Soldiers from the 624th vertical construction company training the Afghan engineer Corps. January 2013
Soldiers from the 624th vertical construction company training the Afghan engineer Corps. January 2013 // DOD Photo by Sgt. Nathan Grill

Wanted: A Post-War Watchdog for Nation-Building

One definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.

Over the past nine years, my office, the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction, or SIGIR, documented what works and what doesn’t when it comes to stabilization and reconstruction operations, known as SRO. Iraq was the largest SRO ever; now Afghanistan is. If we are to achieve better outcomes in future operations, we must learn lessons from both.

SIGIR extensively examined the rebuilding efforts in Iraq and came to the unavoidable conclusion that the current system for planning, executing and overseeing SROs requires substantial repair. This is Iraq’s most important lesson. The relief and rebuilding effort had too many poorly planned projects left incomplete, too much money wasted on weakly executed programs and too many contracts gone fatally awry for want of better oversight. Hundreds of reports issued by SIGIR and numerous other agencies and commissions support these conclusions.

The current SRO system has a fundamental flaw: it tasks departments and agencies — chiefly Defense, State and the U.S. Agency for International Development — to undertake missions outside their core competencies. On this point, Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations and former director of policy planning for the State Department, recently said: “Whenever you ask an organization to take on a new task, you should be very wary about asking it to take on a task that’s more than one step removed from its existing task. You really ought to build on existing culture, existing standard operating procedures, and then you can ask it to do it. What people were asking the Foreign Service to do was multiple steps removed from its culture. That ought to have raised a red flag.”

There now exists no effective mechanism for integrating SRO capacities scattered among the agencies. In Iraq, the Departments of State and Defense primarily shared responsibilities for relief and rebuilding activities. Neither, however, had the clear charge to plan, execute, and oversee them. “Who’s in charge here?” was too often the plaintive and frustrated cry of agency and contractor personnel who valiantly committed their intellect, industry, and resources to the success of the Iraq enterprise. Today, the process for planning, executing, and overseeing SROs remains opaque or ill-defined. If a new operation were to begin tomorrow, the U.S. approach would probably have to rely on the kind of adhocracies that characterized the program in Iraq. This is not progress.

Failing to plan effectively for SROs is tantamount to planning to fail. Keeping with the status quo, in light of copious evidence of its weakness, certainly meets the definition of insanity. Some reform has been accomplished in recent years; witness the creation of State’s Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations. But more reform is needed.

Our final lessons learned report, “Learning From Iraq,” issued in March, said: “A wise approach to SRO reform would aim at producing a unified system that plans and executes operations integratively, averts significant waste, increases the likelihood of tactical success, and better protects U.S. national security interests. Such a reform would concentrate the SRO mission into a single structure, pulling the scattered pieces of the current inchoate system under a single roof. That structure, which could be called the U.S. Office for Contingency Operations, [USOCO] would have a clear mandate and sufficient capacity to command and carry out stabilization and reconstruction operations.”

USOCO is necessary, first, because it is inevitable that the United States will be involved in SROs again; and we must do better. Although it is very unlikely that America will soon engage in another operation on the scale of Iraq and Afghanistan, we must nevertheless plan for all possibilities. We don’t want wars, but we maintain a substantial military to provide National Command Authorities with options in the event that our national security interests are threatened.  By the same token, USOCO would ensure that the President has options when it comes to addressing the question of how to support a fragile state that falls into failure.

Congressmen Steve Stockman, R-Texas, and Peter Welch, D-Vt., recently introduced H.R. 2606, the Stabilization and Reconstruction Integration Act of 2013, which directly addresses the problem. The bill has notable support from perhaps the preeminent expert on the Iraq reconstruction, Amb. Ryan Crocker, who served as U.S. ambassador there from 2007 to 2009. Crocker believes that:  “H.R. 2606 sets the course for the surest path to correct the failures of the U.S. stabilization and reconstruction operations over the past three decades. By establishing USOCO, Congress will create a lean institution dedicated to planning, preparing and executing future SROs. It will bring together the best of all worlds and provide unity of direction and uninterrupted vision so that the U.S. meets the challenges faced in future post-conflict situations.”

Similarly, Amb. John Herbst, another leading voice on SRO reform — derived from his extensive and valuable service as the State Department’s coordinator for reconstruction and stabilization — concluded that: “Neither the State Department nor USAID hires or trains people in large numbers for stability operations…. This was evident during our engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan. Experience has shown that we need a corps of dedicated civilian professionals in order to conduct these stabilization operations well. This is where USOCO comes in… It would provide the first stability operations professionals ready to respond to emergencies abroad.”

The bottom line is this: USOCO could be the solution to a significant national security challenge. For a relatively small investment — $25 million a year, or about one-twentieth of what the U.S. military annually spends on marching bands —  it would field a dedicated civ-mil team that could provide a level of reliability and accountability that simply was missing in Iraq and Afghanistan  and is still absent from our national security architecture. Specifically, it would integrate the planning, execution and oversight for future stability and reconstruction operations. It would save money and it would save lives.

The Stockman-Welch bill answers the mail in applying Iraq’s most important lesson. It would ensure that the civilian and military personnel who courageously go to serve in future SROs have the structure and support necessary to achieve victory. We should provide them with nothing less.

Stuart W. Bowen, Jr. is special inspector general for Iraq reconstruction.