As violence in Afghanistan continues to simmer, the stabilizing role of American troops there looks increasingly necessary. Even many members of the Bush administration -- which long resisted expanding the U.S. troop presence beyond Kabul and rejected anything that smacked of "nation building" -- now recognize how important U.S. soldiers are for Afghanistan. At the same time, however, it is also becoming evident that the U.S. military is not very well suited to the task of establishing security in precarious political environments. Because the United States has no paramilitary units and only poorly organized civilian policing tools, elite combat forces have ended up filling the void. This approach has been inefficient and expensive and has reduced Washington's ability to project power. And it has all but ensured that the U.S. military will bog down in Afghanistan -- not because of mission creep or poor civilian oversight, but because military and civilian leaders have yet to fully accept that a security-conscious nation-building plan is a necessary component of an effective exit strategy.

Afghanistan, moreover, has revealed a pattern that the United States seems doomed to repeat elsewhere. The mismatch between resources and requirements will ensure that the country continues to use its forces inefficiently -- unless serious changes are made, that is. Yet despite the best intentions of civilian and military leaders, Washington has failed to address this problem. Nor has it devoted much effort to building the international capabilities that could compensate for this weakness.

The right tools for promoting stability have not been developed for a variety of reasons. First is an institutional inertia that stems from the Cold War. Fighting the Soviets required deploying massive heavy equipment throughout the European theater, not crossing narrow and fragile bridges (as has been necessary in Kosovo) or dispersing mobs (as was required in Haiti). Policymakers planned "day after" scenarios based on thoughts of nuclear winter, not nation-building or pacifying disgruntled villagers. Second, the U.S. experience with constabulary forces in postwar Germany and Japan suggested that great caution must be exerted when designating military forces for operations other than war. Although the specially created American constabulary forces did a good job maintaining the peace after World War II, they proved disastrously ill-prepared when their mission suddenly changed to combat in Korea a few years later. And third, in some conservative quarters it is assumed that building a robust set of security capabilities will only increase the likelihood that reckless politicians will overcommit the U.S. military to an endless array of international adventures.

But an equally important part of the problem is that civilian leaders have not fought hard enough for change. The necessary high-level attention has not been devoted to preparing the full range of military and civilian responses to the security problems that America faces today. Despite the fact that President Bill Clinton issued three presidential decision directives (PDDS) during his tenure to reorganize the military and civilian apparatuses for operations other than war, not enough resources were devoted and too little sustained attention was paid to ensuring that they were put into action.(1) All three PDDS were pushed aside when high-level officials became distracted by other, seemingly more pressing issues.

Counterintuitively, the consequence of Washington's failure to develop a full spectrum of capabilities has not been that the United States has avoided policing or nation-building. The military has still been deployed to do the job -- but without the ability to exit. The hard truth is that the failure to think seriously about how to handle civil strife makes it more likely, not less, that combat forces will become mired in policing operations. And the reason is simple: there is no one else to do the job.

It is therefore time to rethink the roles and missions of the U.S. military and related civilian organizations. Yet that rethinking is not happening. A massive military transformation is now underway, but to date, this transformation has centered around new technologies and focused on issues such as space-based equipment and how to skip a generation of weaponry. These technological changes have driven developments in the role of the military, rather than the other way around -- as would be more appropriate. Moreover, doctrine, education, and training have not been tied together by any new vision of the messy, muddy places the U.S. military is likely to find itself in the future. In the words of one senior Army officer, military schools "are still teaching a Fulda Gap mentality" -- in other words, they are still mired in the large-scale, tank-based strategy of the Cold War.

Appropriate restructuring will not begin until Washington develops a greater appreciation for the fact that intervention entails not simply war-fighting, but a continuum of force ranging from conventional warfare to local law enforcement. Weak states require outside assistance at different points along the spectrum. Three discrete sets of forces are therefore needed to help stave off crises or recover from them. High-end military capabilities are required to destroy hostile forces and secure external boundaries. Constabulary or paramilitary organizations are then needed to handle threats such as riots and widespread organized violence (although high-end military support and back-up may be necessary). Finally, police, judges, and an effective penal system are also necessary to ensure that basic law and order are established and effectively defended. The United States must devote far more attention to the different mixes of these three types of forces that will be appropriate for the various environments in which it will find itself.

