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Stability Operations: Current Options for Engaging IS

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Stability Operations: Current Options for Engaging IS

Charles T. Barham

The U.S. and our military should broaden its approach and adopt a more comprehensive response to the growing religious extremist threat.  Much of the U.S. national political debate from 2015 into 2016 has been focused on national security and the threat of religious extremist groups.  The threat du jour is the Islamic State, (IS).  A religious extremist group that many say has been allowed to grow due to the actions of the United States and others in the Middle East which has increased political instability throughout much of the trans-regional area from North Africa, across Southwest Asia, to Central and South Asia.  The ongoing political debate has been about what the appropriate U.S. response to IS should be.

Most of the discussion on the U.S. response has been focused on our military options, kinetic or lethal activities such as air strikes and Special Operational Forces teams - killing people and destroying infrastructure.  What many refer to as hard power options.  But these types of responses use only one set of tools in the United States’ tool box.  They address only the symptom and not the problem.

A more comprehensive approach is needed, an approach that leverages not only hard power options, but also stability and civil-military operations – or soft power options as well.  We need an approach that not only leverages all of the elements of National Power (diplomatic, informational, military, and economic), but also within these elements of National Power, seeks to optimize their effects.  A synchronization of military hard and soft power tools, which include stability and civil-military operations, with the other socioeconomic development tools found in the diplomatic, informational, and economic elements of national power.

Although some see socioeconomic development as largely the domain of the Department of State and other supporting agencies, the Department of Defense has in the past, and could now play a critical role in planning and implementing a more comprehensive response.  The focus of this paper is on why our military and their soft power options must be part of a larger and more comprehensive response to the growing religious extremist threat.

A response composed solely of lethal attacks will certainly impact IS operations, at least in the near or short-term.  But this response alone will not likely neutralize, much less destroy IS.  Like other similar threats we have faced, we can continue to kill members of IS, but more recruits will simply fill their ranks, and new branches will continue to form.  Part of the solution to defeating IS is to address the conditions that gave rise to it in the first place.

In this case, conditions do not refer to any religious fanaticism that evolved into an organization such as IS, but rather is a reference to what allowed IS as an organization to expand beyond the control of any State government.  There are numerous scholarly articles that address the conditions that gave rise to IS and are allowing IS to sustain itself.  Dan Tschirgi & Gamal Soltan of the American University in Cairo support one of the most common theories.  They posit political instability and power vacuums as a result of Western intervention (predominantly U.S.) in the region have left central governments weakened and susceptible.

Thomas Piketty, a French economist adds to this discussion a more obscure cause, but a cause that is none the less important to developing a viable solution – income inequality.  In his reviewed of a Piketty article published in a French periodical, Jim Tankersley of the Washington Post highlights some of Piketty’s salient points.  One of these is that the extremely high concentration of wealth across the region lies within a few countries, and within these countries it resides with a handful of people.  This results in not only the political systems of many countries in the region, but also the social systems of those countries, becoming very fragile and unstable.  Tankersley goes on to say that Piketty believes that this political and social instability has been further exacerbated by foreign interventions and that foreign countries should focus more on social development, specifically education, as a way to help regain stability.

This focus on socioeconomic development is also cited by Maha Yahya at the Carnegie Middle East Center.  She identifies failed education systems and a lack of economic opportunities as two contributing factors to instability in the region.

Given these conditions, to adequately address IS will require not only a kinetic approach, but also a soft power or stability operations approach that addresses the socioeconomic conditions that allowed IS to manifest itself in the first place. This type of approach is laid out in the U.S. National Security Strategy (NSS).  The NSS talks to promoting, improving, and preserving regional stability.  It goes on to say that enabling long-term stability in the trans-regional area, and to address the underlying causes of instability, requires more than just military presence and action.  It requires political and economic reforms in order to maintain security and rule of law.

Unfortunately, the current U.S. strategy against IS does not appear to adequately address these soft power requirements.  With nine lines of effort, the current U.S. strategy for fighting IS does address governance issues, but only in Iraq, not the broader trans-regional area.  Although the strategy addresses humanitarian assistance, this humanitarian assistance is targeted only for refugees and there is no hint of providing basic social services, and does not address the socioeconomic issues and a lack of basic social services across the trans-regional area.  The strategy does talk to hard power solutions with respect to denying safe haven and building partner capacity, but the implication is that this is building partner nation military capacity only.  The U.S. Department of Defense is the lead for both of these last lines of effort. But since the strategy does not address the conditions that gave rise to IS, the overall strategy is at risk of not isolating and defeating IS and is at best reactionary to the current threat while offering little in the way of deterring future threats.

Fortunately the United States is only one of about sixty countries which have formed a global coalition to fight IS.  This coalition does have more of a trans-regional focus, as expressed in its own strategy to fight IS.  The coalition strategy is defined by five lines of effort.  Although not identical to the U.S. strategy, it is generally congruent.  However, there appears to be a greater emphasis with respect to addressing the political instability conditions that have given rise to IS in that, unlike the U.S. strategy, the coalition strategy does seek to regain regional stability.

