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Who Should Lead Post-Conflict Reconstruction?

Discussants: Craig Cohen, and Col. Garland H. Williams
Updated: February 15, 2008

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With the United States spearheading nation-building efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan, policymakers debate who should lead U.S. reconstruction initiatives. Some argue that the military's critical role in maintaining security makes it the natural lead. Others say civilian professionals are best trained to handle the economic and social issues that are crucial for post-conflict stabilization.

Craig Cohen, deputy chief of staff and fellow in the Post-conflict Reconstruction Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and Col. Garland H. Williams, author of Engineering Peace: The Military Role in Post-Conflict Reconstruction, debate who should lead U.S. post-conflict reconstruction efforts, civilians or military. (Note: Col. Williams’ entries represent his personal perspective and not a stated viewpoint of the U.S. Army.)

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Garland H. WilliamsMost recent

February 15, 2008

Col. Garland H. Williams

Mr. Cohen and I may end this debate in somewhat violent agreement, as I fully subscribe to the notion that our military works for our civilian political leaders, but let me briefly lay out a template that I believe the United States should follow when they are contemplating any kind of post-conflict reconstruction.

It is difficult to define where humanitarian assistance ends and who is ultimately responsible for moving the reconstruction effort forward. Most problematic is the absence of a clear timeline or planning process that bridges rapid-response initiatives with developmental initiatives. No clear interagency process exists to “build the bridge” to meet the future needs of a given country—this is the first piece of business that we as a government have to solve.

It is paramount that all key players be involved in the ongoing planning for post-conflict reconstruction—it is too late after we enter the conflict to plan for reconstruction . . . we must do it continuously for all known contingencies. The government must be able to determine what others central to the post-conflict reconstruction effort plan on doing, as their actions may directly affect the United States’ ability to achieve its objectives in an operation. NGOs [nongovernmental organizations] involved in humanitarian assistance lie specifically outside of the reconstruction-planning parameter; however, the government must have a concept of NGO action in order to avoid duplication. This planning effort must be lead by our civilian leaders in order to get all parties in synch.

Once the reconstruction plan is successfully promulgated with all parties, an execution order to deploy into theater and establish the requisite post-conflict reconstruction office is the trigger to enter Phase 2. In the immediate aftermath of hostilities, an external body, possibly a body proffered by the UN, may take the lead to establish a viable government in theater, assuming the newly established government will not be able to provide for all, if any, of its own recovery needs. External countries, therefore, will play a crucial role to immediately restore the physical infrastructure that will be vital to the development of the local government, economy, and security. Due to the short response time required, the military must take the initial lead as the execution agent to provide an immediate reconstruction Band-Aid “to stop the bleeding” and start the road to recovery.  If it is under the guidance of a civilian ambassador, ok, but it must be quick.

Upon the fulfillment of basic human needs, emergency management shifts to a more traditional project management structure in Phase 3. This structure should be able to administer large contracts and complete projects to established quality standards; however, the administration of this phase is based on the ability of the civilian aid agencies to deploy and assume the mission. As the footprint of the civilian agencies grows, the importance of the military reconstruction should diminish.

The ultimate goal of the post-conflict reconstruction strategy is to reach Phase 4 and transition all reconstruction functions to the local ministers for management. The outside agencies must never lose sight of the fact that the purpose of external nation assistance during post-conflict reconstruction is to help the host nation develop its own capabilities and its own public and private institutions. The ability for the interveners to successfully accomplish this handover will significantly affect how war-torn countries will view the benefits of outside help.


Craig CohenFebruary 14, 2008

Craig Cohen

Colonel Williams and I have agreed on three main points in this exchange. We both believe that military and civilian agencies have complementary abilities in post-conflict reconstruction and some degree of joint effort is necessary for success. We both agree that civilian agencies currently lack the standby capacity to deploy, which is why the military is often given the lead role. And we both agree that post-conflict reconstruction occurs in dynamic environments that do not lend themselves to neat typologies or one-dimensional thinking, something good civilian and military leaders are both likely to avoid.

My argument is simply that the head of post-conflict efforts ought to be a civilian ambassador rather than a military officer because the ultimate goals are political, not military. America was founded on civilian control of the military. A civilian is commander in chief, defense secretary, and head of our country teams.   Ideally, civilian ambassadors leading post-conflict operations would have experience in conflict settings either with the armed forces or the Foreign Service, would have the ear of the president and access to resources, would know how to manage an interagency team and respond to Capitol Hill, and would recognize that every move in-country—however small—will create incentives and disincentives for peace and stability.

The real challenges in post-conflict reconstruction are fundamentally political.  Getting the power grid up, the oil flowing, the sanitation picked up, and the aid distributed have technical and security aspects, but ultimately these challenges have political roots. Some local people will benefit, others will profit, and many will be dissatisfied. A few of the dissatisfied will try to sabotage international efforts, which may require coercive force. The best approach when force is required is to view military action within a broader political effort that can attract local allies and build political legitimacy for the new government—a necessary requirement for international troops to eventually depart.

