May 1, 2009  

Transition strategy: A manual for all seasons

Military doctrine civilian leaders would be wise to read

Joint Publication 3-0 tells us that stability operations are those missions where, alone or with other agencies, the armed forces “maintain or re-establish a safe and secure environment, and provide essential governmental services, emergency infrastructure reconstruction, or humanitarian relief.” Until recently, these important activities were additional tasks or supplementary activities for the armed forces. The publication of Army Field Manual (FM) 3-07, “Stability Operations,” ends the second-class status of those missions.

In November 2005, a Pentagon directive told the services that preparing for future stability operations was on a par with preparing for combat. Since 2006, the Defense Department has been deliberately shifting its focus and assets from major conventional warfare toward irregular warfare and stability operations. Guiding and reflecting this shift, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said in the January-February issue of Foreign Affairs: “To truly achieve victory as Clausewitz defined it — to attain a political objective — the United States needs a military whose ability to kick down the door is matched by its ability to clean up the mess and even rebuild the house afterward.”

Responding to developments in Iraq, the first bit of new doctrine concerned counterinsurgency. The pioneering work on FM 3-24, “Counterinsurgency,” by Gen. David Petraeus and his team at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., produced a manual that absorbed best practices and laid down a workable doctrine for war in which protecting the population, not destroying the enemy, was the focal point of military operations. This December 2006 manual was put together by military and civilian experts and was designed to change not just operational techniques but mind-sets. Tom Ricks, author of the best-seller about the war in Iraq, “The Gamble,” described the aim of the new counterinsurgency doctrine: It was not only seeking “to change the way the Army was fighting in Iraq, but also to change the Army itself … a major intellectual, cultural and emotional shift for a huge and tradition-minded organization.”

The Army upped the intellectual and organizational antes with its February 2008 revision of FM 3-0, “Operations,” the capstone manual from which all Army tactical and operational manuals take their guidance. In FM 3-0, the authors at Fort Leavenworth oriented the fighting Army toward readiness for operations across the spectrum of conflict from high-intensity combat to insurgency, down to working in the environment of unstable peace. To handle these conflicts, the Army would pursue capabilities for full-spectrum operations, comprised, as necessary, of offense, defense and stability or civil support operations.


The latest manual, FM 3-07, released in October, completes this Army trilogy. The new Army manual points out that stability operations are usually protracted, “whole of government” affairs, focused on gaining time for countries to reach a viable peace or a new political equilibrium point. Like its sister manual on counterinsurgency, the stability operations manual followed the innovations of units in the field and the guidance of commanders like Gen. Peter Chiarelli, whose 1st Cavalry Division’s efforts in stabilizing Baghdad were a lesson for the doctrine writers who followed.

The stability operations manual was put together by civilian and military experts with broad interagency participation. Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and the U.S. Institute of Peace were also key players in its development. Like the COIN manual, FM 3-07 has been published by a university press (University of Michigan Press in March) with introductory material not only from Lt. Gen. William Caldwell, the Army’s current doctrinal guru, but also from Undersecretary of Defense Michele Flournoy, Shawn Brimley and stability operations expert Janine Davidson, a George Mason University professor en route to a senior Pentagon assignment.

While useful for the interagency and the NGO world, this new manual is explicitly aimed inside the military at officers, major and above, who will be the principal planners and supervisors of stability operations. It recognizes that the burden of stability operations has been placed on combat units in part because of battlefield conditions and the current, structural limitations of the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development. As Davidson writes in her introduction, this manual implicitly challenges future administrations “to either rebalance the national security portfolio by adequately resourcing these critical civilian agencies or … to accept that soldiers and Marines will continue to fill the gap — and therefore will need to know how to do so.”

The manual is comprehensive. It begins with a predictable description of the security environment and the state of interagency efforts, links the stability operations to the concept of full-spectrum operations, and neatly outlines the planning and command and control functions. Perhaps the most important chapter outlines the five key stability tasks, which are the lines of effort for units engaged in stability operations. They are: establishing civil security, establishing civil control and rule of law, restoring essential services, supporting governance, and supporting economic and infrastructure development. The manual respectfully notes the leadership role of State in reconstruction and stabilization activities, and the key responsibilities of the Office of the Coordinator for Reconstruction and Stabilization.

The manual ends with an important chapter on building indigenous security forces and other associated tasks. It is a fitting place to end because this is one area where the military will always play a leading role and where the U.S. has consistently performed poorly. Effective indigenous forces are key to success in COIN and stability operations, but we have not yet mastered their development, nor have we seriously addressed our shortage of trained advisers and mentors for foreign forces.

Bigger problems

“Stability Operations” is a superb manual. It will help military officers plan and conduct stability operations, and it will give the Defense Department’s interagency partners, international organizations and NGOs a better sense of military thinking. FM 3-07 will also provide its military and civilian readers a common vocabulary for working out their mutual problems. This manual will do what doctrine is supposed to do — inform, educate, and advise soldiers and civilians — but it will not solve many of the big problems surrounding future stability operations.

Today, the big issues concerning stability operations are less about doctrine than about culture, policy and priorities. On the cultural end, stability operations are by definition protracted operations. It is a clear fact of life that the American people and their elected officials don’t easily tolerate protracted conflicts. Even popular wars wear on our national psyche. During World War II, Gen. George Marshall observed that “a democracy cannot fight a Seven Years War.” Participation in stability operations is bound to be a neuralgic experience, requiring superb leadership able to shape public opinion, not just react to it.

Policy-wise, the new administration will have to decide not only where to commit U.S. forces, but how to divide bureaucratic responsibilities. A new leadership might minimize the military role in stability operations and drastically bulk up the State Department and USAID. Even if that happens, however, the military will need to understand what needs to be done until the postulated (but not yet real) civilian nation-building cavalry arrive. The military then needs to understand what it must do to help the civilians to be effective, realizing all along that assets devoted to stability operations may be assets taken away from offensive or defensive operations.

Given new threats or the re-emergence of old ones, future administrations may well reconsider the current fascination with irregular warfare and stability operations. Driven by funding shortages or the frustration of current commitments, there may be a Jacksonian, anti-nation-building reaction. More likely, future leadership groups may opt for a less troop unit-intensive, more adviser-intensive approach to solving security-sensitive problems in the developing world. This option would save money, but it would also put a premium on crisis prevention and the early commitment of assets, something that is politically difficult for the U.S.

A new leader at the helm and the stress of financial necessity will put pressure on the Pentagon to establish priorities among systems and mission areas. COIN and stability operations are manpower intensive and the cost of personnel-related expenditures will exacerbate pressures on the acquisition of new high-tech systems. Forces primed for irregular warfare or stability operations will also compete with Air Force and Navy systems better suited to the less probable but perhaps more critical state-to-state conflicts.

In short, not even a nifty new field manual like the one on stability operations will remove the burden of tough choices from the president and his advisers. But such a manual can empower soldiers and their interagency partners to perform at maximum efficiency in the operations that will dominate their present and near-term future. We won’t necessarily succeed in future stability operations because of the work that went into FM 3-07, but we will do a better job because of it and the other new manuals produced at Fort Leavenworth.

Joseph J. Collins, a retired Army colonel, teaches strategy at the National War College. From 2001 to 2004, he was deputy assistant secretary of defense for stability operations. The views expressed here are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Army, Defense Department or U.S. government.