An expert's point of view on a current event.

What the Pentagon Can Learn From Carpenters

Ending a war is difficult, but harder still is the work of building peace. And soldiers shouldn't be doing it.


For more than two years, the African Union Mission to Somalia (AMISOM) has tried to carve out modicums of peace and stability that might lead the country out of the violence that has shredded it for more than two decades. AMISOM has sought to protect civilians from IEDs laid by al-Shabab, the militant Islamist group, and its sympathizers, and to improve essential public services such as water, education, roads, bridges, and other infrastructure. AMISOM hopes to “provide an enabling environment” for the United Nations, civilian organizations, and commercial enterprises to come in and finish the work of building peace.

The idea behind the mission has been to address why the enemy exists rather than who it is, Lt. Col. Paddy Ankunda, a Ugandan officer who commanded forces in Somalia, told me after his presentation in late November at the Swedish Armed Forces International Academy on AMISOM’s civil-military programs. But while AMISOM has made major gains, there’s only so much its military forces can do.

The question that Ankunda, along with many others, is asking now is: What next? It’s a question that has perplexed armies, governments, and international organizations around the world in many post-conflict situations and security crises. (The collapse of Iraq and the unsteady future looming in Afghanistan are testaments to the unsatisfactory answers the United States found to it.) It is the essential question in determining whether the blood and treasure spent to bring about peace were worth it. In its “Decade of War” study, the Department of Defense (DOD) identified the American experience in this predicament as a “failure to adequately plan and resource strategic and operational transitions,” characterized by expectations inconsistent with the reality of civilian partners or with host nation capabilities; poor training; a lack of unity of effort; and, of course, the failure to understand the operational environment.

That transitions have been so persistently problematic speaks to a systemic failure in Washington and elsewhere to take peace as seriously as war — in programs, budgets, and authorities as much as in policy statements. Diplomacy and development agencies continue, for instance, to be dumping grounds for political hirelings.

In Somalia, there is the typical problem of not having nearly enough civilians to take over development and conflict transformation from AMISOM. The U.N. Assistance Mission in Somalia (UNSOM), the parallel political effort to AMISOM’s peacekeeping mission, has a staff of less than 100 civilians, barely the size of one of AMISOM’s scores of infantry companies. Despite the U.N. organization’s ambitious mandate to help the country’s first national government in 20 years with “peace, security, and nation-building,” culminating in elections in 2016, the civilian capacity of the U.N. to grab the baton from AMISOM is woefully insufficient. The danger, as in most post-conflict situations, is that “if the international community doesn’t get there in a big way soon and relieve AMISOM of work it cannot sustain indefinitely, the situation in Somalia could all slide back into what we had just a short time ago,” says Ankunda.

Nodding to training given mainly by U.S. military advisors, Ankunda admits, “We’ve learned very well from the Americans about how to win hearts and minds, but we know little about how to transition those gains over to civilian partners.” This same shortfall was identified in last year’s DOD Inspector General report on Africa Command (AFRICOM) security assistance programs. Picking up on this, Nick Turse, editor of the Nation Institute-funded blog Tom Dispatch, noted that a significant number of these programs around Africa “take the form of a textbook hearts-and-minds campaign that harkens back to failed U.S. efforts in Southeast Asia during the 1960s and 1970s and more recently in the Greater Middle East.”

Transition management is not only the most difficult of tasks in engendering peace and security, it has been habitually and universally the least understood and appreciated, eliciting little institutional investment in brains, brawn, or bucks. Even the classic examples of military government in Germany and Japan after World War II no longer offer suitable templates; today’s situations do not involve the occupied territories of defeated nations, and they entail far greater levels of complexity and ambiguity. Security is now as much a matter of people as it is of states.

Before I joined the Army, I worked with my father as a carpenter’s understudy, and one thing I learned was that it wasn’t the framing and shaping work of posts, beams, and rafters that was the most difficult or time-consuming task. It was the finishing work — joinery, windows, doors, walls, and trim — that ultimately decided how good a job you had done. As a civil affairs officer in the Balkans peacekeeping operations of the 1990s, in which the Army reluctantly participated, I saw how the post-conflict finishing work of nation-building was likewise painstaking; it was a generational enterprise, and ultimately the job of civilians.

Then came Iraq, where I witnessed the failure to factor in the finishing work of political and economic development as part of a regime-change operation. This contributed mightily to the eventual collapse of an entire national political framework to a well-organized and resourced jihadist movement. On the other side of that now ill-defined area, in what many are calling the most complicated conflict of the Middle East in over a century, a platoon-sized contingent of foreign service, humanitarian assistance, and development professionals, known as the Syria Transition Assistance Response Team, is struggling to coordinate the critical civilian responses to two simultaneous conflicts that defy easy answers. Washington, meanwhile, has continued to pour billions into the military response, despite there being no clear military solution. In the fall, in a signal of this relevant and troubling contrast in investment, the World Food Program had to suspend aid to 1.7 million Syrian refugees because of a “funding crisis” of a mere $34 million — a laughable amount to a Pentagon planner.

