Instability Operations

A few weeks back, I argued that the U.S. military’s emphasis on stability operations might not lead to increased counterinsurgency wars of choice, but speculated about ways in which it would almost certainly impact policymakers’ strategic vision. Here is the first item on that list:

1) An emphasis onstability as the strategic objective of American foreign policy. Thisis largely consistent with America’s historical emphasis, primarily dueto the benefits of stability to trade and commerce. But with failedstates now being perceived as a national security threat vector, thatwill probably increase. The downside is that promoting stability, ifpushed to an extreme, can translate into stifling change and progress.There’s also an internal tension, since trade and liberalization oftenhave very destabilizing effects.

Tom Ricks looks at the recently issued Stability Operations Field Manual — the full-spectrum operational guide to counterinsurgency and nation-building missions — and goes a step further:

I’m all for the idea. But I wonder if the very title of the manual isincorrect. After all, we didn’t invade Iraq to provide stability, butto force change. Likewise in Afghanistan. And once we were there, wedidn’t aim for stability, but to encourage democracy, which (thethought is not original with me) in a region like the Middle Eastgenerally undermines stability.I mean, if all we wanted was stability,why not find a strongman and leave? . . .

What we really are doing in Iraq and Afghanistan, I think, is instability operations. . . .

I think a more intellectually honest title for the manual would be “Revolutionary Operations.” Don’t hold your breath.

That’s brilliant doctrinal jujitsu. But while clever and convincing, it’s also a bit misleading. The Stability Ops FM is a forward-looking document that integrates operational lessons learned in Iraq and Afghanistan. Ricks’ observation is a backward-looking one that insightfully captures the internal contradiction between the two wars’ strategic objectives of regime change combined with stable post-war democracies (already an internally challenged goal). But as even the most fervent proponents of the new stability ops capacities concede, Iraq and Afghanistan are anomalies to be avoided in the future.

Still, Ricks is onto something. A more penetrating criticism of the stability ops paradigm, though, is to question the premises upon which it bases what is essentially a political project. It assumes that we can bypass the centuries of cultural, institutional and societal evolution necessary for peoples to identify as nations and to agree to settle their political differences peaceably. Instead it proposes forcefully grafting an inherently Western model of stable governance and development onto local populations. In other words, it is an accelerated process of institutionalizing the instability and uncertainty that goes along with national sovereignty.

As Ricks points out, that very model of stable Western governance, transposed elsewhere, can often have unstable results. More generally, if counterinsurgency is “armed social work,” it represents the crisis intervention phase of treatment. But there are three prerequisites for social work interventions to have lasting impact, beyond simply alleviating the acute symptoms of a crisis: the patient has to accept the need for change and be willing to work towards it, and the follow up has to be systemic. Otherwise, you get relapse.

In social work, acceptance is already a significant barrier to real change — denial ain’t just a river in Egypt; willingness to do the work weeds out quite a few who make it past the first hurdle; and lack of institutional resources (i.e., political will) means that the motivated few who remain are always somewhat vulnerable to being tripped up by their environment — whether family, social network or neighborhood.

My hunch is that the same can be said for nation-building. Which means that if the Stability Ops FM is the military equivalent of psychiatry’s DSM, the treatment plan will always be intellectually satisfying, but the results might often disappoint.