The U.S. Defense Department issued a policy late last month giving post-conflict nation-building activities nearly the same priority as combat operations. The document is designed to change the priorities of the military to ensure that its leaders pay attention to what happens after they win a war, in order to avoid the kind of prolonged problems that have plagued Afghanistan and Iraq.
It is known as Department of Defense Directive 3,000.05. And it says, in part, that "Stability operations are a core U.S. military mission that the Department of Defense shall be prepared to conduct and support. They shall be given priority comparable to combat operations and be explicitly addressed and integrated across all [department] activities."
Retired U.S. Army Lieutenant Colonel Douglas Johnson says the directive is causing what he calls "doctrinal ferment," a fundamental change in the way military officers have to think.
"Doctrinal ferment is always a good thing. It means that ideas are in flux," he said.
Mr. Johnson, who teaches and does research at the army's Strategic Studies Institute, says in the past the aftermath of a military assault might have gotten relatively little attention from military planners. He says that won't be allowed to happen anymore.
"If there, quote, 'wasn't time,' unquote, to look seriously at stability and reconstruction in the past, time will now be made available to give that full consideration," he added.
Still, Mr. Johnson says even though the directive describes stability operations as a 'core' mission and gives them 'comparable' importance to combat operations, they will inevitably at least take second place.
"The first thing you've got to do is win the fight," he continued. "And so when you start prioritizing resources, stability and reconstruction are not going to be first. They're going to have to be at least second."
The Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Stability Operations, Jeffrey Nadaner has a somewhat different view. He says stability operations could be launched before a conflict, possibly to avoid one. And he says the more the military applies its combat planning skills to stability operations, the better off it will be.
"One of the reasons why the United States is so good at major combat operations is that there's a discipline of planning, exercising, then you gather your lessons learned and you revise your plans," he said. "We want to see the same discipline applied systematically to stability operations."
Mr. Nadaner says the impetus for increased efforts on stability operations, by both the Departments of Defense and State, started well before the new directive was issued. He says the impetus was the attacks of September 11, 2001. He says the attacks exposed the dangers of allowing large ungoverned areas to develop anywhere in the world where terrorists can operate, and very quickly led to the need for post-conflict stability operations in Afghanistan. But Mr. Nadaner says much of the new capability that the directive and related funding will generate will be ready too late to help much in Afghanistan or Iraq.
"These missions have been very difficult," he said. "We think that if we can systematize and institutionalize how we prepare for these missions, those kinds of missions will go a lot better in the future."
But he says what's important is that there is no longer any debate in the U.S. government about the importance of stability operations.
"Throughout the 1990s there were a lot of debates on whether the U.S. should undertake particular stability operations," added Mr. Nadaner. "A common assumption was that these missions were, in a sense, optional. I would say after 9/11 there was a category of stability operations that were not considered optional. And [there is] a lot of agreement on that."
The new directive says post-combat rebuilding efforts should be mainly civilian operations, and civilians from the specific country involved whenever possible. And Mr. Nadaner says the State Department is working to develop a corps of people with the right skills, ready to deploy worldwide.
"Future stability operations may not look like Iraq," he said. "They'll come in forms we haven't seen yet. But we think there's a baseline set of capabilities that we'd like to have ready to deploy in these sorts of missions."
He says other U.S. government agencies should also be involved, as well as aid groups, private companies and the international community.
"We think that stability operations have a very strong international flavor. You're almost always going to do this with somebody, usually many somebodies. And that's why we're intensely interested in ensuring that there's an increase in international capabilities. That's critical," Mr. Nadaner said.
But the new policy notes that initially the work of restoring order and public services, and rebuilding damaged facilities, will likely fall on the military. For the retired lieutenant colonel, Douglas Johnson, the directive on stability operations puts a new emphasis on something the U.S. military has been doing for a long time, because it had to, even though it was not specifically designed to do so.
"There isn't anybody who has the resources to do at least the initial stages of establishing security and trying to bring civil society back to some kind of a footing. Do [military] people like to do this? Well, that's almost not the question. Can they get used to doing it, again? And the answer is 'yes.' If you tell us to do it, we do it," he said.
In fact, in recent decades the U.S. military has developed many skills that help in nation-building, including civil engineering capability, a variety of medical skills and even officers who can advise foreign civilian officials on how to re-establish their authority and manage reconstruction programs. Now, those efforts will be re-doubled and given a higher priority and more funding, in the hope that they will lead to shorter deployments for U.S. troops, faster recoveries for war-torn societies, and fewer havens for terrorists in unstable or dysfunctional states.