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Afghanistan: Endless Army Mission Creep?

Posted: 10/21/08 09:27 PM ET

In the aftermath of World War II, the State Department set a new global standard for responsible post-conflict security, governmental, and public assistance. Secretary of State George C. Marshall mobilized the expertise of thousands of citizen diplomats and experts to set the conditions for European recovery. What would become known as the Marshall Plan would allow millions of Europeans to experience unprecedented growth and prosperity.

It comes as no surprise that our current Secretary of State, Condoleeza Rice, should never expect her name to receive such historical permanence. Rather, the Secretary and her department's inability to accept that responsibility has forced the U.S. Army to reinvent itself to perform roles for which it is inappropriate and counterproductive.

The Army's newly released Stability Operations manual represents a new chapter in its reluctant and inappropriate acceptance of post-conflict missions. In the absence of the State Department, U.S. Agency for International Development, and other U.S. civilian agencies, American ground forces have taken it upon themselves to perform tasks unrecognizable to conventional warfare. Although the military finds ways to complete the mission, whatever the task, we must ask ourselves if we want our only standing army to be in the business of nation building.

Defense Secretary Gates, to his credit, has repeatedly challenged Secretary of State Rice to make post-conflict preparedness a key ingredient of her transformation of the Foreign Service. But Secretary Rice has overseen development of a seriously flawed Office of Post-Conflict Stabilization and Reconstruction. Exacerbating the divide, Congress has underfunded post-conflict preparedness in the Department of State while overfunding the Department of Defense. To fill the vacuum of meaningful statecraft, the Department of Defense now finds itself both war-fighter and diplomat.

Recent on-the-ground performance in both Afghanistan and Iraq has proved that neither the Department of State nor the Department of Defense is the answer to current stability challenges. In the recent past, however, lies a model with the best clues of how to get stability done in the current age of radical Islamic terror: Afghanistan, 2001-2003.

Coalition military forces initially performed their rightful role, guaranteeing security and public safety. This allowed humanitarian and reconstruction operations to flourish in Afghanistan. The problems started when Army personnel tried to implement civilian relief and reconstruction tasks. The Army occupied the right footprint in the superbly-led UN Assistance Mission, Afghanistan (UNAMA). UNAMA skillfully performed the essential stability missions of providing the services of government to the Afghan people, while training the fledgling Afghan ministries in such government competencies as planning, programming, budgeting, and auditing. The UNAMA-led political transition also effectively avoided the perception of a U.S.-led occupying force in an Islamic state. Additionally, through the UN Consolidated Appeal process, donor state resources were pooled together and sharply reduced the bottom-line costs to the American taxpayer.

Where did the Afghan model break down?

Problems began when donor states and the Afghan Government thought they could unilaterally perform stability and nation-building tasks better than the UN. This resulted in what has proved to be inefficient and ineffective compartmentalization. Afghan police training was assigned to Germany, poppy eradication to the UK, and the reconstitution of the justice system to Italy. The U.S. was the lead for training the Afghan National Army but fell short due to subsequent diversion of critical resources and talent to Iraq. The slide toward failure became exponential when the U.S. diverted military forces to Iraq. This robbed Afghanistan of sufficient security and public safety support for stability operations. It was the equivalent of pulling the rug out from under the Afghan state.

Senator McCain or Senator Obama will inherit this imbalance in their cabinet. The Army's new Stability Operations manual may well be seen as a pragmatic substitute for the nation-building performance which appropriately belongs to civilian government agencies. That checks off a box they can forget about, while devoting their attention to more pressing problems such as the financial crisis. But for more thoughtful Americans, real change, real re-invention, real transformation in the U.S. Government must include a drastic review of our dysfunctional post-conflict stability operations.

The answer requires a clear charter and sufficient funding for the State Department to do fulfill its historic potential after the ground war ends. It might also require a culture change as the U.S. becomes a positive force behind UN agencies and other multilateral players, rather than the usual role of unilateral lead actor. It requires judicious use of all the tools of statecraft -by those who know it best, not a unilateral Defense Department that performs every cabinet function.

Gene Dewey, a retired Army [Col] and Vietnam Veteran, was the Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration from 2002-2005. Capt. Luis Carlos Montalván is a former Army cavalry officer who served two combat tours in Iraq from 2003-2006.