operations practitioners can apply their program and budget toolbox to ameliorating such issues, neither programmatic interventions nor better program coordination can substitute for addressing underlying political conflict. Let me give a concrete example.

While deployed to Bosnia in 1991-92, I had occasion to observe residents destroying Yugos, the compact automobile that had been the pride of the former Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. Now, Yugos may not have run that well, but they were produced in factories where laborers received wages comparable to those paid in Western Europe, and the destruction of the market for the cars-as well as the cars themselves-made absolutely no rational sense by the standards of complex operations practitioners. We wanted to create high-paying jobs, in the familiar logic, so that people would have hope for the future and put aside their inter-ethnic difficulties. But here was a society that was destroying high-paying jobs by destroying Yugos-hence suppressing the market for them-because the name of the automobile conjured up a political entity with which they no longer identified.

In a world where political issues, and underlying issues of human identity, produce such counterintuitive results, it is essential that complex operations address the political issues head-on to achieve stability. A positive trend in both Afghanistan and Iraq, in my view, is the new policy of incorporating three to five individuals carrying full ambassadorial rank into the senior leadership of the U.S. embassies. We need more senior diplomats, buttressed by strong language skills, on the site of complex operations. But this is only a down payment. Developing a sound, complex operations strategy for Afghanistan, for example, requires a substantial national investment in understanding Pashtun nationalism and the reaction that nationalism provokes in Hazaras, Uzbeks, Tajiks, and others. There is no shortcut, no elegant combination of employment programs and donor coordination centers, that will stabilize the country without taking on the underlying political conflicts of Afghanistan. In this sense, Afghanistan is like every other complex operation.

The second lesson I would like to share from my experience in complex operations is the imperative that we get serious about effective civilian command and control in reconstruction and stabilization operations. In my view, the current state of coordination among civilian agencies-American, other governments, international agencies, the UN, the NGOs and private contractors, the Red Cross/Red Crescent movement, and, not least, the government we are supposedly trying to help-veers between tragedy and farce, and always exhibits chaos. The costs of under-coordinated civilian response, in delay, wasted motion, and funds are apparent in many complex operations. This is an area ripe for improvement.

Let me be clear about what I mean by effective civilian command and control in complex operations. I am not addressing the issue of conflict between civilian and military policy, nor suggesting that civilian agencies need more control over military forces in complex operations. The necessity of integrating civilian and military policy is a serious issue that deserves further attention, but that is not the point here. Rather, the command and control issue that, in my observation, most needs attention is ensuring that the many civilian reconstruction and stabilization agencies that operate in a complex operation synchronize their efforts. Minimal coordination among civilian agencies is the rule in most complex operations, and the costs of minimal coordination are high. Moreover, the highest-profile complex crises with the highest strategic stakes often draw the largest number of outside civilian organizations, thus exacerbating coordination issues precisely where synergy is most needed.

Let me return to Afghanistan for an example. The numerous civilian agencies operating there cannot perfectly harmonize their reconstruction and stabilization efforts, but they can, at the absolute minimum, maintain a standard, transparent database indicating where and on what they are working in order to avoid duplication. The need for a centralized civilian agency database of projects and programs was recognized in Afghanistan soon after Coalition forces arrived in 2001. In 2002, donors, led by the U.S. government, created a reconstruction data center in the Afghan Finance Ministry to serve as a central clearinghouse of civilian projects. But, as recently as May 2009, a senior United Nations official in Kabul reported to me that several major donors do not even report their program data to the Finance Ministry, which renders the data hub only minimally useful as a coordination tool.

This example barely scratches the surface of the problem. There is, in reality, no accepted system of civilian agency coordination during complex operations. The closest that practitioners come in most complex operations is a degree of voluntary coalescing around the leadership of the United Nations, especially when the severity of the crisis leads to the appointment of a Special Representative of the Secretary-General (SRSG). Even this arrangement tends to fray when the international response to a complex operation is a "coalition of the willing," as opposed to a formal UN peacekeeping mission under chapters VI or VII of the UN Charter.