(As further proof that transition management is an inescapable struggle in conflict transformation, the Islamic State, in an ironic twist, has been encountering its own failures in instituting its extreme form of religious governance partly as a result of overinvestment in military versus civilian capabilities. In many areas it has occupied, essential public services and economic activity are collapsing spectacularly — suggesting that the Islamic State’s nearly one-year campaign may be reaching its own culminating point, to apply a Clausewitzian term.)

Fortunately, in the United States, there have been signs of a learning curve on two fronts. The first is development, which, both because and in spite of far heavier congressional scrutiny than defense spending receives, has made significant strides in effectiveness. At the U.S. Global Leadership Coalition (USGLC) annual tribute dinner earlier this month, outgoing U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) Administrator Rajiv Shah noted that “in the last five years, we have rebuilt our scientific partnerships, mobilized our global partners at the Camp David G8 Summit, leveraged more than $10 billion from 200 companies, largely ended the practice of monetization around the world, and achieved the most significant reforms in food aid in 60 years.”

The other front is civil-military interaction. As a bookend to Somalia, on the other side of Africa, Operation United Assistance Joint Force, including elements of the 101st Airborne Division, is supporting USAID and other personnel in Liberia with logistics, building Ebola treatment units and training health workers, and helping plot out and map infections across the country, boosting local technical capacity. The Navy, in turn, has set up a rapid testing lab to enable medical workers to separate Ebola patients from those with other ailments, helping to free up many beds in treatment units and reduce the disease’s spread.

“What’s important is that the military has not replaced any pre-existing structures or created any new structures that will be needed long-term,” Global Communities Liberia Country Director Piet deVries told me. “They have provided the surge capacity to manage the overwhelming volume of Ebola infections, but as the case load is reduced, demand for their services goes down with it.” Besides, the real reduction is coming from the community engagement of humanitarians — and the rate of infections has fallen by as much as 70 percent according to Global Communities’ numbers.

“This critical, rapid response complemented by a long-term preventative environmental health approach are activities to which military actors are not well suited — nor have they been involved in this work to date,” deVries added. “If anything, Liberia is an excellent case study in how the military can lend their specialist skills and assistance appropriately, without leaving behind a vacuum when they leave.” This more correct civil-military alignment has enabled the Pentagon to scale back its force there by one-third to just over 2,000 troops.

Still, the answer to the now-famed question a previous 101st commander posed in Iraq — “tell me how this ends” — awaits determination. As in Somalia and other places, the trick in Liberia is in the transition — how well you “civilianize” and “localize” the response effort. A serious health care system must be built, and the economic damage resulting from Ebola, which could undo a decade-long effort to stabilize the country, must be dealt with. None of that is the work of soldiers.

Unfortunately, the mindset and skill sets required for transition management aren’t sufficiently institutionalized, in people in and out of uniform. Despite the relative success of the Ebola response, the United States is still all but kneecapping its national capabilities to end and prevent wars and other security crises. Army Civil Affairs and USAID’s Office of Transition Initiatives, the nation’s premier transition managers, still make up less than one-half of one percent of America’s ability to direct war and peace. Nearly half of the Army’s active-duty Civil Affairs stand to be cut; perhaps a third of the 85 percent remaining in the Army Reserves, whose training budget has already gone down by half, are similarly on the funding chopping block.

Meanwhile, as the new Congress assumes office in January, it is already planning its eighth investigation of the Benghazi incident rather than looking into the obvious. “The big mistake in Libya policy, the consequences of which are more apparent today than ever,” pointed out the Washington Post, “was President Obama’s refusal to support the new government’s attempt to build security after he helped topple the nation’s longtime dictator.” Now the country, bereft of any serious effort at political and economic development after regime takedown, is becoming another training ground for the Islamic State.

As I have argued before, the United States must plan, organize, and most of all resource for peace as seriously as it does for war. As Ankunda’s colleagues and their American advisors are learning the hard way on the ground, those directing or resourcing their efforts from safe and faraway places must likewise appreciate the relationship between finishers and framers. Making good on the costs of doing both, in the interest of peace and security, requires people and institutions as adept in working lathes as handling hammers.

Mohamed Abdiwahab/AFP/Getty Images

Christopher Holshek, a retired U.S. Army civil affairs colonel, is a senior fellow at the Alliance for Peacebuilding and author of Travels with Harley: Journeys in Search of Personal and National Identity.