The American Interest
Policy, Politics & Culture
Root’s Rules

Current concern over post-conflict stabilization and reconstruction policies has an instructive history.

Published on January 1, 2007

For reasons as painful as they are obvious, the Bush Administration has devoted considerable attention in recent years to improving America’s ability to stabilize and rebuild states during and after war. These efforts include: the creation in 2004 of a State Department Office of Reconstruction and Stabilization; the Defense Department’s adoption in November 2005 of a new doctrine (3000.05) giving stability operations comparable priority to combat operations; a December 2005 Presidential Directive acknowledging that the complex problems of rebuilding states such as Iraq and Afghanistan cannot be solved by the U.S. military alone; and the introduction last February of the concept of the “Long War”—a strategic and psychological recognition that the United States will be engaged in a protracted conflict against radical Islamists in which combat will represent only a fraction of the U.S. effort. Moreover, in March the White House supported Congress’ decision to create an Iraq Study Group led by former Secretary of State James Baker III and former Congressman Lee Hamilton. That group, which includes distinguished Americans such as retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor and former Secretary of Defense William Perry, took as its mission not only to determine whether and how the United States can prevail in Iraq, but also how it might avoid the post-combat mistakes made there in future contingencies.

The enormous and unanticipated difficulties the United States has faced in Iraq, as well as mounting troubles in Afghanistan, have ushered in a period of serious reflection on a problem—how to pacify, govern, reconstruct, reform, modernize and even democratize entire societies—that has plagued American military interventions throughout U.S. history. This is clearly not the first time the Washington foreign policy establishment debated how to stabilize and reconstruct states during and following combat. Nor were our experiences with Germany and Japan after World War II the first time we faced such challenges, either. In 1899, at the close of the Spanish-American War, Secretary of War Elihu Root created the Bureau of Insular Affairs (BIA). This bureau was in effect America’s first (and only) colonial office, created to support the Army’s reconstruction and occupation duties in the Philippines, Cuba and Puerto Rico. Its history, as it turns out, is most instructive.

America’s Colonial Office

The U.S. Army War College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, is dominated by the ponderous brick and granite Root Hall, named in tribute to the former secretary of war. Elihu Root was a learned and respected attorney from New York who later became secretary of state, a senator from New York, and then the first president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, where he served for more than a decade. While president of Carnegie, Root was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1912.

As secretary of war, Root introduced the Army’s first serious educational curriculum for officers, as well as other important organizational and personnel reforms. To this day he is much better known and appreciated in military circles for his major reorganization of the Army than for his appreciation of the challenges of stabilization and colonial missions. Yet many of the broader military reforms for which Root became famous in Army circles stemmed from his observations of the Army’s occupation of the Philippines, Cuba and Puerto Rico, where coordination among various Army bureaus was poor and planning suffered from a lack of any central planning organization. The emerging problems in these occupations formed the main impetus behind President William McKinley’s decision to approach Root in 1899 to become secretary of war. Root recounted that when President McKinley offered him the job, he responded that he knew nothing about war and “nothing about the Army.”1 McKinley explained that he was not looking for a military expert, but an attorney to guide the War Department as it tackled the many political challenges of governing the former Spanish territories.

Elihu Root [credit: Bettmann/CORBIS]

From the start of his tenure, Root showed a keen appreciation for the strategic importance of stability and reconstruction tasks. He recognized that he would have to wrestle with the difficulties of occupation duties, so, upon assuming office in 1899, he compiled a list of books covering “both the practice and the principles of many forms of colonial government under the English law.” Root believed that, although the Army had been victorious against Spain, its existing organization would make completing its colonial missions difficult. He therefore developed legal principles and justifications to extend U.S. law to occupied areas, believing that the inhabitants of the islands had a “moral right to be treated by the United States” in accordance with the principles of the U.S. Constitution. He believed, too, that demands related to “questions of government” in the Philippines and Puerto Rico were “constant and imperative” for the War Department, since the United States enjoyed few precedents when it came to the complicated responsibilities associated with overturning old laws and writing new ones, “save the simple and meager proceedings under the occupation of California and New Mexico” after the war of 1848.

