Fixing Fragile States

August 27, 2014 Topic: Foreign PolicyDiplomacy Region: YemenAfghanistanIraq

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.

Yet this belated program to strengthen basic security in Libya still is not part of an overall plan to help Libya become a competent, functioning state. According to two experts at the Atlantic Council and the European Council on Foreign Relations, respectively:


The current western agenda for Libya lacks a political strategy and is focused almost exclusively on the training of the Libyan army. If experience elsewhere is an indication, it will take between 5 and 15 years for that to conclude. The same experience tells us that “strengthening the central government” is an insufficient goal if the country is to become stable and under the rule of law.


Meanwhile, the official U.S. activities in Libya, as described by the current U.S. ambassador, Deborah K. Jones, are directed toward “a broad process encompassing a National Dialogue, constitutional development, and governance capacity-building to increase public confidence.” In American pronouncements, there is little sense of priorities, combined programs, milestones or urgency.


THE EMBASSIES of the United States and its international partners in these fragile countries must do more than just be supportive of individual areas needing improvement. Their approach has to be selective, hands-on, tailored, flexible and integrated.

Selective: Resources are limited, and the approach needs to be sustained over an extended period of time. It should be applied only to the handful of countries in which the threat is high and host government capacity is low.

Hands-on: The United States and other international partners cannot simply transfer money to government departments in fragile states, as it will likely be stolen or misused. Instead, they must take an active role in building competent local government organizations that can use increased resources effectively. American and other international operators cannot train local organizations to be replicas of their Western equivalents, or models of counterparts in other countries; conditions are too different. Likewise, they cannot simply fly in for a two-week stint and then head home; there will be no follow-through. Experienced, carefully selected and trained officials who can influence host officials and build local capacity without causing resentment are essential.

Tailored: Sometimes existing security or law-enforcement organizations or judicial systems can be strengthened; other times they must be created. Sometimes putting the national finances of a country in order will unleash economic growth; other times training and economic support in a particular region of the country are vital. Sometimes training and assisting central government officials is important; other times it is competent provincial officials that are essential for success. The key to a tailored approach is for the American representatives in a country to have the authority and responsibility both for planning and for carrying out the plan.

Flexible: Requirements are always dynamic in fragile states. Plans need to be revised quickly in response to events on the ground; money and personnel need to be shifted quickly to meet new problems and to take advantage of new opportunities.

Integrated: Integration depends on setting a common set of priorities across all programs. Once security forces stabilize a city or region, improved governance and economic opportunity must follow immediately, or the security gains will be wasted. Integration depends on realistic sequencing of different programs. Unless the judiciary and prison systems are improved along with police forces, criminals will be released or tortured after their arrest. Policemen can be trained or retrained in weeks and prison systems can be improved quickly, yet training a core of judges and lawyers takes years. There must be practical interim plans that will ensure progress.

Finally, current operations to capture or kill hardcore Al Qaeda members need to continue, without stirring up local resentment that will make it more difficult to make the necessary longer-term improvements. However, these operations need to be consolidated and integrated into an overall plan in each country.


THERE IS duplication, overlap and sometimes competition between the traditional military operations of the Department of Defense and the covert paramilitary operations of the CIA against Al Qaeda. To fully understand the issue, it’s important to be clear about the significant difference between clandestine and covert operations. A “clandestine” operation is one that is secret, and no government official is to talk about it. Clandestine operations are routinely conducted by the Department of Defense, and on occasion by other U.S. government agencies. A “covert” operation is one in which the involvement of the U.S. government is to be kept secret, to the point of official denial. The CIA has generally conducted covert operations, and an executive order gives this preference, but the basic legislation authorizes them to be conducted by other departments or agencies as directed by the president.

