By Jessica Sun.
The Federal Government could really use $8 billion right about now.
That amount, $8 billion, is the total money wasted due to mismanagement and poor accountability during our reconstruction efforts in Iraq. This means that about 15% of our total reconstruction budget just went missing. After a decade of poorly managed, wasteful efforts to rebuild post-conflict states (because Afghanistan is just as bad as Iraq at this point) we desperately need to rethink how we approach stabilization operations and nation-building. So what are we doing about it?
While the House and Senate spend valuable time before the government shutdown mulling over the political relevance of ‘Green Eggs and Ham’, a small cohort of former diplomats, development practitioners, and DoD civilians are working under the radar, seeking to revolutionize how the US government approaches stabilization and reconstruction operations. Fed up with our aversion to preparing for ‘military operations other than war’ and the massive amounts of waste in the reconstructions of Iraq and Afghanistan, they are hoping to revamp our system by creating a United States Office of Contingency Operations.
What, exactly, are stabilization operations? They’re defined as operations conducted with the intent of establishing secure environments in coordination with the interagency and multinational and host partners to support a new domestic order and a transformed national government. What does that mean? Essentially, it refers to everything United States is doing in Iraq and Afghanistan to create stable post-war societies. So far, these goals have largely gone unrealized. In Iraq, for example, the United States government invested money in a water treatment facility in Baghdad without retrofitting the existing pipes’ water capacity. Then, as soon as the plant began operation, tens out thousands of pipes burst instantly because they couldn’t handle the increase volume of water. Our efforts to rebuild a sustainable political infrastructure in Iraq and Afghanistan have gone about as well as our water treatment efforts. With USOCO, the government is hoping to reverse the trends of negligence or ignorance that plagued our rebuilding efforts by giving these operations a responsible umbrella.
USOCO, as this new entity would be called, is the brainchild primarily of the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction (SIGIR) Stuart Bowen. The Office is being billed as a solution to the ‘adhocracy’ that developed during American reconstruction efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan which yielded billions of dollars in waste, few sustainable assistance projects, and no one to blame. The Office is intended to fill the gaps in our current capabilities by offering a specialized cadre of civilian professionals with cross-agency experience responsible exclusively for preparing to conduct stabilization and reconstruction operations. At present, our stabilization operations are conducted by highly trained special forces on the military side and idealistic young amateurs trained in natural disaster relief or humanitarian assistance on the civilian side. While our civilians are smart and capable, most don’t have any specific training in reconstruction in challenging environments, which means that compared to our military, they’re often just in the way. USOCO, with its exclusive focus on these kinds of environments, has been pegged as a way to remedy this gap in professionalization and experience.
Bowen has billed USOCO as a sort of FEMA-like (but functional) organization for stab ops that would report to the State Department, the Department of Defense, and the National Security Council. The commencement and cessation of a stabilization and reconstruction mission is determined by the President of the United States, with USOCO only working under executive orders. This, Bowen and company argue, would streamline the process of planning for any future engagement of this nature by establishing a definitive procedure for an operation and putting one entity in charge of the whole operation instead of spreading responsibilities between State, DoD, and USAID like we do now. In addition, having all of these responsibilities under one office would also give the government someone to hold accountable if an op goes wrong. While in theory this delineation of roles and responsibilities is a good thing, firing Mike Brown didn’t really fix FEMA’s problems after Katrina and there’s no guarantee USOCO will be any different. And giving the President a non-negotiable on/off switch could create a situation where USOCO is forced to leave a country in a worse position than when it got there.
Supporters of USOCO often cite just how dismal current planning efforts for stabilization and reconstruction are. In Iraq, a lack of coordination between DoD, State, and USAID led to duplication of projects and people on the ground unable to identify each agency’s representatives, much less a stable chain of command. Lt Gen Guy C. Swan III, the former Chief of Staff for the Multi-National Force- Iraq has said, “the fact of the matter is that the Department of Defense has been in the lead in our most recent stabilization and reconstruction operations. Unfortunately, this has created a situation where the core competencies of other government agencies and departments have not been adequately brought to bear. This is far from the optimum allocation of burdens among agencies – or the best results for the nation.”
To make matters worse, no agency wants to take responsibility for improving civilian capacities, and none of them are equipped to take the lead. The core competencies that USOCO would emphasize can’t be absorbed into the DoD because they’d be instantly quashed by the military’s capacity to do the exact same thing, only better (though this tends to create serious mission creep, another reason reason why we need civilian capacity). Ambassador John Herbst, the former Coordinator for Reconstruction and Stabilization at the State Department, noted “(N)either the State Department nor USAID hires or trains people in large numbers for stability operations… When I was in charge of the S/CRS [The Office of the Coordinator for Reconstruction and Stabilization] at State…(there did) not seem to be a readiness on the part of the rest of the building to use it. It was something of a foreign entity in the State Department.” USOCO backers argue that neither the State Department nor USAID is prepared to commit to maintaining the kind of team required to effectively engage in stabilization and reconstruction, as evidenced by the State Department’s dismantling in 2011 of the Civilian Response Corps that Herbst helped create. But, this doesn’t mean that we don’t need these capabilities. USOCO would take stabilization and reconstruction missions off the other agencies hands and trim away a lot of the red tape reconstruction practitioners have to go through by putting all responsibility under one entity.
Several high-profile figures have spoken out in support of USOCO, including retired Lt. Gen. Brent Scowcroft, the national security adviser to President George H.W. Bush, and Spike Stevenson, the former top USAID official in Iraq. Another member of the USOCO ‘club’ is Ryan Crocker, former Ambassador to Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Syria, Kuwait and Lebanon, who has said that he sees USOCO as a way to correct our failures in stabilization and reconstruction over the last three decades. Rep. Steve Stockman (R- TX) and Rep. Peter Welch (D- VT) introduced USOCO in H.R. 2606, the Stabilization and Reconstruction Integration Act of 2013. Despite the broad bipartisan support for the bill, USOCO hasn’t gotten anywhere in the House, due to a strong aversion to creating a new agency (despite the fact that USOCO’s annual budget would be $25 million, pocket change for the DoD through pocket change that may no longer be available tomorrow).
Opponents of USOCO emerged in 2010 when Bowen pitched the idea to the Pentagon and Foggy Bottom. While officials did not disagree with Bowen’s assessment that we need to be better at stabilization and reconstruction, they rejected the idea of creating a new agency to do so. The Department of Defense claimed that the US suffered from a lack of capabilities, not an inadequate structure to conduct stab ops. The State Department complained that USOCO would take too much responsibility away from the Secretary of State and the department’s regional bureaus. Resistance to any idea that would in any way limit DoD or State’s authority is to be expected. The fact that both agencies acknowledge the deficiencies USOCO seeks to correct offers perhaps the most substantial credence to the idea.
Ironically, resistance from the two agencies to which USOCO is supposed to report is not the most serious obstacle Bowen’s project must overcome to be realized. Bowen faces a far greater enemy- governmental apathy. Despite an abundance of evidence that the United States will likely be involved in a stabilization or reconstruction mission sooner than most politicians would like, the issue of our whole-of-government capacity to conduct such operations has been consistently ignored. In an age of budget cuts and war weariness, USOCO’s supporters must generate the political will to establish a new agency with its own funding to prepare for getting involved in a new ‘operation other than war’. And in the end, maybe USOCO isn’t the answer, but no one else has offered an alternative solution to the lack of organized civilian expertise. So it’s time we start talking about how to do stabilization right, before we lose another $8 billion that we don’t have.