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What comes after we retake Mosul?: The case for using ‘Tactical Economics’

When the U.S-backed Iraq military clears Mosul of Islamic State insurgents, let’s get the post-conflict part right this time.



By Maj. Jonathan Bate, U.S. Army

Best Defense guest columnist


By Maj. Jonathan Bate, U.S. Army
Best Defense guest columnist

Iraqi forces recently began an offensive to retake the city of Mosul, the Islamic State’s de facto capital in Iraq. The real challenge is what comes afterward. With over one million refugees and a city leveled by war, this is fertile ground for criminal and insurgent activity. As Iraqi military units prepare to stabilize and rebuild Mosul in the aftermath of major combat operations, a small contingent of U.S. advisors will be advising them throughout the process. The question is: How do we get it right this time around?

Since the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, the U.S. military has discovered it could not spend its way to stability in volatile regions. There are no simple Marshall Plans for these places. Humanitarian aid and reconstruction projects have proven not only more costly than estimated, but also ineffective. We’ve spent over $60 billion in Iraq and $114 billion in Afghanistan, yet both countries remain fragile and have massive security vacuums. Our own auditor, the Special Investigator General for Iraq Reconstruction (SIGIR), has found that over $8 billion in reconstruction funds were simply wasted. Given large federal budget deficits and growing national debt, the U.S. can no longer write blank checks to fund overseas stabilization efforts.

Instead, “tactical economics” can provide a new way for the U.S. military to think about employing our economic resources to address ground-level instability during military operations. It is a shift away from large-scale and expensive reconstruction efforts and differs from programs that focus on the “macro” economy, which are extremely complex, have long timeframes for measurement, and ultimately fall within the realm of better-equipped agencies such as the State Department and USAID. Conversely, tactical economics focuses on achieving specific tactical effects — particularly violence reduction — as measured by data the military routinely records.

The unprecedented innovations in the distribution of development funds over the past fifteen years of war have provided the building blocks for tactical economics. Most notably, the Commander’s Emergency Response Program placed money directly into the hands of tactical commanders to meet urgent, humanitarian needs. Under this program, U.S. forces spent over $4.12 billion in Iraq and $3.68 billion in Afghanistan on projects such as wells, hospitals, schools, and small business grants. But the program’s results were often mixed, and we know little about its impact on the ground. Why? Because we didn’t do enough data collection or empirical evaluation.

The U.S. military is in principle all about metrics and assessments. Here at West Point, we have binders full of metrics on every cadet, from their physical training prowess to their math scores. Yet strangely in Iraq and Afghanistan we lack basic feedback mechanisms to determine whether our spending has the desired effect on the ground.

As an evidence-based approach to stability and reconstruction operations, tactical economics seeks to measure the impact of economic programs, in a manner similar to the “impact evaluations” that the international development community began employing over the past decade. If a program is not producing results, rapid assessment of the data can allow the resources to be conserved so military units can try a different approach.

In a recent report for the Modern War Institute at West Point, I analyzed the U.S. Army’s current tactical economic capabilities. My findings were not encouraging. I found that the Army’s current doctrine guiding the use of economic programs is too vague and conflicts with current economics research. Recent studies have shown that large infrastructure and economic development projects can actually fuel violence, as insurgents attempt to discredit the government’s efforts. Conversely, smaller, low-profile grants and projects that directly meet community needs were empirically shown to reduce the level of violence in Iraq in 2007-2008. Moreover, efforts to reduce unemployment among young men are largely not cost-effective, as the relationship between employment and violence reduction is unclear.

The Army needs to address its lack of expertise in economics by updating its professional education programs and increasing opportunities for its leaders to attend civilian education. Through executive education and graduate programs, military leaders can gain exposure to cutting-edge research and learn best practices in conducting economic interventions. Additionally, the Army should build stronger relationships within the empirical social science research community because both parties desire to better understand the causes of and solutions to conflict. The U.S. military has access to violent regions and economic resources, while researchers possess the expertise needed to analyze economic data and produce insightful research that can inform military operations.

To be sure, previous efforts to “embed” anthropologists in U.S. units – the so-called “human terrain system” met with mixed results. But development is an area where there is more alignment between warrior and researcher and less cultural baggage (social scientists or development economists are not harmed professionally for working with the U.S. military, unlike their anthropologist colleagues).

As the U.S. military continues to prepare for and conduct stability operations in volatile regions throughout the globe, it has an opportunity to apply economic resources to directly address the sources of instability that often fuel the growth of violent extremism. However, doing so requires careful targeting, design, implementation, and evaluation. By providing a highly adaptable, evidence-based approach, tactical economics can enable the U.S. military to achieve stability more quickly at a lower financial cost.

When the U.S-backed Iraq military clears Mosul of Islamic State insurgents, let’s get the post-conflict part right this time.

Jonathan Bate is an active duty Army major, an economics instructor in the department of social sciences at West Point, and a scholar with the Modern War Institute. From 2007-2013, he held numerous positions in the 101st Airborne Division ranging from rifle platoon leader to Pathfinder company commander. He deployed to Afghanistan three times in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. The views expressed herein are those of the author and do not reflect the position of the United States Military Academy, the Department of the Army, or the Department of Defense.

Image credit: Wikimedia commons

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at Twitter: @tomricks1

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