I’m unsure whether the UN peace operations of the 1990s were fundamentally better at this than the U.S. and NATO-led operations today. Unclear mandates, poor mission analysis, high rates of staff turnover, a rush to elections and privatization, and senior officials more attuned to international timelines and internal mission politics than local opinion are all problems that arose during this period. None of these are new to Iraq and Afghanistan. What is new is the full weight of the U.S. military in the post-conflict sphere. This has exposed the relative lack of U.S. civilian presence and raised big questions concerning how the U.S. government is structured and resourced to deal with today’s challenges. 

American leaders go reluctantly into nation-building operations. We are not a colonial power, and we’ll never have a colonial service training Americans to spend their lives in the far reaches of ”empire.” But we are likely to find ourselves engaged in post-conflict settings after Iraq and Afghanistan. When we do, we should have the necessary competencies in place to do it right, led by a civilian envoy. We have to think of post-conflict reconstruction not as a byproduct of other policies, but as a core mission with clear management and operational guidelines across all departments and agencies of the federal government.


Garland H. WilliamsFebruary 13, 2008

Col. Garland H. Williams

Responses by the United States to recent crises demonstrate an important but false dichotomy between civilian and military roles in post-conflict reconstruction. In contingencies like Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, and Kosovo, uniformed services created a safe and secure environment, and set the conditions for the reconstruction of war-torn societies through their expertise in logistics, engineering, policing, and support for humanitarian needs—but only to a point. 

If civilians are better suited to leading the reconstruction effort, where are they? Once reasonable security is established in theater, it is paramount that reconstruction begin immediately, or the potential to slide back into armed conflict is high. I agree that if major civilian agencies have the standby capacity to deploy, then they should take primacy in the reconstruction effort—but that isn’t the current reality. 

Many civilian policymakers and agencies continue to think of peace operations in a linear fashion, insisting that a determination of specific civilian and military tasks in the post-conflict phase provides a bright line delineating specific roles and responsibilities in different stages of conflict. Maybe the intent is to be able to assign credit or blame for progress in the various areas; however, this linear thinking falls short in a place like Afghanistan where some areas of the country are ripe for recovery while other areas remain in Afghan-on-Afghan conflict.  Post-conflict reconstruction instead requires integrated security, social, economic, and political development efforts, not separate tracks that diverge.

On closer examination, the military and the civilian agencies are not really working at contrary purposes, but have complementary abilities that should be meshed together into a well-designed effort. Those aspects of reconstruction that the military are not specifically trained to accomplish are well filled by the various civilian agencies . . . once they get to theater. On the other hand, the military brings a level of responsiveness and organization that the agencies do not inherently have at the beginning of a peace operation. The challenge now is to determine how best to coordinate this effort between the military, IOs [international organizations], and NGOs [nongovernmental organizations] for the benefit of the host nation. 

If the goal is to rebuild the country’s infrastructure in order to jump-start the economy and strengthen security, the military is the organization that is most suited to begin this mission within the first year. However, there are artificial roadblocks that greatly limit the military’s effectiveness in post-conflict reconstruction leading to limited reconstruction funds, inappropriate troop strength, and absence of an organization for combined civil-military reconstruction planning. This results in a lack of military focus on the long-term benefits of immediate reconstruction in favor of a short-term focus on security and stability operations. Instead, give the military the reconstruction mission at the outset so we can begin to rebuild—the civilian leadership can assume the helm once they get there. 


Craig CohenFebruary 12, 2008

Craig Cohen

There is no doubt the military plays a vital role in helping win the peace after the cessation of hostilities. This role includes, but is not limited to, the provision of security.  It is less clear, however, why the military should lead reconstruction efforts given the political nature of the mission’s ultimate goals.

It remains an open question whether the U.S. military will sustain its newfound commitment to nation-building after Iraq and Afghanistan. The 2005 DoD Directive 3000.05 made stability operations a core U.S. military mission of comparable priority to combat operations. This has implications for future resourcing, planning, staffing, training and promotions within the services. There are still many, though, both inside and outside the armed forces, who see the U.S. military’s primary mission as war fighting, and worry that the types of reconstruction activities necessary in post-conflict settings dull the military’s core competencies. Most notably, the Iraq experience has demonstrated the dangers of military leadership that focuses on winning the initial war over what comes in the post-conflict phase. 

The president has relied on the military in post-conflict settings out of necessity. Civilian agencies lack the expeditionary capacity of the Pentagon. Boots on the ground matter, and no other department or agency has the personnel float or operational mission to compete. But these are current realities, not necessarily laws of nature. In the future, the United States is likely to develop more cost-effective alternatives, such as the capacity to rapidly deploy civilian experts in rule of law, engineering, policing, administration, health, economics, and business to work alongside the military. Integrated teams should be led by civilians so long as the security situation permits. 

