Making Stability Operations Smarter: Innovations for Fragile Environments

Morgan_CourtneyBy Morgan Courtney

(Remarks delivered at Syracuse University, Nov. 12, 2013) Right now, somewhere over an expansive African plain dotted with acacia trees, is a helicopter. This is no ordinary helicopter. Attached to this helicopter are enormous speakers blaring messages that are helping to bring an end to Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army. This is part of the future of stability operations. Targeted, agile, and innovative.

But before I tell you a bit more about that, I want to tell you about how far we’ve come.

We, the international community, have fumbled our way through stability operations for years.

I’m not just talking about the big two—Iraq and Afghanistan. The international community has undertaken stability operations in Haiti, Kosovo, Rwanda, East Timor, Somalia, and many others, with various levels of success, and in some places, with very little success at all.

I won’t revisit the challenges of Iraq and Afghanistan in particular, but I just want to highlight that these two war and post-war environments were certainly the US’s largest stability operations over the past four decades, and therefore helped to spur new ways of thinking about this work. Necessity is the mother of invention, and the recognition that we needed to do this work cheaper, more efficiently, more effectively, and with the right people drove the US government to think about new and better ways to tackle this mission.

First, they started with a diagnostic. What was necessary to make a country stable and get it back on its feet? The State Department determined that there were essentially 5 categories: this was drawn from work by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the US Institute for Peace, AUSA, an educational organization of the Army, and PKSOI, the Army’s peacekeeping and stability operations think tank. The five categories, roughly, are:

  • Safety and Security
  • Governance and Participation
  • Rule of Law, Justice, and Accountability
  • Economic Development
  • Social Well-Being (health, education)

There were several problems. One was that, since there was no organized way of deploying civilians to do this work—most of which is civilian, as you probably noticed—the military ended up doing much of it. After all, they not only had the money, but they already had people on the ground.

Another major issue was that, until then, most experts were siloed—into what people ironically refer to as “cylinders of excellence.” That is, the security people thought everything came down to security. The rule of law people thought you had to tackle justice first. Health and education people said you had to win the hearts and minds of the people through services. Others said good governance, civil society participation, and anti-corruption measures were key to getting people to trust their government. As a result, you had myriad players in the same space, but they weren’t coordinated, duplicated efforts, and left huge gaps.

You’ve heard the anecdotes: Beautiful schools built too close to each other, by different international actors, where one school would have served the entire population in the area. No books, desks, or teachers. New roads, but they don’t connect the schools to population centers. And children don’t feel safe walking to school. So we may have nice new schools, but in the end, the kids aren’t being educated.

The thing is, all of these five sectors are critical, but not all of them are critical at the same time. You need sequencing. You need people who have experience in multiple “cylinders of excellence” and can think across them, prioritizing what should be done, and when.

By late 2002, after a year in Afghanistan, the US government realized this, and that it needed to cultivate talent that could think strategically across all five sectors. In particular, the State Department realized that it needed to establish a way to bring civilians with diverse experience across the US government to work together in the stability operations arena.

And so, in 2004, Secretary of State Colin Powell established the Office of the Coordinator for Reconstruction and Stabilization, which intended to remedy these gaps. With time, and with the support of the Defense Department, especially Secretary Gates, S/CRS, as the State office came to be known, grew in size and capability. A Civilian Response Corps was created, comprised of civilians from a number of government agencies, from the Department of Justice, to Homeland Security, to Commerce, Treasury, HHS, Agriculture, USAID, and, of course, the State Department. It was essentially a deployable group of experts from across the government who applied their expertise in fragile states.

S/CRS was to conduct analyses of conflict dynamics, plan missions, coordinate the civilian side of stability operations with the military, surge people with the right talents quickly (and with the right support, including flak jackets, deep field communications equipment, and other things), coordinate with international partners to eliminate redundancy, and to learn from their experiences—analyzing what worked, what didn’t, and how the US government could do this work better the next time.

I think you all can appreciate how ambitious this was, and especially so, for a small office in the State Department.

So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that S/CRS ran into a number of problems. Like any new organization, it struggled to establish and prove itself in a field of already-established (and sometimes skeptical) actors, and to carve itself a respected niche. As an office whose place in the State bureaucracy was different from quote “normal” bureaus of State, as well as a number of other reasons, S/CRS was not as connected to the rest of the State Department as it could or should have been…and for a long time, wasn’t resourced to do the tasks it was envisioned to do.

In 2009, the Obama Administration came in, wanting to right-size the balance between hard power and soft power. It recognized the need to strengthen the civilian role in complex crises.

As a result, during Secretary Clinton’s Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review in 2010, S/CRS was transformed into a new bureau, structured like other bureaus, and firmly planted in the State Department under the Undersecretary for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights—what we at the Department refer to as “J.” The new office was called the Bureau for Conflict and Stabilization Operations, or CSO, for short.

