Unschooled: How to Better Train Our Nation Builders

T he events of 9/11 fundamentally altered America’s perspective on national security. Examining the causes of the attacks and the responses required to diminish the likelihood of future attacks, the Bush administration undertook a national security review. Two central findings emerged from the 2002 US National Security Strategy (NSS): that contemporary threats faced by the United States, particularly those posed by ideological opponents using asymmetrical tactics, could not be mitigated by military force alone; and that it would be necessary to stabilize weak or failed states in order to diminish the grievances terrorists use to mobilize support for their causes.

The NSS led to a number of changes for both policy and bureaucracy, chief among them a directive from the Department of Defense establishing stability operations as a core US military mission with the same priority as combat operations. But while the Pentagon changed its doctrine to reflect the importance of stability in the new international environment, after a decade it has yet to introduce comprehensive stability operations education and training requirements. Its focus continues to emphasize operations that are “enemy-centric”—killing or capturing foes—rather than “population-centric”—protecting the population.

For example, most brigade combat teams deploying to Afghanistan receive less than a week of counterinsurgency education, with virtually no emphasis on stability operations. Even though nine years of combat operations in Afghanistan have not lessened the number of insurgents or stabilized the country, many commanders continue to believe that proficiency in core combat skills is far more important than training in developing missions and activities to identify and mitigate local sources of instability. As a result, military units tend to fall back on what they know best, taking the fight to the enemy—and ignore the importance of the local population in making military gains permanent.

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A merican government civilians taking part in stability operations receive even less training than the military. Most of those deploying to Afghanistan receive only 21 days of preparation, none of which is dedicated to understanding or conducting stability operations. (This compares with 173 days for a provincial adviser serving in CORDS—Civil Operations and Revolutionary Development Support—during the Vietnam War, which integrated all military and civilian agencies involved in the pacification effort.) Because of political pressure to get civilians to Afghanistan, there is a limit of thirty days between hiring and deployment, which means little time to train people to effectively conduct stability operations in the complex environments in which they will be working.

This deficit is mostly the result of bureaucratic politics. The State Department’s Foreign Service Institute (FSI), which oversees training civilians deployed in stability operations, determines the training requirements. Since FSI gets paid for every student trained, it focuses on throughput. The same Foreign Area Counter-Terrorsim Course is taught whether students are assigned to Afghanistan or Mexico. Considering its history and affiliation, the FSI’s preference for training diplomats, rather than stability officers able to work well in unstable field environments, is obvious.

In stability operations, civilians are expected to work alongside their military counterparts as a team. But differences in organizational cultures and personal experience create challenges. For example, civilians are often unsure where or how to inject their perspective into the military planning process. They are often left feeling isolated because their culture tends to favor consensus while the military culture tends to be hierarchical and directive. It is no wonder that military reports from Afghanistan often complain about the inability of civilians to work with their military counterparts. This situation has grown worse in the last year as the State Department ended previously integrated pre-deployment training for civilian and military personnel serving on provincial reconstruction teams.

Another factor limiting the effectiveness of the US government to conduct effective stability operations is the short length of deployments, ranging from three to twelve months, which makes it difficult to understand the operating environment and also to establish the personal relationships required to effectively interact with other interagency actors operating in the area. Several members of the provincial and district support teams who had served in Afghanistan told us that just as they were beginning to understand their area, it was time to leave. High personnel turnover makes it difficult to have a consistent strategy and the programs that support it.

A fourth obstacle to effective stability operations is a lack of appropriate government resources available to mitigate the causes of instability. For example, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) typically creates large, multi-sector programs to focus on health, education, infrastructure, economic livelihoods, governance, and so forth to foster long-term development in the countries where it is working. These programs take significant amounts of time to implement, involve large amounts of money, and are nearly impossible to modify even though conditions in unstable environments quickly change. These programs often spend billions of dollars with little effect because they do not acknowledge that stability must come before development. For example, in a stable environment, for instance, an agricultural program could be an important development tool. However, in an unstable environment where insurgents are violently solving land disputes “on the ground,” agricultural programming would not only be difficult to implement because of a lack of security, it would also not address the sources of instability—i.e., the lack of a strong local governmental or traditional conflict resolution mechanism—that allow insurgents to gain support.

Another major challenge to effectively implementing stability operations involves misguided “measures of success.” Military commanders and civilian program managers too often mistake the number of activities completed or dollars spent as a measure of stability. Because job creation programs are believed to have a transformative effect on the environment (gainfully employed men are less likely to join or be sympathetic to insurgents), spending a significant amount of money on job creation programs is viewed as a “success.” However the number of jobs created tells us nothing about the behavior of young men who hold them. A more useful measure of stability would be a reduction in the number of young men joining the insurgency.

Reporting requirements exacerbate this problem. Civilian program managers and military commanders are required to report on their activities, most commonly in the form of a laundry list of ongoing and accomplished activities. In senior-level briefings, the number of projects completed, the number of trained security forces, or the amount of money spent dominate discussions. The pressure to demonstrate results and get “dirt flying” on projects has the unintended consequence of influencing program design, implementation, and evaluation. As the ineffectiveness of hundreds of thousands of projects—costing billions of dollars—in stabilizing Afghanistan and Pakistan clearly shows, activity counts for more than achievement.