Active insurgencies persist in much of Iraq and southern Afghanistan today. The military’s hard power during these periods of conflict is essential to success. Eventually, though, local buy-in will matter more for stability than coercive force. The psychological impact of foreign troops on Iraqi or Afghan soil does not always engender trust among the local population. These local actors quickly assess whether outside interveners are allies or enemies. Civilian leadership of post-conflict missions is better suited to assess local interests and attune policies to a cooperative agenda over time, if this is possible to achieve. There will always be spoilers to any peace agreement or newly established government who may require the sharp tip of the spear. The trick is creating political and economic incentives for the vast majority of the population to move toward peace and stability and away from violent opposition. Civilian leadership is best suited to this task.


Garland H. WilliamsFebruary 11, 2008

Col. Garland H. Williams

The proliferation of intrastate conflicts during the post-Cold War era has launched the UN, NATO [North Atlantic Treaty Organization], and the United States, in particular, into a series of complicated peace operations. As demonstrated in Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan, and recently in Iraq, there is a period of time up to eighteen months after the cessation of hostilities when the host nation is in limbo—there is not enough infrastructure to facilitate a change to economic recovery and there are nointernal assets in good enough shape to provide that infrastructure; additionally, because of the required time to organize, receive donations, and deploy, there are noexternal civilian forces immediately in place that can provide the large-scale infrastructure help to promote necessary economic growth. 

Until recently, all military actions in a peace operation had to have direct applicability to the military mission—any infrastructure reconstruction that had civilian-only use was viewed as mission creep and “nationbuilding.” If the military is precluded from starting civilian reconstruction and the major civilian-aid agencies and other government agencies do not have the capability to mobilize quickly in a large way, there is a significant delay in rebuilding the host-country infrastructure, adding to an already considerable list of security concerns. 

The military can bring certain characteristics to the theater of operations that cannot be replicated immediately by the civilian agencies. Just the visual appearance of a professional peacekeeper has an immediate and clear psychological impact. Professional and overt behavior based on an accepted code of conduct creates a positive atmosphere among the conflicting parties and contributes to a climate of trust. In peace missions, military forces are increasingly used in a variety of operations across the military continuum including observation, liaison, protection of relief convoys and refugees, infrastructure reconstruction for military purposes, support to civilian agencies, and humanitarian work. Additionally, the military is prepared to transition to actual combat should the situation deteriorate.

Because of the delay in donor funding and the lack of civilian stand-by logistics capability, the absence of reconstruction authority for the military prolongs the period of instability, uncertainty, and unrest, further extending the military’s requirement to remain in theater to provide a safe and secure environment. Unless the U.S. government or the international arena develops and funds a civilian capacity to provide immediate post-conflict reconstruction relief, the military is the organization that has the built-in capability and standby logistics to immediately deploy and provide basic-needs reconstruction relief, buying time for those civilian agencies that have the long-term capability of reconstruction the time to organize, receive donations, and deploy.


Craig CohenFebruary 8, 2008

Craig Cohen

The U.S. military has been at the forefront of our nation-building efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan. It won major combat operations in both countries and has adapted its strategies to fight more effectively against insurgent forces. Lasting success, however, does not lie in the U.S. military’s hands. Success depends on the ability of Iraqi and Afghan leaders to win the consent of those they govern, with the support of allied partners. Nation building is ultimately a political process that lacks a military solution. The U.S. military can buy valuable time, but our strategy for victory in Iraq and Afghanistan is political, best orchestrated by our civilian officials in coordination with their military counterparts.

Since September 11, U.S. efforts in post-conflict operations have centered on denying safe haven to terrorists. Ideally, this should depend on the creation and strengthening of state institutions to provide security, justice, social and economic well-being, and good governance. In both Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. military has played a vital role in targeting insurgent groups, bringing stability and order, building the coercive power of the state, and delivering emergency assistance. But the Pentagon is not the best-suited institution to build civilian partner capacity over the long term. Many argue that governance and service delivery have not been adequately prioritized in either Iraq or Afghanistan.

Perceptions matter in post-conflict operations. A militarized face to the U.S. presence resembles occupation and increases the likelihood of resistance. There is also a demonstration effect. We appear hypocritical when we ask host militaries to subject themselves to civilian authority at the same time that our military calls the shots on the full range of reconstruction tasks. U.S. military leaders need to maintain freedom of action for military operations, but a civilian ambassador or special representative acting as an extension of U.S. presidential authority and empowered with the necessary resources should have the best political training and experience to know what it takes to succeed.

Of course, as recent history has shown, reality doesn’t always work out this way. The best argument for U.S. military leadership is that fighting often continues in the post-conflict phase, and civilian leaders lack the military expertise to direct counter-insurgency operations. Most believe that dual command is a surefire way to sink a mission. There have been cases, however, such as in Kosovo or in Iraq today, when no clear single authority has been designated, and ambassadors and military commanders have found ways of working together successfully. The critical piece is really “jointness,” irrespective of who is in charge. The problem is that this has occurred on an ad-hoc basis. Establishing civilian leadership of post-conflict operations will keep the mission focused on political rather than military ends, and make these goals more attainable.

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