For now, neither the Administration, nor the general American public, is interested in undertaking another mega-stability operation like Iraq or Afghanistan that requires a lot of money and people. Similarly, CSO’s thinking has evolved. Now, rather than trying to coordinate everything that comes under the umbrella of civilian operations, we’re focused on being targeted, agile, and innovative.

These don’t tend to be the first words one thinks of when they think of the US government, but we aim to ensure that all of our work in different countries—what we call “engagements”—has these characteristics. Targeted, agile, and innovative.

Let me tell you about how we target our efforts. Before we commit to an engagement, we conduct in-depth conflict analysis of the situation in a country. We bring together experts from across the government, including the Embassy, as well as subject matter experts and practitioners from academia, NGOs, think tanks, and other places to discuss the dynamics of the conflict. Who are the key players? What drives them? How does history influence the current conflict? Who are the spoilers? Who are the thought influencers? How can we get them to play a useful role in preventing or mitigating conflict? Who or what are the conflict mitigators—the people or dynamics that can be amplified to mitigate conflict? What are the resiliencies?

We conducted this kind of analysis during the S/CRS days, but the result is a bit different. Following the analysis, S/CRS helped to plan and then tried to coordinate all civilian activities. CSO approaches this differently—we take that information and then think strategically—again, with interagency partners and the Embassy—to determine what the key vectors of the conflict are. Going back to the five major sectors we talked about earlier—safety and security, governance and participation, rule of law, justice and accountability; economic development; and social well-being—we agree that all of them matter. But what are the 2 to 3 most critical areas that must be targeted NOW in order to set the course of the conflict on a path toward resolution? That is, what activities can we undertake in these critical areas that can have a positive multiplier effect over time?

When we consider possible interventions, we think about what we, CSO, can do in a relatively short timeframe—in general, around 12 to 18 months. The way we think about it, more traditional civilian actors tend to work in a country for a longer period of time. We, by contrast, want to be in a space just long enough to be catalytic—helping others who will be working over the longer term, especially local actors, by influencing key conflict dynamics and setting local actors up for success.

We also aim to be agile. We deploy conflict experts to these countries quickly, experts who are able to adjust their work depending on the local context and shifting dynamics. We monitor changes and try to identify emerging opportunities to influence these dynamics, both on the ground and from our headquarters.

Once we’ve identified these emergent opportunities, we try to be innovative in addressing them. This means thinking beyond “business as usual,” and coming up with creative approaches to challenges.

One example is in Kenya, where election violence in 2007 ravaged the country, particularly the coast. The next general elections were slated for 2013, and we (and others) assessed that violence could break out again. So we prepared differently. USAID, the US government’s aid agency, launched or strengthened a number of peace-related programs in population centers along Kenya’s coast. CSO, wanting to complement and not duplicate efforts, assessed that it could target two areas for focused intervention—Mombasa and Kwale—and coordinated with USAID to plus-up their projects in those areas.

CSO deployed two seasoned personnel—one Justice Department official, a former police officer and member of the Civilian Response Corps—and one of its own staff, a former Army officer with NGO experience, to run its projects on the coast. One of those was a project that recruited and trained peace monitors to serve as “eyes and ears” for the official peace committees. CSO provided phones, transport, phone credit, and a monthly stipend that enabled these peace monitors to move around communities, monitor for possible outbreaks of violence, and contribute information to an Ushahidi-supported crowd mapping early warning system. CSO also funded the sending of peace text messages to approximately 300,000 people in the region.

At the same time, CSO recognized that conflict monitoring and response went hand-in-hand. Our officers reached out to the local police in those areas, and asked if they were willing to work with local organizations in their efforts to monitor and respond to violence. The police thought the local organizations didn’t trust them—and they were right, these organizations thought that many in the police were corrupt. After some discussion, CSO helped the groups to overcome some of their doubts and explore cooperation.

The result? The police were able to respond to possible outbreaks of violence based on the local reporting, and organizations were reassured that their reporting would result in a response by authorities. This, and other initiatives to mitigate election violence, resulted in a significant drop in casualties—election-related deaths in 2013 amounted to 1.5% of the election-related deaths in 2007, down from 1,300 to 20.

This was the first time that Kenyan civil society had successfully created a platform for the public, peace groups, the provincial administration, and security agencies to work together on mitigating conflict. And now that the dust has settled from the elections, there is increased trust between civil society and the security agencies.

Let’s turn to Burma for a moment—a place where a remarkable democratic transition is underway. For decades, a military regime closed off the country. Then, in 2008, seeds of change appeared to be sprouting with the development of a new Constitution. By 2010, a quasi-civilian government came to power. In 2011, Secretary Clinton visited the country, the highest-level visit by an American official in five decades. By 2012, democracy advocate and Nobel prizewinner Aung San Suu Kyi had been released from house arrest and was elected to parliament. The Burmese government has eased a number of restrictions on speech, assembly, and the press, and has released hundreds of political prisoners.