So far, the record shows that the United States is best suited to providing only the first kind of security. And this has cost various missions dearly. In Haiti, for example, U.S. soldiers witnessed deadly acts of violence but were constrained from acting by their training and stringent rules of engagement. Only once this problem was recognized were rules loosened and more military police called in; they were better able to handle civil disorder. Until Washington starts considering the full range of security forces needed in similar missions, the U.S. military will continue to find itself clumsily policing distant lands.


The U.S. failure to address the full spectrum of security in troubled countries has had pernicious effects on American diplomatic and military efforts. Consider Afghanistan. The White House's apparent indifference to instability outside of Kabul has made it more difficult to build international support for a military operation against Iraq. How can American leaders convince others that the United States will commit to rebuilding Iraq if it is unable or unwilling to do so in a marginal country such as Afghanistan?

The lack of American interest in the lower end of the security continuum has also roiled U.S. relations with its European allies more generally. European leaders have grown increasingly concerned by the perception that the United States seems to think it can engage in conventional battles alone and can leave Europe to sort out the mess. As Dominique Moisi, a prominent French analyst, put it, Europeans do not want to become "the cleaning lady to American intervention." Much of the problem is that European defense budgets have been too low since the end of the Cold War. But part of the problem is also differing priorities about the threats facing major powers in today's world. The Europeans maintain that the danger stemming from unstable countries is a principal national security threat. But Washington's actions suggest a disturbing indifference. Tension would be eased if the United States at least acknowledged the importance of reducing chaos and the value of Europe's attempts to do just that. Yet in his last state of the union address, Bush did not even thank the Europeans for taking the lead and providing troops to the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan.

The failure to provide low-end security has not only had diplomatic costs but has also been damaging to the U.S. military. The inability to pass responsibility from elite combat forces to paramilitary or constabulary units and ultimately to indigenous police forces saddles elite American troops with the full spectrum of tasks. This overcommitment has been running U.S. forces ragged. Even the most carefully constructed exit strategy, moreover, will not work if it allows conditions to emerge that necessitate a permanent occupation or repeated future interventions.

Bosnia provides an example of how this problem can develop. An international force devoted to public security was cobbled together at the end of the war there under the auspices of the United Nations. It was slow to arrive, however, and badly organized once it did. And because Bosnia still has no way to provide a minimal level of security for itself, crack American combat forces remain stationed there today. The same is true in Kosovo, where U.S. troops have become a "sort of Serbian school bus." Years after its initial deployment in the Balkans, the U.S. military still operates jails in the region, goes on patrol, plows snow, and guards religious sites.

Senior American military planners have declared that in Afghanistan the U.S. military "will want to transition out." But to whom will they hand their stabilization mission? Indigenous Afghan forces will take at least five years to become operationally effective. In the meantime, U.S. soldiers will become police officers, jailers, and sheriffs.


To be fair, several key figures in the Bush administration do seem to understand the harm that is caused to the U.S. military by the failure to build civilian or paramilitary capabilities for peacekeeping and policing. During the 2000 presidential campaign, soon-to-be National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice argued that "we need to think hard about the development of forces that are appropriate to police functions." Colin Powell, now secretary of state, echoed,

We're going to make on-the-ground assessments [in the Balkans] of what we're doing now, what's needed now, but also, what is really going to be needed in the future and see if we can find ways [to make peacekeeping and policing] less of a burden on our armed forces, not as a way of running out but as a way of substituting others or ... other kinds of organizations and units and perhaps police organizations to handle the remaining missions.

Yet far too little has been done to act on these concerns.

Despite Clinton's three PDDS, in fact, Washington has made no serious commitment to develop the necessary capabilities or even a framework for thinking about employing what tools the United States does have. As a result, in case after case when Washington has involved itself in stabilization and reconstruction, it has remained unclear who is in charge, where the budget will come from, and how to synchronize competing priorities. No single department has responsibility for stabilization or policing and no one at the planning table presents a coherent view of what the United States can offer -- or what it will cost. Moreover, since no single department bears responsibility for failures, there is little incentive, especially on the civilian side, to learn from past mistakes.

Currently several disparate organizations share responsibility for providing security: the conventional military, the State Department's Office of Civilian Police (CIVPOL), and the Justice Department's International Criminal Investigative Training and Assistance Program (ICITAP). The latter two programs, which are both civilian, have evolved haphazardly as it has become clear that the military is not always the best tool for handling political stabilization abroad. A fourth program, called the African Crisis Response Initiative, is also overseen by the State Department. Started in 1997, this program uses the U.S. Army to train African militaries for peacekeeping and humanitarian assistance on that continent. This long-range, ambitious project represents a step in the right direction. Yet problems abound in the other U.S. initiatives. There is little coordination between CIVPOL, ICITAP, and the military, and the programs have very different priorities.