In addition, military commanders and civilian program managers are evaluated on what they achieved during their deployment, usually measured by the number of dollars spent or the number of projects initiated. These metrics tell us very little about whether an area is more stable. However, they are used in personnel evaluations, which creates the perverse incentive of spending as much money as possible, whether or not the projects foster stability, to improve performance reviews. There are hundreds of schools in Afghanistan with no teachers, district centers with no communications, clinics without doctors, and roads not traveled because of local instability. However, those responsible for this situation receive positive evaluations because they have spent their budgets.

While the amount of money budgeted to programs shows the political importance of an operation, spending large sums in unstable environments can have numerous destructive side effects—corruption of local officials and leaders, decreasing the legitimacy of local government, and so forth—all of which foster instability. Civilian and military leaders have to move away from the mentality that by “doing” lots of projects the area they are targeting will automatically become more stable.


W hile effective stability operations don’t require a lot of money, they do require flexible and readily accessible funding. Although, for oversight reasons, Congress has been reluctant to create flexible funding instruments, without them, practitioners in the field will continue to lack the resources they need to quickly target sources of instability. One way of doing this business can be seen in Britain’s Stabilisation Aid Fund, which had a budget of approximately $300 million for 2008–10 and which is overseen jointly by the Ministry of Defense, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and the Department for International Development using a “triple key” approval process. This fund is readily available and can be used in any unstable area.

Even with a more flexible funding mechanism, stability operations will not be successful until we improve our ability to rapidly implement programs. USAID field program officers at provisional reconstruction teams in Afghanistan report a two-to-four-month delay between identifying projects and initiating them—in large part because activities have to be approved in Kabul and initiated by USAID’s local implementing partner. This situation could be alleviated by delegating project approval to field personnel or allowing field personnel to work directly with local communities.

To improve stability metrics, three simple but fundamental changes would help. First, measuring change over time requires having something to measure against. For example, to effectively measure a program to reduce police corruption, the number of bribes taken or extra money collected per month by the police from illegal activities must be known and measured against a baseline. Too often this step is overlooked and reporting is focused on output or anecdotes.

Metrics should also be kept simple. In Afghanistan’s Regional Command East (RC-East), the military tracks hundreds of indicators (by contrast, USAID’s District Stability Framework [DSF] uses seven variables to measure stability). This not only takes an exorbitant amount of staff time but, more importantly, tells commanders little about stability in their area of operations. As the renowned counterinsurgency expert David Kilcullen notes, “Because consistency over time is important, a small number of enduring key indicators is better than a large number of frequently changing indicators.” Standardizing a smaller number of meaningful indicators across a larger area facilitates collection and allows commanders to compare different areas using standardized stability metrics.

Another way to improve stability metrics is to relieve the pressure on field personnel and commanders to initiate projects and to achieve a high “burn rate” of money spent. For example, funds should not be allocated until a project’s goals have been identified and confirmed by a stability specialist. Once a contract has been let, the implementer should be held accountable for demonstrating results. In eastern Afghanistan, USAID’s Office of Transition Initiatives (OTI) is using this approach. Before approving an activity, OTI requires the implementer to show that the proposed activity is tied to a source of instability. While this experiment is only a few months old, initial reports indicate it has slowed spending and improved the effectiveness of programming. This change came despite pressure from the US Embassy to increase the number of projects and the size of budgets.


I n spite of what at times seems to be a flagging commitment to creating effective stability operations, there have been notable successes. For example, in the summer of 2009 the Marine Corps moved into Nawa District, Helmand Province, Afghanistan. They were careful not to alienate the population with unnecessary offensive operations. With help from a small team of American civilians, they worked closely with Afghan officials and community leaders. Every patrol was told to build relationships with locals, listen to their concerns, and take visible action to address priority community grievances. In addition to living with and partnering with the Afghan National Police, the Marines initiated a comprehensive vetting and training program to ameliorate police corruption, a chief source of local residents’ anger and alienation. In a matter of months, the security situation had improved to such an extent that Marines no longer wore standard personal protective equipment in the crowded bazaar area. This combination of identifying local sources of instability, working with the population to mitigate them, building local capability and capacity, and creating a baseline to measure effect led to stability in Nawa.

The US will no doubt continue to be involved in stability operations in the future. More than ever, there is a need for trained military and civilian stability specialists who can identify sources of instability, design programs to diminish them, and implement programs that integrate the various elements of US national capability. Although addressing the core problems that have hindered such robust programs will take leadership and a willingness to challenge entrenched bureaucratic structures and procedures, what happened in Nawa shows that the right combination of commitment and leadership can produce the results envisioned by those a decade ago who saw stability operations as a crucial element in America’s national defense strategy.


Sloan Mann is cofounder and managing director of Development Transformations, a consultancy group focusing on stability and developement in areas affected by war. James Derleth is senior interagency training advisor at the US Army's Joint Multinational Readiness Center in Hohenfels, Germany.

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