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Transition to Civilian-Led Operations in Iraq: This Time It’s for Real August 12, 2010

Posted by Laura A. Hall in Analysis.
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By Laura A. Hall

The continuing reports on the difficulties of the transition from military to civilian responsibilities in Iraq expose several key issues that remain unaddressed.  Others will write on the political situation, regional power struggles, the overall strategy, the risks of leaving (and of staying).  The management challenges, however, are less understood and appreciated.

While operations transitioned from the Coalition Provisional Authority to the U.S. Embassy in June 2004, the real transition will come when combat troops are brought home.  The transition to a “normal” Embassy presence and civilian leadership and responsibility presents challenges that bear not only on management, but can in turn affect our overall policy.  A few of these are particularly notable because they raise larger, more fundamental questions that apply beyond Iraq.

Less is More?

If the goal is to move towards a “normal” presence, it will be critical to shift from U.S.-funded reconstruction to political engagement, regional political management, and public diplomacy.  Iraq must own its development.  The planning effort should start with clear goals for a U.S.-Iraq relationship five years from now and work back.  As military and civilian planners work the “seams,” they should be very careful not to simply develop civilian plans for executing all the activities previously done by the military.

Given the size of the military presence in Iraq, it is worth asking whether the supply creates the demand.  How many of the activities are done because they can be?  The budget crunch could create a needed constraint on ambitions.  With our goals in Iraq primarily political, the comparative advantage of diplomats must be leveraged.

The planning process must be driven by goals developed by civilians and should be conducted in formats that make sense to civilians.  If the military planners drive the process by default due to their presence and competence, it will hamper the ability of smart, capable, knowledgeable civilians to do what they do best: constructing a narrative of U.S. engagement with a host country government and people.  The need for a civilian-led planning process and sufficient civilian planning capabilities remains unmet leaving military planning in the driver’s seat .

What if the Cavalry Isn’t Coming?

The transition to civilian responsibilities and the discussions of appropriate supporting military roles reveal that six years after the Bush Administration first began to tackle the challenges of civ-mil deployments there has been insufficient progress in defining roles and responsibilities and in developing civilian capabilities for stabilization and reconstruction.  The military’s overwhelming capabilities have created a sense that the military is driving the mission and will step in if civilian capabilities are insufficient, as they have particularly in police training and contract management.

The longer this fall-back plan is implied, the longer it will take for civilian authorities to truly own their responsibilities and prepare to execute them.  With the military remaining in the appropriate role of training and advising the Iraqi military, the civilian leadership at the U.S. Embassy will need to provide overall guidance and leadership.

These “outlier” wars have also created the mindset that what is needed is civilian support to military operations, crowding out discussions of how DoD might support civilian-led operations and how civilians can lead integrated civ-mil efforts.  More troubling, the magnitude of Iraq and Afghanistan military deployments have overridden any nascent civilian capacity, which is needed for different kinds of missions in places where DoD is unlikely to engage.  Civilian led operations require that responsibilities be backed with resources and authorities.

Warrior Diplomats to Replace Diplomat Warriors?

The military support role is most obvious in the security and logistics areas.  No one seriously expects DoD to leave State and USAID officials vulnerable even as the military reduces its presence.  But the difficult discussions on transition reveal a key issue.  When the security issue is paramount, and diplomats are unable to do their jobs without great risk and without military-level logistics and security support, one must ask whether the civilian presence should be reduced to reflect the insecurity or whether the timing for the military departure is realistic.

The security challenges faced by civilians could belie the policy of a normalization of our presence.  The security paradox is that the military presence and the focus on force protection and eliminating risk to personnel have undermined the U.S. counter insurgency strategy and limited the conduct of diplomacy.   Progress in developing a more expeditionary mindset and training has not turned the Foreign Service into the Special Forces, nor should it.  Increased reliance on private security contractors would increase concerns about accountability.   Creating a standing capability owned by civilians to enable operations in dangerous environments would be costly and unlikely to match military capabilities. 

The roles and responsibilities for the U.S. military in its areas of core competency should be clarified and rationalized to appropriately support civilian-led operations.  Civilian protection regulations, risk management strategies, and diplomatic security capabilities should be examined and, if necessary, revised to account for the increasing requirements for difficult and dangerous deployments.

Penny Wise and Pound Foolish

No one should be surprised that there has been inadequate planning and development of civilian capabilities to manage this transition.  It is true that counter insurgencies require 80% political and 20% military focus, but the balance of resources has been the reverse.  The Department of State has been underfunded overall and in the triage, management capabilities are the last in line.  This creates a vicious cycle whereby Congress is unsympathetic to resource requirements they perceive as inadequately justified and yet the very capabilities required to analyze and present requirements have been under-resourced.  DoD resources its management capabilities.  It also makes clear what the resources will buy and what will not get done without them.  State tends to be more reticent.  Unless the Department of State can develop sufficient in-house management capabilities for analysis of workforce requirements and budgets, it will continue to receive less than it needs.

Finally, this episode reveals the need for cross-department thinking in the Congress.  The fact that there are legions of Congressmen willing to fight to save contractors and unneeded weapons systems and who argue that every dollar of DoD funding is sacred – but there are few willing to provide funding to State for relatively small sums – is shortsighted.  If State is to be DoD’s exit strategy and the removal of troops from harm’s way is justified by the diplomatic mission being left behind, then those responsible for the overall budget – in Congress and the Executive Branch – must cut the Gordian knot that the two subcommittees have created and provide sufficient funding to civilian activities.

The idea that there is some great wall of China between Defense and State budgets where no savings can be transferred is absurd.  It is incumbent on Secretary Gates and Admiral Mullen to make good on their statements about the need for greater civilian capabilities and to stop saying it cannot be done at the expense of the DoD budget.   Resources must be provided to develop civilian capabilities or we will continue to rely on the more expensive and less effective military solutions.


The views of the author are not necessarily those of the U.S. Department of State.



1. Civilian Surge SOFer - August 12, 2010

Laura, great analysis. The strategic planning an analytic capabilities at State and USAID are indeed severely underresourced. Nor are there sufficient trained and knowledgeable staff or leaders at either organization to make such a process work towards producing the types of capabilities you highlight for attention above.

Do you think Jack Lew will fix that when over at OMB? Does the National Security Staff even understand the problem?

Hopefully the QDDR can shed some light…

2. Hank Gaffney - August 17, 2010

I found this article quite obscure as to what the U.S. civilian administration is now to do in Iraq upon the removal of most of the U.S. military and the mostly passive role of the remaining military trainers a year from now. The article implies to me that the U.S. should set up a massive colonial regime, like the Raj in India, to tell the Iraqi government what to do and to undertake, e.g., massive infrastructure development. Is the U.S. really now to begin nation-building in Iraq (after more than 7 years of fumbling around with that)? Is there any indication that the Iraqi government — which is, of course, not yet formed and may never form — ready for such U.S. colonial supervision? Not by anything I’ve read. Moreover, after watching the process for nearly the last half-century, I can only say the author is dreaming when she thinks Congress will ever grant an Administration the reprogramming flexibility to freely shift funds from 050 to 150 (beyond the ~$300 million level of 1206, which is really still spent by DOD for training foreign military nationals). Congress considers defense a domestic program — most of that budget is spent in the U.S. It hates all this foreign stuff.

3. Laura A. Hall - September 24, 2010

Commission on Wartime Contracting has highlighted this issue again to Congress.

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