Few Americans realize that the United States is the largest international contributor of civilian police to UN missions. The 650 American CIVPOL personnel currently involved in un projects (down from 850 last year) are police officers who have either retired, resigned, or taken leaves of absence from their local forces to serve abroad. But CIVPOL's budget is small and its headquarters staff consists of only four people -- a strikingly limited number given the enormity of the office's responsibilities. These tasks include long-term planning, overseeing day-to-day operations, recruiting officers, and reporting to the higher chain of command within the State Department. Because of its short-staffing, CIVPOL relies heavily on the private company DynCorp to recruit, test, select, train, equip, and sustain its officers for overseas missions; between 1996 and 2001, the State Department paid DynCorp $211 million for such projects. DynCorp provides officers only approximately ten days of training before handing them over to the UN, however, which then disperses them throughout a given country.

Another part of the problem is that civilian policing remains institutionally orphaned at the State Department. It is unconnected to the military or any larger security planning cell. CIVPOL managers are not ensured a seat at the military's planning table, even though police are increasingly necessary in foreign interventions. As a result of this poor coordination, every time police are deployed alongside the military, or as a follow-on force, the two organizations must work out many practical problems on the ground as events unfold.

ICITAP, which operates out of the Department of Justice, is responsible for training foreign police forces. ICITAP currently supports training programs in more than 20 countries and provides short courses in more than 50 others.(2)ICITAP's services range from providing technical advisers to developing asset-seizure laws to combating organized crime to teaching basic policing techniques. Advocates of limiting American military activity abroad should be ardent supporters of both ICITAP and CIVPOL, which can relieve the military of some of the burden of front-line police work. But neither organization gets the support or attention it deserves. Better coordination is also needed between CIVPOL, ICITAP, the NSC, and the military. CIVPOL and ICITAP are currently used haphazardly, without any overall vision of how they should fit into Washington's larger political strategy.

To address this problem, civilian policing should be given higher status within the State Department's bureaucratic structure. Currently a unit within the Office of Policy Planning and Coordination in the International Crime Division of the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, civilian policing should be made its own office; this move would help ease bureaucratic controls and increase its staff. The director of civilian policing should also get a military adviser and have a deputy assigned to the United Nations. Establishing liaisons with experienced foreign forces, such as the British or the Russians, would also help, allowing the Americans to avoid having to reinvent the wheel with each new mission. The White House should also consider moving ICITAP from Justice to the State Department. The Justice Department is domestically oriented, and ICITAP has been lost there.

In addition to fixing the civilian policy instruments in Washington, the Pentagon should redefine the role of its military police (MPS) and bolster civil affairs. The Army's civil affairs units establish relationships between the U.S. military and local civilian authorities. They provide the link between troops on the ground and larger political interests. Similarly, MPS have the kind of skills that are often needed to keep the peace in conflict spots. These talents include knowing how to respond to civil disturbances in populated areas, how to interact with civilian leaders, and what force options exist when trying to restore law and order. American MPS train to "set up roadblocks, cordon off areas, disperse crowds, release riot control agents, and serve as security forces or reserves." Unlike elite combat forces, moreover, the training MPS receive explicitly emphasizes the principle of "minimum necessary force." It is no surprise, therefore, that in places such as Kosovo where combat troops have often felt frustrated with their assigned mission, American MPS have reportedly been much more content.

Of course, directing American MPS to assume new responsibilities would fundamentally alter their institutional orientation. MPS currently do most of their work within the U.S. military, policing U.S. forces and securing lines of passage. They also act in support of U.S. police at home. But if Washington truly wants to improve the military's capacity to handle policing abroad and to relieve the strain on its war fighters, it should start by rethinking the size, responsibilities, and jurisdiction of the military police and their relationship to other forces.


