Recently the Special Inspector General for Iraq (SIGIR), Stuart Bowen, testified before the Commission on Wartime Contracting on the need for a new “U.S. Office of Contingency Operations” to oversee future American efforts at post-conflict stabilization and nation-building (really state-building, but that’s another post).
Bowen, who since 2004 has investigated and exposed much of the corruption and incompetence in the Iraq reconstruction effort, argues the new office is necessary to prevent poor coordination and planning among U.S. government agencies, two problems which have been a distinguishing feature of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The main reason the new office is needed, he says, is that there is no one U.S. government agency charged with responsibility for stabilization and reconstruction efforts and “there is no central point of planning and management," which has "bred the problems of poor coordination and weak integration we’ve encountered” in Iraq.
But as Spencer Ackerman notes, neither the Departments of State nor Defense support the proposal . . .
“In formal responses appended to the USOCO paper, two senior administration officials praise Bowen’s effort and endorse his diagnosis that civilian and military efforts in stabilization and reconstruction missions suffer from an ad hoc planning and implementation structure, saying he “correctly identifies under-funding [and] lack of capacities” within State and the U.S. Agency for International Development as a key weakness. But both reject USOCO as a solution. Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Michele Flournoy writes that the problem is “one of capacity and not of structure” and observes that congressional support for a restructuring “in today’s fiscally constrained environment seems unlikely.”
Deputy Secretary of State Jack Lew, presenting State’s lengthy formal response to USOCO, pledges to Bowen that the USOCO proposal will receive “full consideration” from an ongoing State Department and USAID comprehensive review of development and diplomacy known as the QDDR. But he says Bowen’s fix is “problematic on several fronts,” and that USOCO would take too much policymaking responsibility away from the Secretary of State and the department’s regional bureaus.”
Bowen has publicly stated the he will try and sell the idea to Congress, but considering the two agencies primarily charged with the post-conflict stabilization missions are not on board with the proposal and will actively fight against, it means the chances of it coming to fruition are unlikely.
I’m a big fan of Bowen for his work uncovering corruption in Iraq and I’m glad he’s stuck around since first being appointed in 2004, but I’m against the new proposal for a couple reasons.
First, the main cause of the screw ups in the initial post-war period had to do with political choices made at the highest levels of government, primarily the decision to not start planning for the post-war period until just a few months before the war began. What made it worse was the planning was based on a series of false assumptions that were tailored not to the situation at hand, but on a politically expedient notion that the war would be easy (a view that made it easier to sell to Congress and the public), so ergo, not much planning would need to be done. The problem in this case wasn’t the lack of a special office to do planning and coordination, but the lack of sound strategic decision-making by a bunch of incompetent senior government officials. These officials were also blinded by ideology and a desire to remake Iraq into some democratic redoubt which resulted in them ignoring the complex realities on the ground that didn’t fit into their magical thinking and ended up resulting in needless deaths and lost resources.
Another problem is that the office won’t solve the issue of interagency friction. Having spent over four years in Iraq, with that time split almost evenly between roles with State and Defense, I can tell you that employees seconded to interagency organizations (like Provincial Reconstruction Teams) will have allegiance first to the organization and leadership that evaluates, pays and promotes them. That means working against the interagency team's objectives if they are not in the interest of that person’s organization. I’ve seen it happen. A special office that draws on personnel from various departments won’t be able to do combat this problem unless it can create disincentives for failing to play nicely, such as the ability to write negative performance reports or dock pay. But this is a power home agencies are never going to give up.
The solution to problems of planning and coordination in future missions are quite simple: begin planning and coordinating for them early. Planning for the post-war occupation of Germany was several years in the making before Hitler killed himself and the country surrendered. Personnel and resources were specifically prepared for that eventuality and a special School of Military Government was even established. This meant that once the combat phase of the war was over both military and civilian officials were ready to move in and successfully help rebuild, de-Nazify, and democratize the country.