FPI Analysis: The Stability Operations Era

November 18, 2015

Douglas Blaufarb, a Kennedy-era intelligence officer, coined the term “The Counterinsurgency Era” to describe the period beginning in 1961 with John F. Kennedy’s inauguration. Vowing to reverse Eisenhower’s policy of containing Communism through nuclear deterrence, Kennedy called for “forces of an entirely different kind to keep the peace against limited aggression, and to fight it, if deterrence fails, without raising the conflict to a disastrous pitch.” Within months of entering the White House, Kennedy multiplied the Army Special Forces and compelled the Navy and Air Force to create new special operations forces. He pressured the Army and Marine Corps to acquire counterinsurgency capabilities.

The history of the counterinsurgency era holds important lessons for today. We are now fifteen years into one might describe as the “stability operations era,” in which American forces have fought wars in Iraq and Afghanistan reminiscent of the lengthy conflict in Vietnam. As in the mid-1970s, Americans have tired of a slow and confusing form of warfare that is not amenable to decisive victories. Disenchantment with stability operations has led to both to a serious underestimation of what American forces achieved on the battlefield, as well as wishful thinking about the possibility of avoiding such conflicts in the future.

The counterinsurgency era reached its apogee in the jungles and mountains of Vietnam. As several historians have maintained, counterinsurgency achieved a number of noteworthy successes in Vietnam, such that the Viet Cong insurgency was largely moribund in the final years of the war. Saigon fell in 1975 to a conventional North Vietnamese Army of more than half a million men, not to guerrillas or village political organizers. Nevertheless, much of the American public, and much of the American political and military leadership, came away from Vietnam concluding that the rise of counterinsurgency accounted for the tragic outcome of the Vietnam War. Political leaders rejected the use of counterinsurgency as an instrument of American policy, and the Army banished counterinsurgency from its training and education.

The stability operations era was born in the debris of the 9/11 attacks and operationalized with the occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq. The United States maintained large numbers of troops in both of those coutnries, while in other countries it sought to bolster struggling governments to forestall the need for large-scale American intervention. . The stability operations era has differed from the counterinsurgency era in that it came as a surprise for a reluctant President, who had come to office promising to avoid getting bogged down in “nation building.” Whereas President Kennedy already had firm ideas on counterinsurgency strategy and tactics, President George W. Bush had to improvise as events swept his administration along.

Nevertheless, the two eras resemble each other in significant respects, some of which should be of especial concern for policymakers. American stability operations in Afghanistan and Iraq have been difficult and costly. Much of Iraq fell into the hands of ISIS in 2014, and much of Afghanistan has been falling into the hands of the Taliban in 2015.

An aversion to either counterinsurgency or stability operations is not hard to understand. Certainly the results of the interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq have been less positive than advocates of those wars predicted. The Bush administration, in the cases of Afghanistan and Iraq, and the Obama administration, in the cases of Libya and Yemen, erred in believing that regime change and rapid democratization would lead promptly to stability.

But the skeptics get it wrong in several respects. First, they focus inordinately on the beginning and the end of the conflicts they describe as futile, which leaves out the crucial particularities of the middle. Even among the expert community, a relatively small number of analysts concern themselves with the details of day-to-day stability operations, which are essential to understanding the big picture. Oftentimes, stability operations have achieved their near-term objectives, only to be thwarted by external factors.

The second problem with the critiques of stability operations is a lack of attention to strategic context. When President Obama decided to ramp up stability operations in Afghanistan in 2009, he gravely undermined those operations by signaling a plan to withdraw American troops. The signal conjured up fears that the United States would abandon the region, which caused Pakistan to increase its support to the Taliban and other insurgent groups that would help Pakistan in the long term. In Afghanistan, it led to belief in an inevitable Taliban victory, which discouraged support for the Kabul government. Although the short “surge” yielded gains in southern Afghanistan, the administration undercut that progress by cancelling General Petraeus’s counterinsurgency campaign for eastern Afghanistan and withdrawing American forces more rapidly than military advisers recommended.

Third, there is a tendency to extrapolate too readily from one or two examples. History offers a multitude of events that fit into the category of stability operations, from the North African campaigns of Belisarius, to the Boer Wars, to the Reconstruction of the American South after the Civil War, not to mention better-known examples from the twentieth century like the Huk Rebellion and Malayan Emergency. Even within the twenty-first century, we have key examples that are often absent from the public debate, such as Colombia’s conflict with the FARC and the French intervention in Mali. Analysis of these events reveal that the outcome of Western-led stability operations is far from uniform, with the results ranging from complete strategic success to complete strategic failure.

The question that most in need of addressing is the question of why stability operations succeed in some instances and fail in others. One of the lessons of almost every one of these conflicts is that developing competent and committed local forces is often a linchpin of sustainable success.

The commitment of tens of thousands of Western ground forces to stability operations is a drastic solution that should be avoided if possible, but sometimes it is the only means of attaining U.S. objectives. In 2009, President Obama determined it to be the only viable option in the case of Afghanistan. Then in 2012, he declared that the era of large-scale U.S. troop commitments to stability operations had ended, simultaneously announcing the downsizing of the Army and Marine Corps. Just two years later, the rise of ISIS demonstrated that the U.S. military still had a role to play in stabilizing foreign partners. Therefore, Obama has sent more than 3500 U.S. troops back to Iraq and more recently decided to keep troops in Afghanistan beyond the end of his presidency. Tens of thousands of contractors are supplementing those commitments in important ways, largely outside the view of the American public.

Current commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan are smaller than in the past, but their ineffectiveness is pushing the United States towards larger ones. The deterioration of global stability on President Obama’s watch gives America’s enemies opportunities to undertake actions elsewhere that could compel the United States to insert its ground forces into the breach. It may not be long before extremists based in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, or Syria gain enough strength to strike America and its allies with major terrorist attacks, possibly involving weapons of mass destruction. Countries that no longer have either a national government or a Western military presence—Libya and Yemen—may offer even more auspicious terrorist staging grounds. The recent massacre in Paris has demonstrated again that the crisis in the Muslim world cannot be contained in the Muslim world.

Given the amount of instability in the world, American involvement in stability operations is most unlikely to decline any time soon. Instead, one should expect an increase; the real question is how large the increase will be. Rhetoric to the contrary notwithstanding, this administration has been willing to make significant commitments to stability operations, even if its execution of those operations has often been poor. The next administration might well decide to invest considerably more. Or it might attempt to invest considerably less. Frustration resulting from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has generated a strong preference for “light footprints.” The next President might wish to declare the stability operations era to be over. But he or she is likely to find, as President Obama has found, that the President of the world’s most powerful nation cannot afford to turn its back on areas of instability.


In January, Cambridge University Press will publish Dr. Moyar’s book, Aid for Elites: Building Partner Nations and Ending Poverty through Human Capital.

Note: This analysis was adapted from a keynote address delivered at the 10th Annual Summit of the International Stability Operations Association on October 28, 2015.

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