And yet, despite these rapid changes put into motion by the Burmese government, many of Burma’s ethnic groups are cautious about the reforms. For years, they suffered under the military regime, leading them to form armed wings to fight the government. Now, they don’t know if they can trust the new government or its military. But if we want to help Burma become stable, democratic, and unified, we know that these ethnic groups and the government must put their guns down, begin to trust each other, and reconcile their past.

CSO, recognizing how sensitive reconciliation efforts can be, launched a pilot project in one of Burma’s ethnic minority states. The approach? Using an issue of mutual interest to bring together groups that would not normally talk to each other. And by talking about this issue, we thought that they would build some connective tissue that would enable them to work cooperatively on other, potentially tougher issues. This is the first step toward reconciliation.

In this case, we wanted to bring together local civil society, ethnic armed groups, Burmese government officials, and Burmese security forces. Through our analysis, we found that landmines were a common scourge of both the ethnic groups and the government—both were guilty of laying them, and both were victims of them.

So we brought them together to begin discussions on the dangers of landmines and how they affect everyone. It was the first time these groups had all found themselves in the same room, talking about their problems. It was so simple, and yet so remarkable. Communication was opened. And several months later, on their own, the ethnic armed group the Karenni National Progressive Party (KNPP) and the Burmese military entered into talks, and agreed that they would work together on the issue of landmines.

This model, which approaches reconciliation in an indirect way, is being explored for use in other areas of Burma and in other CSO engagements.

Moving back to Africa, let’s come back to the Lord’s Resistance Army. Many of you are aware of the rightly maligned target of Invisible Children’s Kony 2012 initiative—Joseph Kony. Over the past several years, the United States has dedicated millions of dollars training militaries in East Africa to capture Joseph Kony and end his operations. In addition to the US military personnel who are deployed for this mission, CSO deploys a stability operations officer.

Joseph Kony and his group of an estimated 200 fighters, known as the Lord’s Resistance Army, have moved between several countries—the Democratic Republic of Congo, Sudan and South Sudan, and the Central African Republic since 2008. They operate with rudimentary technology, making them difficult to track. It seemed as if we, and the African militaries with which we were working, were always just a couple steps behind him … until we looked at the problem a little differently.

What if we didn’t try to capture or kill the LRA, but rather tried to encourage them to defect from the group? Many of the LRA’s fighters were coerced into fighting since they were children. Presumably, they would prefer to go home.

The US government got the fighters’ families on radios, encouraging them to return home. Radio programs were broadcast, encouraging people to return to their villages and not to fear retribution if they turned in their guns. Flyers were distributed. And—we entered into a public-private partnership. Invisible Children gave millions of dollars to help with this strategic messaging campaign. And, as I mentioned earlier, as part of a unified effort with US Africa Command and the United Nations, we equipped helicopters with massive speakers that broadcast messages in the bush…because while you can’t see them, there could be fighters listening under the triple-canopied trees.

What was the result? Incredible success. An estimated 60 fighters (of the estimated 200) defected. And we’re not just talking about the most junior fighters, but also some of Joseph Kony’s top advisors, who have been able to provide key information that gets us closer to him.

Before I close, I want to mention a couple of new technologies that the US government is using to plus-up peace and stability efforts. I mentioned Ushahidi in the Kenya example as a crowd-sourcing mechanism that can map possible flare-ups and speed up conflict response. At CSO, our Analytics Unit uses a couple of computer programs that help us in our analysis and can help with negotiations. One is called iSENT, a program that collects large amounts of media—including social media—and categorizes it based on whether it expresses positive or negative sentiments. It can be used to get a sense of how locals in a country, or its Diaspora, feel about a particular institution, individual, or policy.

Another technology is called Senturion. This advanced program uses inputs from experts and employs game theory and repeated trials to play out institutions’ and individuals’ positions over time…and is able to note a confidence interval for the results. This is particularly helpful for peace negotiations—this kind of system can help to determine how solid negotiating positions are, and what negotiation points would be more successful than others. In other words, we might be able to get to peace agreements faster and better with the use of this new technology.

These are just a handful of examples of how the State Department and the US government are changing their approach to stability operations. Hopefully, it gives you a sense of how we’re trying to conduct these missions smarter and more innovatively. We’re trying to think differently, and are always looking for the greatest next idea.

Morgan Courtney is the Burma (Myanmar) Engagement Lead at the Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations at the US Department of State (DOS), where she manages a team of conflict specialists in the field and in Washington who focus on peace, conflict, and reconciliation in Burma.

This talk is part of INSCT’s David F. Everett Postconflict Reconstruction Speaker Series.

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