Academic journal article The Fletcher Forum of World Affairs

A Golden Moment: Applying Iraq's Hard Lessons to Strengthen the U.S. Approach to Stabilization and Reconstruction Operations

Academic journal article The Fletcher Forum of World Affairs

A Golden Moment: Applying Iraq's Hard Lessons to Strengthen the U.S. Approach to Stabilization and Reconstruction Operations

Article excerpt

Ten years ago, it appeared that America's nation-building days were over; but the unexpected challenges of the past decade proved otherwise. From Aceh to Port-au-Prince and Baghdad to Kabul, the United States has repeatedly deployed combined civilian and military assets to execute diverse and difficult stabilization and reconstruction operations (SROs). The varying courses and very mixed outcomes of these multifarious engagements collectively reveal that the U.S. government has yet to conceive, realize, and inculcate a consistent approach to managing complex contingency operations. This continuing weakness has a serious consequence: it harms the United States' capacity to protect its national security interests abroad.

Agreement about the existence of this problem is widely held, but there is no consensus on how to resolve it. Whatever the solution, the lessons learned from the U.S. experience in Iraq should help guide reform. Iraq taught-frequently in the breach-that building stability in failing or fragile states is best achieved through integrated assistance efforts that develop robust rule-of-law systems, tailor programs to indigenous needs, grow the capacity of people and institutions, oversee effective contract execution, and fully engage with international organizations. Notwithstanding difficult history, Iraq's painful lessons provide a golden moment for meaningful reform, just as the military shortfalls in the late 1970s and early 1980s presented a golden moment for reform at the Pentagon, which yielded the 1986 Goldwater-Nichols Act and its transformative doctrine of operational "jointness." That same spirit of jointness infuses the recommendations contained in this paper.


During the course of six years of oversight work, my office, the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction (SIGIR), developed an extensive catalogue of lessons learned.1 Foremost among them is the finding that the United States lacks an integrated approach for planning and executing SROs. This systemic weakness prevented unity of command in the Iraq reconstruction program and inhibited unity of effort. Reflective of this shortfall are the many audit and inspection reports SIGIR issued on failed projects, finding that they lacked sufficient coordination and oversight.2

In the spring of 2003, when the Iraq program began, the Department of Defense (Defense) brought enormous financial and human resources to bear, providing more capacity and assets than all other U.S. agencies combined. This, unsurprisingly, led to a military dominance of the early reconstruction effort. In mid-2004, Defense formally transferred administration of the rapidly expanding rebuilding effort to the Department of State (State), and the new civilian managers thereupon repeatedly reprogrammed reconstruction funds, moving them to support new priorities.3 Many ongoing projects consequently did not receive sufficient continuing budgetary support or adequate management oversight, as large tranches of money were moved to support other security, democracy, or development programs. State's re-programmings, albeit necessary to address the deteriorating security situation, caused hundreds of projects to fail.4

Some of these shortfalls might have been mitigated if the U.S. government had an integrated and well-resourced management office that possessed clear responsibility for planning and executing the rebuilding program. But no such entity existed in 2003, despite two preceding decades replete with recurrent contingencies. No such entity exists today.

To remedy this weakness, SIGIR proposes the creation of the U.S. Office for Contingency Operations (USOCO), which would plan, manage, and implement future stability and reconstruction engagements. Just as the 1986 Goldwater-Nichols Act reorganized the Department of Defense to mandate "jointness" among the uniformed services, so would USOCO bring about a similar integration of civil-military (civ-mil) activities for SROs. …

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