The problem of civilian coordination is profound. Simply put, there is no global legal, doctrinal, treaty, or other basis on which to establish an authoritative command and control wiring diagram when a complex operation begins. There is no civilian NATO. The large, bilateral donor nations (the United States included) that arrive at a crisis venue with deep pockets and their own technical reconstruction staff often determine their reconstruction priorities based on direction from their capitals. The International Committee of the Red Cross, or other elements of the Red Cross/Red Crescent movement, may have a large presence, but they report neither to the UN nor to any bilateral donor. The UN agencies sometimes barely coordinate between themselves. The major multilateral financial institutions, like the World Bank, often strive to establish-with the best of intentions-their own coordination centers and processes. Non-governmental organizations and civilian contractors may cluster around combinations of each category of donors as funding support becomes available for one priority or another. Often at the periphery of all this activity is the entity that should be at the center of the action: the government of the country in crisis. As is widely recognized, outside troops and civilian agencies are likely to leave a complex operation only once the host-nation government is functioning.

Efforts have been undertaken to solve this civilian coordination conundrum. In the complex operations I have observed, various combinations have been tried with varying degrees of success. These include strenuous efforts by the SRSG to establish central control, creation of a range of "trust funds" coordinated by a central team into which donor agencies can make contributions, creation of donor coordination centers or humanitarian operations centers, and establishment of sectoral councils (for employment, health, education, transportation, energy, and other sectors), with each council headed by the relevant minister of the host-nation government. But none of these mechanisms has achieved more than limited or passing success. Ineffective command and control of civilian agencies is an unfortunate but ubiquitous feature of complex operations.

My third lesson is that practitioners-and I include myself-often pay too little attention to success stories and invest too little time in disseminating information on what works. In workshops and after-action reviews I have noticed a disproportionate focus on a limited number of case studies-Afghanistan, Iraq, Bosnia, and Rwanda come to mind. It is perhaps natural to focus on the most interesting or compelling case studies, especially those in which U.S. or other foreign troops played a major role. Unfortunately, interesting and compelling cases often are those in which something did not work very well. In my view, there are a number of quite successful strategic and tactical responses to complex crises in places like El Salvador, the Philippines (especially Mindanao), Mozambique, and even Tajikistan. I have seldom encountered serious discussions of these examples.

In Mozambique, the brutality and tribal nature of the long civil war during the 1980s and 1990s made prospects for a successful resolution seem bleak. Now Mozambique is a relatively successful model of stability and economic growth in southern Africa. The intercommunal, peacebuilding techniques employed there, and the role played by an international religious organization with contacts on both sides of the fighting (the Community of Sant Egidio), are elements that could be usefully studied by complex operations practitioners.

El Salvador, in my view, is an extraordinarily useful model of how a carefully negotiated peace agreement that addresses underlying issues of exclusion and political repression can serve as a catalyst for peace and stability. El Salvador is not without problems, but, the decades of violence there from the 1930s to the 1980s, and the historical dynamic of ethnicity and Marxism, made peace seem a distant prospect during many of those years. The peace treaty ending the civil war is an extraordinary and voluminous document that addresses issues ranging from reconstitution of the security forces, to land reform and political access, to the establishment of truth commissions for those accused of atrocities during the fighting.

In my experience, I seldom hear discussion of these positive case studies as examples that might usefully impact in Iraq or in Afghanistan, even though I have heard some thoughtful analysts suggest that Mindanao is perhaps the single best example worldwide of successful coordination between military counterinsurgency operations and development/reconstruction efforts. As lessons learned in the field of complex operations are developed further, it would be worthwhile to examine carefully such lesser-known examples of successful attempts to address problems of failed states, complex contingencies, and integrated civilian-military interventions.

This article was originally published in Commanding Heights, July 2009.

Table of Contents | Foreword | Introduction | Chapter 1 | Chapter 2 | Chapter 3

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One Billion Americans: The Case for Thinking Bigger - by Matthew Yglesias