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.

The current manning of embassies does not include a central staff to support an ambassador in designing and implementing a country plan. What is needed is a small, separate staff of perhaps a dozen experienced officers, drawn from different agencies, to help the ambassador formulate the plan, and then to monitor its execution to determine if it is achieving its objectives and recommend adjustments as circumstances on the ground change. While maintaining strong links back to their parent organizations for advice, support and guidance, these staff officers would primarily serve the ambassador in developing and coordinating his or her plans. Such help is beginning to be available from the State Department’s Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations, but this falls short of an integrated interagency effort.

Within the overall integrated plan in a fragile state, the ambassador should recommend the military and intelligence actions to be taken directly against Al Qaeda personnel and units. The country plan must establish the priority and scope of these activities within the overall mission of strengthening security. It needs to define the areas in which the raids and drone strikes will be conducted and the intensity of the campaign. The overall objective is to capture or kill more enemies than are created. The ambassador should recommend whether these actions be taken as military activities under Title 10 or intelligence activities under Title 50. With special-operations forces and CIA planners as part of his team, the ambassador is in the best position to recommend both the actions themselves and the most appropriate authorities under which to conduct them. During the course of the campaign, the ambassador needs the authority to approve direct actions—drone strikes as well as raids and conventional military strikes—to ensure that they are integrated into the overall plan.

When the ambassador has formulated an integrated plan for the country, incorporating diplomatic, economic, intelligence, military and other aspects, including milestones that the plan will achieve on specified dates, it should be sent to Washington for interagency comment and for the allocation of resources—people and money. The Office of Management and Budget should participate at all levels of interagency review to ensure that budget plans are realistic. Ultimately, a resourced, comprehensive plan for a fragile state should be approved by the president.

Virtually every fragile state both affects and is affected by its neighbors. Tribal, ethnic and religious influences cross national boundaries; borders are often porous; pressuring groups in one country pushes them into others. The cooperation of neighboring states is thus essential to success within fragile states. To ensure that these factors are considered to obtain regional buy-in, each country plan should be sent to neighboring embassies (in the case of the State Department and other agencies without regional organizations) and to regional and global combatant commands (in the case of the Department of Defense) for review and comment.

No plan survives first contact with the enemy; success in the implementation of a plan depends on flexibility and adaptation. Yet currently those carrying out military, economic, diplomatic and other programs in fragile states have very little authority or capability to react. A change in one aspect of a plan will always cause changes in other aspects, yet because authorities in the American national-security system pass directly from departments and agencies to representatives in the field, it is very difficult to gain approval for necessary adjustments. Congressional oversight, based on jurisdiction over appropriated budgets, further hinders flexibility. Economic-development programs depend on successful security operations, yet there is no authority in a country that can direct adjustments when setbacks in one area require changes in another. No financial or personnel reserves are available to cover unexpected problems or to take advantage of surprise opportunities—the budget incentive is “use it or lose it,” whether or not a program is effective, or whether or not the money could be used more effectively elsewhere. Again, dedicated, hardworking officers and officials cooperate with each other as best they can, but the current system does not support flexibility.

The solution is to give the ambassador both the responsibility for overall progress on the plan and directive authority over the programs in country within the limits of the plan that was approved. Once budgets have been allocated to U.S. programs to strengthen a fragile state, an ambassador should be able to shift them, within realistic thresholds, as needs and opportunities develop.


THESE REFORMS will go a long way toward improving American support for fragile states and dealing with Al Qaeda groups that find refuge in them. However, additional improvements are needed.

It is only the Department of Defense that has either the authority or the tradition of assigning personnel to difficult overseas postings, whether they volunteer or not. All other agencies rely on volunteers. The result has been chronic shortchanging of the nonmilitary billets in fragile states—short assignments for officers, or the use of contractors. Authority must be granted to department and agency heads to assign their personnel as needed to support the national interest. Without this change, American campaigns in these countries will be unbalanced and heavily influenced by military considerations, since it is the military personnel who show up.

Although the Department of Defense has the authority to send personnel overseas as needed, some key skills for assisting fragile states have deteriorated within the military services in recent years. In the past, there were experienced civil engineers, utility company officials, local government administrators and transportation officials in the Army and Marine Corps Reserve. They had the skills and experience to help establish competent organizations to provide basic infrastructure in fragile states. The civil-affairs personnel in military reserve units are more junior and much less experienced now. The contractors and individually mobilized reservists that are now used to assist struggling government organizations in fragile states are inadequate for the importance and difficulty of the need. The Reserve Components of the Army and Marine Corps must reestablish strong civilian-affairs components.

Successive secretaries of state in recent administrations have made strong attempts to improve the numbers and qualifications of civilian officials sent to fragile states. Continued emphasis is needed, as the State Department still has difficulty filling even established billets in Afghanistan, language skills do not meet existing requirements in fragile states, and there are too many short-term assignments of personnel to jobs that require sustained interaction with local officials to build trust. The State Department must continue to develop a cadre of officers who can be effective in the tough tasks of strengthening fragile states.

In virtually every fragile state, some of the weakest institutions are the police, courts and prisons. The U.S. government has very little capacity to help strengthen them. The Department of Justice has only a limited training-and-advisory capacity similar to that in the Department of Defense or the Department of State, and generally requires outside funding to mount training programs. Other countries have some capacity, but retired state and local police officers, private contractors, or volunteer judges and prison officials man the American assistance programs. In Afghanistan, the mission of police training was assigned to the Department of Defense, despite the fundamental differences between the military and law-enforcement missions. We need to develop a cadre of advisers and trainers for police, courts and prisons, and a means to supplement the cadre with qualified and supervised private volunteers.

Finally, Congress will need to establish new oversight procedures for an integrated country strategy, rather than the disjointed current system in which generals testify in front of one committee, ambassadors in front of another, and no executive-branch official below the president has the responsibility for overall success or failure to strengthen a fragile state in which the United States has important interests.


COUNTRIES WITH weak governments, high levels of poverty, and internal ethnic, religious and tribal tensions that provide sanctuaries for Al Qaeda or its affiliates will remain a perennial source of instability and threats for America and its allies. Most of the discussion of the challenges of dealing with fragile states has been dominated by abstract debates over vital American interests, fears of long-term commitments, sterile arguments over military versus civil components, disagreements over deadlines and often ill-informed applications of the perceived lessons of the U.S. experience in one country to another. This is unfortunate. What has been missing from the discussion is an understanding of the very segmented, rigid and inefficient system under which the United States attempts to help these countries stabilize their governments and societies and control outside terrorist groups. The current system guarantees that the resources—people and dollars—that are allocated to these countries do not produce the results they could and should. The United States should likely provide more funding for its programs in countries like Yemen, Libya and Mali. However, what is even more important is for the Obama administration and Congress to improve the basic system for organizing and conducting these programs. The improvements in authorities and procedures that we recommend here will go a long way toward making America safer with a very small expenditure of additional resources. It’s time to replace decades of failure with a new approach that protects American security by transforming fragile states into genuinely secure ones.