U.S. Military in Post-Conflict Reconstruction & Stabilization

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In the last thirty years, the international community has witnessed an exponential rise in conflict with non-state actors against militias and terrorist organizations. This has consequently induced the diaspora of refugees across vast continents, the dislocation of millions of internally displaced people (IDPs) within war zones, the massacre and slavery of civilians, and the unprecedented emergence of epidemics instigated by targeted destruction of humanitarian efforts. The aftermath of conflict presents a window of opportunity for stabilization operations, contingent upon the adaptability of involved humanitarian actors to the degree of security in unpredictable environments.

Without assistance or intervention, countries can collapse into failed states or relapse into conflict, which can exacerbate the magnitude of security and humanitarian fallout in the region. Such disastrous occurrences have not hampered the international response, as the World Bank reported an exponential increase in aid received since 1960.

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National and international organizations, religious institutions, and private actors have not been indifferent to the suffering caused by extensive conflict — both inter-and intrastate. Their desire for humanitarian intervention is undermined by the threats they face under violent conditions where they often become targets of the various combatants involved.

In effect, attempting to deliver humanitarian assistance in various post-conflict environments often confront humanitarian actors with security challenges that threaten the continuity and stability of their operations. Unsurprisingly, as a short-term fix, stakeholders have lobbied for state or international authorities to provide some measure of stability through military intervention meant to serve as an instrument of transition from conflict suppression to security stabilization and, finally, to post-conflict reconstruction — the foundational components that define nation-building.

Military to the Rescue?

Has the approach to pacifying and reconstructing war zones been effective or justified the expectations of humanitarian aid organizations? The answers to this question are diverse, partial, and contingent. Despite the high cost of conflict and the humanitarian impulse to alleviate human suffering, militaries are generally cautious in humanitarian affairs because of their primary function as protectors in warfare. However, institutional, operational, and logistical capabilities have expanded their breadth of abilities in establishing a secure environment.

One can compose a laundry list of factors that may restrict a military’s humanitarian involvement, but they can be summarized as limitations stemming from a paucity of political, institutional, and ultimately operational control over mission planning, logistics, and implementation — whether the source of disagreement of the mandate is rooted in their own states or supervising international authorities.

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Indeed, whether related to humanitarian intervention or not, both states and international organizations may or may not calculate their interests carefully when asked to engage in war. Both are as likely to cooperate with other states in avoiding a particular mission as to participate in it since the risks are high for domestic political leaders as well as international bodies whose credibility diminishes with each institution-sponsored misstep. Like their militaries, states are also hesitant to place sovereign militaries under U.N. authority, especially given its history of peacekeeping limitations.

However, countries still look to the U.N. to solve their problems. Understandably, when the economic, political, and national security interests of a state do not align with justifications for assistance and intervention, militaries may have legitimate concerns about involvement. However, one might expect an increase in participation when these concerns are addressed. In the search to remedy state and international lapses of action in a crisis, some advocate privatizing military functions with private military companies (PMCs). However, this solution has not proven a viable option due to PMCs’ history of criminal activities, unethical behavior, limited transparency, minimal accountability, and access to sensitive operational information.

How about the U.S. military?

The limits and possibilities of U.S. military efforts in post-conflict reconstruction are substantially contingent upon the individual actors and stakeholders directly involved at each operational level, the gravity of security concerns and unpredictability interconnected with any causal elements (e.g., economic, political, ethnic, religious, among others), the underlying reason for American intervention, as well as autonomy and expectations superimposed by the host government.

The deficiencies uncovered the audits conducted by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) and the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction (SIGIR) solidified the limitations contingent upon the balance of long-term development and security stabilization. Military efforts in Iraq focused on reconstructing a semi-operational government system, whereas Afghanistan led to the rise of extensive and unprecedented development and infrastructure projects through American influence.

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Furthermore, investigations conducted by SIGAR and SIGIR discovered various shortcomings. First, compliance with standards and regulations is essential for the health and safety of all actors, but the inevitable nature of mismanagement can drastically harm the outcome of projects. Secondly, the muddled monitoring and evaluation processes impair accurate reporting of the efficiency and effectiveness of post-conflict reconstruction. Reliable data is needed in order to maximize efforts and reallocate funds accordingly.

Finally, the imbalance between security and long-term development directly impacts infrastructure and health — directly contingent upon each other. As a result of the limitations revealed, the impact of future possibilities of post-conflict reconstruction by the U.S. military depends on improvements in monitoring and evaluation, overcoming non-compliance and mismanagement, as well as focusing on sustainable localization and contextualization.

The Future of Post-Conflict Reconstruction?

The nature of post-conflict reconstruction is heavily contingent upon the inimitable realities of the socio-economic, political, organizational, humanitarian, ethnic, religious, and security implications of the evaluated country or region; hence, it is both incongruous and unrealistic to provide tangible and standardized solutions to unknown future efforts. The co-dependency of security stabilization and long-lasting post-conflict reconstruction is evident in Iraq and Afghanistan. Proper risk evaluation and mitigation are needed to ensure the appropriate level and type of security response, including physical, psychological, and cybersecurity.

As seen with insurgents, terrorist organizations, and other combatants, if a country-wide security stabilization is not achieved, it is possible for subnational jurisdictions to relapse from post-conflict reconstruction and once again require emergency humanitarian intervention. Even more so, security is a necessary pre-context for the successful establishment of essential public health, educational and infrastructure services. This cycle of relapse will continue until total security stabilization is reached or if unforeseen external factors, such as environmental disasters, are in play.

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As a result, the lack of security leads to extensive damages in project infrastructure, disrupts supply chains, burdens the fragile healthcare system. It exacerbates economic, ethnic, and religious divides. Consequently, it multiplies the cost of a security force, increases the number of lives lost, and widens the gap of socio-economic disparity. It leads to the overall weakening of political, economic, and diplomatic competitiveness in the region.

Therefore, the U.S. military needs to find a balance between security stabilization operations and reconstruction objectives to maximize the efficiency and efficacy of future post-conflict reconstruction, whether achieved through the reform of internal structures or the concretization of congruent USAID and military response through a unified policy approach.

Edited Excerpt From: Santos Neto, Alcir Florentino dos (2021) “Limits and Possibilities of the United States Military in Post-Conflict Reconstruction and Stabilization,” Liberty University Journal of Statesmanship & Public Policy: Vol. 1: Iss. 2, Article 5. Available at: https://digitalcommons.liberty.edu/jspp/vol1/iss2/5

About the Author

Alcir Santos Neto is the author of the book “Rebooting Global Health: Changing How We Approach Health Technology.” A former U.S. Army Medic, he holds a master’s degree in International Relations and has multisector experience working as a consultant and researcher. His ultimate goal? Impact global health and international relations by empowering people around the world to be a positive force of change.

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