The makeup of the coalition is also very important from the aspect of determining what socioeconomic initiatives to implement.  We should have learned from Iraq and Afghanistan that individual countries should have a significant say in determining what help they will receive.  Local countries instead of a Western power such as the U.S. should shape this assistance.  In fact, as projects are being implemented, a local face should be put on them, further supporting the local or national government.  To date about a dozen of the sixty countries that make up the coalition are from the immediate trans-regional area.

How does military soft power play in all of this?  Both the U.S. and coalition strategies address military specific lines of effort (denying safe haven & building partner capacity).  But there are other opportunities where the military can and should participate and these opportunities will manifest themselves in two distinct scenarios we are likely to see being implemented simultaneously.

The first scenario involves a country where there is a requirement for significant kinetic activity.  Examples will likely be Syria and Iraq, but there could be several others.  Here the approach will look very counterinsurgency like, with equal doses of combat operations and socioeconomic development and governance activities, the approach of “clear – hold – build”.  Military forces (U.S. and/or other coalition members) will defeat IS and create a bubble of security.

Development agencies, to include state actors, or non-state actors in addition to the military, must be ready to immediately enter the area and provide humanitarian assistance where needed and restore basic social services, while laying the foundation for long-term sustainment of those services.  Military forces would not only conduct the kinetic activities, they would likely lead some of the development projects, and provide security for other non-military actors who will do the lion’s share of the development work.

Therefore military forces will likely have the lead in these operations until overall security is re-established and control is returned to civil authorities.  To plan and oversee the execution of these operations will require a Combined, Joint, and Interagency Task Force (CJIATF) like organization.  Robert Shafer recently publish a work on the Civil-Military Advisory Group (CMAG) in which he outlines in some detail how this organization could work to synchronize effort amongst the various and disparate interagency and coalition players.

In the second scenario, a country will not have a need for any significant amount of kinetic activity, at least from outside sources.  In fact, these countries might be largely stable.  However, there will likely be requirements for conducting socioeconomic development and governance activities in these countries in order to address the seeds of instability which now permeate the trans-regional area, and to keep these countries from becoming unstable and lending themselves to the problem in the future.  In these cases, within the United States, the Department of State will likely be the lead agency.  However, that is not to say that security is not of primary concern to these countries.  As Jeff Goodson pointed out in his article “When Policies Collide: Security, Democracy and Re-arming Egypt”, not only are governments principally concerned with their security, but the general population also sees security as a prerequisite to stability.  So military-to-military engagements as part of security cooperation, which may include some stability or civil-military development projects, will continue to be important to successful outcomes.  In these cases we will see military stability and civil-military operations in more of a preemptive role, keeping countries stable rather than being reactive to countries which have become unstable.

As we saw in our first scenario, we will need to fully synchronize the activities of the host nation and their security operations with these military-to-military engagements and the various development activities, which again will require a CJIATF or CMAG like organization in each country, even if the military is not the lead agency.  In this case the military brings the skill set and the where-with-all to manage, coordinate and synchronize these various activities of multiple countries and non-state actors that no other U.S. agency can provide.

Therefore, the solution to the threat of religious extremist groups (specifically IS), and the conditions which gave rise to them (political instability), require a comprehensive approach and a coalition of global scale.  The effort must be informed by those countries that need help as well as those neighboring countries in the trans-regional area.  And how we execute this effort is just as important as what we do.  This requires more of a local face on whatever action is taken, regardless of who is paying for it or overseeing it.  This will be a long-term endeavor.  It will not be an effort of months, and likely not even a few years, but it will be generational and a form of this effort will likely last decades.

There is clearly a military requirement from a hard power or kinetic perspective, but just as importantly there is a military requirement from a non-kinetic or soft power perspective as well.  The U.S. military must broaden its approach and adopt a more comprehensive response to the growing religious extremist threat.  Improving basic education, and facilitating economic growth are two areas where we can have a positive impact on the populations of the trans-regional area and offer them alternatives to supporting religious extremist groups.   The U.S. military will not do the lion’s share of the socioeconomic development work, although it will do a portion of it, but it will be very involved in facilitating these activities and quite frankly is the best organization to effectively coordinate and synchronize this effort.

About the Author(s)

Charles Barham is a retired U.S. Army officer with 29 years of service (1981-2010).  He also served for four years as a Department of the Army Civilian Management and Program Analyst in the Afghanistan/Pakistan Hands Program (2010-2014).   He currently serves as a Department of the Air Force Civilian Management and Program Analyst at USCENTCOM in an Interagency Planner capacity.  He served for more than three years in Afghanistan as; Assistant Director of the Police Reform Directorate, Combined Security Transition Command - Afghanistan 2006-2007, Senior Socioeconomic Advisor in HQ ISAF-DCOS/STAB under Generals David Petraeus and John Allen 2011, as Deputy Director of the NATO/Afghan Transformation Task Force, HQ ISAF under General Joseph Dunford 2013, and as a Senior Planning, Programing and Budgeting Advisor to the Afghan National Army Special Operations Command.  He has served for over five years in HQCENTCOM in positions including Senior Socioeconomic Advisor and Interagency Planner.  He has a Bachelor of Science in Business Administration from the University of Richmond, a Master of Business Administration from Oklahoma City University, and a Master of Strategic Studies from the U.S. Army War College.