Whether or not the United States makes the kind of changes advocated above, it should exploit a number of international options. The European Union, for example, has recently shown an interest in developing a police force that could relieve some of the pressure on Washington. Drawing on NATO's experience in the former Yugoslavia, Brussels decided in June 2000 to establish a 5,000-member force. (3) Called the European Security and Intelligence Force (ESIF), the new unit will operate alongside Europe's planned Rapid Reaction Force (RRF). Unlike the 60,000-strong RRF, however, which will either duplicate or rely heavily on NATO's existing structure, the ESIF will be unique on the European and international landscape.(4)

So far, European defense officials have focused far more attention on the RRF than the ESIF. This focus might start to change, however, if Washington encourages the policing side of Brussels' new ventures. The United States should therefore emphasize the importance of the ESIF and find ways to incorporate it into training exercises alongside European, American, or NATO forces.

More generally, Washington should identify areas where it and its foreign partners have complementary skills that can be better coordinated. Countries such as Spain, Italy, Argentina, and France maintain forces that regularly train for missions straddling the divide between the police and the army. Such forces could be useful for international policing and would be even more so if supported by the logistics, intelligence, and transport capabilities that the United States is uniquely qualified to provide. A training regimen that synchronized these U.S. assets with foreign gendarme or constabulary forces would create a powerful new multilateral tool for providing security abroad.

A version of this model has already been suggested for Afghanistan, in the form of an expanded ISAF. But the plan was rejected by the White House and the Pentagon, which complained about the additional resources a beefed-up ISAF would require. Although the administration may now be changing course, the official reason originally given for rejecting the plan was that it "would divert resources from the war on terrorism." As Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld asked, "why put all the time and effort and money into [expanding ISAF]? Why not put it into helping [the Afghans] develop a national army, so that they can look out for themselves over time?" The answer is that an expanded ISAF would help establish short-term stability throughout the country, buying time for the creation of a well-integrated Afghan security force. The Pentagon, moreover, has not produced any evidence that expanding ISAF would be burdensome either in terms of personnel, equipment, or financial obligations. In fact, in off-the-record conversations, senior Defense Department officials now admit that either the calculations have not been made or that the cost would not be significant.

ISAF was a creative model for how to employ American political leadership to provide security in an ungoverned territory. It provided an example of international burden-sharing for the new challenges the United States confronts abroad. It would supply a useful framework into which new Afghan security forces could integrate, and it would allow them to achieve operational experience under the watchful eye of a trained foreign force. By refusing to provide American leadership, the Bush administration made it more difficult to convince other countries to join the effort. In the words of one American official, "we weren't beating up support, but we also weren't beating the drum." Without the expanded ISAF, the United States will still eventually have to do much of this work -- but on its own.


Washington continues to operate as if the need to rebuild collapsed or weak states is a passing problem. But as Henry Kissinger has acknowledged, such crises are "not temporary interruptions of a beneficent status quo. They signal instead an inevitable transformation of the international order resulting from changes in the internal structure of many key participants, and from the democratization of politics, the globalization of economics, and the instantaneousness of communications."

The United States must therefore take a number of steps to prepare better for the new tasks before it. The measures include making changes at the NSC and the State and Justice Departments, rethinking how army dollars are spent, and designing a structure to leverage the skills other states bring to problem.

Unless such measures are taken and serious attention is given to the shortcomings in America's approach to international security, the country will eventually bog down, both diplomatically and militarily, in Afghanistan, Iraq, and other unexpected places. It is therefore past time to acknowledge what many of today's majors and lieutenant colonels already know: that failing to provide proper postconflict security overseas, even if this involves something like nation building, will only hurt the very people who are supposed to benefit from limiting the role of the U.S. military -- namely, American forces on the ground. These men and women endanger their lives in the service of national policy. When that policy is flawed, however -- as it is now -- Washington reduces the likelihood that these individuals will ever successfully complete the missions that have been assigned to them.


1 Presidential Decision Directives 25, 56, and 71 attempted to lay the foundation for how Washington might better address inter- and intrastate conflict.

2 Countries in the first category include Albania, Bolivia, Bosnia, Colombia, Croatia, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Kosovo, Lebanon, Macedonia, Namibia, Nigeria, the Palestinian territories (temporarily suspended), Rwanda, South Africa, and the former Soviet republics.

3 Europe already has 3,000 police deployed in the Balkans, Guatemala, and East Timor, so the new force will represent a personnel increase of only 2,000.

4 Whether the EU's efforts will ever become more than a planning exercise, however, remains an open question. NATO's secretary-general, Lord Robertson, recently excoriated member states for failing to provide the necessary funds to support the RRF, thereby decreasing the likelihood that it would ever materialize.

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  • Rachel Bronson is Olin Senior Fellow and Director of Middle East Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.
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