Fixing Fragile States

America's cumbersome approach to interagency operations in the field urgently needs reform, centered around more powerful ambassadors and coordinated in-country policy design.

September-October 2014

SINCE THE 9/11 attacks, the United States has waged major postwar reconstruction campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan and similar but smaller programs in other countries that harbor Al Qaeda affiliates. Continued complex political, economic and military operations will be needed for many years to deal with the continuing threat from Al Qaeda and its associated organizations, much of it stemming from fragile states with weak institutions, high rates of poverty and deep ethnic, religious or tribal divisions. Despite thirteen years of experience—and innumerable opportunities to learn lessons from both successes and mistakes—there have been few significant changes in our cumbersome, inefficient and ineffective approach to interagency operations in the field.

We believe the time has come to look to a new, more effective operational model. For fragile states in which Al Qaeda is present, the United States should develop, select and support with strong staff a new type of ambassador with more authority to plan and direct complex operations across department and agency lines, and who will be accountable for their success or failure. We need to develop the plans to protect American interests and strengthen these countries out in the field, where local realities are understood, before Washington agencies bring their inside-the-Beltway perspectives to bear. Congress and the executive branch need to authorize field leaders to shift resources across agency lines to meet new threats. It is, in short, a time for change—change that upends our complacent and antiquated approach toward foreign societies and cultures.


THE 9/11 ATTACKS offered us a painful reminder of an old verity, which is that fragile states unable to enforce their laws and control their territory are the progenitors of potent threats that can be carried out simply and effectively. Such states provide safe havens from which Al Qaeda and its affiliates plan and launch terror attacks against the United States and other countries. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) operates in Yemen; Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb operates across Algeria, Mali and other neighboring countries; and Al Shabab operates in Somalia. Civil war in Syria, spreading violence in Iraq and continued turmoil in Africa will most likely open new havens for similar groups.

Until now, the American response to the threat from fragile states has had three major components: First, we have greatly strengthened the control of our own borders. Second, American intelligence and military forces, particularly the CIA and the U.S. Special Operations Command, have taken the fight to Al Qaeda. Third, the United States, along with other countries and international organizations, has increased economic and civil assistance to many fragile states using existing programs and authorities.

How much have these approaches achieved? The American-led reconstruction efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan have been prolonged and massive, but cannot be considered successful.

A dysfunctional system of authorities and procedures hampered effectiveness. Plans were made in Washington by committees of the representatives of different departments and agencies; individual departments and agencies sent instructions to their representatives in the field; and the allocations of resources to country programs were based in large part on individual departmental and agency priorities and available funding, not on overall national priorities. Each of the departments maintained direct authority over its field personnel and resources. Short-term staffing was endemic and cooperation in the field was voluntary, with neither the ambassador nor any official in Washington below the president authorized to resolve disputes or set overall priorities. Budget resources for a particular program could not be shifted smoothly to others when local conditions changed, and congressional oversight was split among committees that oversaw only individual aspects of the overall program in a country.

Even when the president, the National Security Council and an energetic interagency process in Washington were fully engaged—as they were in later years in Iraq and Afghanistan—the results have not matched the commitment of resources. Numerous accounts by journalists and memoirs of participants have documented the interdepartmental frictions, inefficient bureaucratic compromises and delayed decisions that have hampered progress. The authors of this article know personally most of those involved in leading the long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. They are to a person—whether military officers or civilian officials—diligent and dedicated patriots. They have often worked across departmental lines to integrate security, governance and economic-assistance programs to achieve real successes. However, when officials and officers in the field did not get along, the deficiencies of the system allowed their disputes to bring in-country progress to a halt. What is needed is an overall system that will make cooperation and integration the norm, not the exception.


YEMEN AND LIBYA provide smaller-scale but more contemporary illustrations of the shortcomings of today’s approaches. Although American officials have gained more experience, the authorities and procedures have not changed.