Although geopolitical conditions have changed fundamentally since the Cold War, when covert operations were originally authorized, there has been no serious consideration of updating the authorities for covert action. The 9/11 Commission’s recommendation to assign paramilitary operations to the Department of Defense was not adopted either by Congress or by two successive administrations. The result has been continued complicated, duplicative and costly operations against Al Qaeda. It has only been experienced, dedicated and mission-focused operators in the field that have permitted the current system to work, and their successes have obscured the need for clarity and simplification. This recommendation should be seriously revisited based on our experiences of the last decade.

Two types of armed operations against Al Qaeda are the most important: raids and armed drone strikes. For raids—the helicopter raid that killed Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad is the best known—all the operational skills are in the Department of Defense, mostly within components of the Special Operations Command. Yet, there are often questions and disputes about whether they should be conducted as clandestine traditional military operations commanded by the secretary of defense under Title 10, or covert intelligence operations controlled by the director of the CIA under Title 50.

In reality, the president has the legal authority to order these operations under either title, using either organization. In 2011, the president decided to authorize the Abbottabad raid, entirely conducted by Department of Defense personnel, as a Title 50 covert action, under the control of the director of the CIA. It was a “clandestine military operation” conducted under authorities that were designated for “covert action.” There was never any reason or intention to deny the role of the U.S. government—the primary rationale for covert action—once the operation commenced and inevitably became public. To the contrary, government officials were running for the microphones as soon as the helicopters returned from Pakistani airspace. Fortunately, experienced military commanders made all the tactical decisions, and the raid was a success. Had anything gone wrong—the loss of a helicopter and the capture of its crew by Pakistan, or a dispute between CIA officers and special-operations officers during the raid, with each group appealing to its own chain of command—the results could have been quite different.

For armed attacks by drones, the CIA and the Department of Defense have set up duplicate organizations, each authorized by separate legislation. There are reasons for the current arrangements. The bottom line, however, is that it is the Department of Defense that is established, trained and authorized to kill enemy combatants. For reasons of competence, accountability and effectiveness, the armed drone campaign should be assigned to the secretary of defense, with the entire intelligence community, including the CIA, playing an essential role in identifying, prioritizing and tracking the targets.


A NEW model for interagency operations in fragile states would be strongest and longest lasting if it were established by legislation. However, much can be done by executive order, policy and practice.

The foundational process change should be to assign the task of developing a comprehensive plan for a fragile state to the team on the ground in that state, rather than to an interagency group in Washington. It is axiomatic in both business and military planning that a plan ought to be drafted by those responsible for carrying it out. Only in American interagency planning is it done by a committee at headquarters, then passed to the field for implementation. Washington’s plans are subject to pressures that often make them unrealistic and unsuitable for conditions in the field. An in-country planning team is much more likely to deliver a plan that is balanced between the short and the long term, that includes the most effective applications of the capabilities of the different departments and that realistically matches the needs on the ground. During interagency review in Washington, there will be plenty of opportunity for adding other considerations and good ideas.

However, for an embassy to submit a good plan takes a uniquely qualified and experienced ambassador with a dedicated, competent supporting interagency staff, in addition to the usual country team, comprising the representatives from the various departments and agencies.

Foreign Service officers spend most of their careers in staff positions, responsible for observing, reporting, negotiating, and making policy recommendations that are heavily weighted toward the short term and tactical. Their career pattern develops a high level of expertise, observational and writing skills, and diplomatic abilities. The leader of American in-country operations in a fragile state needs high-order managerial and leadership skills for complex program execution as well as a deep knowledge of the capabilities and limitations of other American organizations, especially military and intelligence. Some Foreign Service officers who became ambassadors have developed these skills. James Jeffrey, Ryan Crocker and Anne Patterson are among several in the recent past. However, although such training has been recommended, the Foreign Service is not geared toward producing such skills broadly. A qualification-and-selection process is needed for ambassadors to places like Yemen, Libya, Pakistan, Mali, Somalia, Afghanistan and Iraq to identify candidates with the experience, knowledge and stature to direct an integrated, multiagency task force.