Root recognized that the traditions of the American citizen-soldier could inform and shape an ability to conduct varied tasks in the interests of American foreign policy. But that was not enough; individuals needed to be properly organized. Root knew that before the war with Spain the War Department had “no machinery” for accomplishing the thousands of tasks involved with the islands, but that “of necessity such machines have been created in the Department with a chief, an assistant chief and others.” He observed that these machines performed with “admirable and constantly increasingly efficiency the great variety of duties which in other countries would be described as belonging to a colonial office, and would be performed by a much more pretentious establishment.”

Root was referring to the Division of Customs and Insular Affairs, which was created on December 13, 1898. At first, the Division employed only four commissioned officers and 44 civil employees, with Major John Pershing briefly serving as one of its earliest chiefs. Under Root’s direction, the Division formally became the Bureau of Insular Affairs in 1902, under the aegis of the War Department.

Although Root believed that the Bureau would be moved out of the War Department “as soon as practicable” (and he reassured his counterpart, Secretary of State John Hay, on this point), he also maintained that as long as military troops were on the ground, they should be “subject to the same department.” This reaffirmed a recurring theme in virtually all of the stability operations undertaken by the U.S. Army—that unity of command in the theater was highly desirable. Root was sensitive to the bureaucratic inefficiencies and problems that could result in the absence of central control and was wary of “introducing an element of double control, which would be quite intolerable.” He had reason to be wary. The 1900 Foraker Act, which established a civil government in Puerto Rico, also transferred reporting obligations related to that government from the War Department to the Department of State. Subsequent accounts of the transfer refer to the experience as unsatisfactory. Eventually, with the governor of Puerto Rico complaining about the transition, President Taft ordered that the reporting of events related to Puerto Rico should flow to the War Department. A series of legislative acts throughout the early 1900s reaffirmed the War Department’s control over matters related to the civil affairs of the Philippines and Puerto Rico.

Overall, although some key officials appreciated the role of the Bureau of Insular Affairs, there is little evidence that it succeeded in habituating the War Department to planning for future stability and reconstruction tasks. The Bureau’s role in the Department remained relatively limited, focused on the occupations resulting from the Spanish-American War. Even during World War I, the Bureau’s role was not broadened, and there is little to suggest that it was significantly involved in the oversight or planning for the brief U.S. role in the occupation of the Rhineland following World War I. Indeed, one of the only comprehensive reports about that occupation, the so called “Hunt report”, makes no mention of the Bureau of Insular Affairs. Its central theme is that the Army essentially “started from scratch” as it organized and administered the Rhineland. In his subsequent assessment of the occupation, Colonel Irwin L. Hunt observed that it was “extremely unfortunate that the qualifications necessary for civil administration [were] not developed in times of peace” and that, despite the Army’s earlier experiences, lessons of governance “seemingly have not been learned.”

And so it went. Following the Army’s occupation experiences in the Rhineland (which ended in 1921), almost two decades passed before it developed any doctrinal guidance specific to stability and reconstruction tasks. Worse, a series of events led to the eventual disbanding of the only institutionalized entity in the War Department that dealt with occupation matters.

As part of a broader initiative to reorganize key Executive Branch departments, in 1926 Congress established a Joint Commission on Insular Reorganization to “make a careful study” of the various executive agencies of the government “engaged in the administration, supervision and reaction of matters pertaining to the insular possessions of [the] United States.” The specific goal was to determine whether one government agency should handle issues related to various territorial possessions of the United States. A debate ensued over whether the War Department should retain the Bureau of Insular Affairs or whether it should be transferred to the Department of the Interior, which had oversight over other U.S. territorial possessions such as Hawaii and the Virgin Islands. The War Department’s argument, articulated in various exchanges with key Senate committees, was that it should retain control over the civil affairs of the Philippines and Puerto Rico.

American soldiers in Manila, 1898 [credit: Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS]

War Department officials offered three main arguments against the transfer of the Bureau, which we may call Root’s Rules. First, officials such as Secretary of War John Weeks and his successor, Dwight Davis, argued that there was a critical link between security and the administration of the Philippines. They believed that security was a prerequisite to political and economic progress. Officials pointed out that the War Department was the only agency capable of restoring order on the ground in the event of “disturbances” and that there had been numerous occasions in the past when, due to “unforeseen contingencies”, it had been “suddenly called upon to exercise civil control in occupied or disturbed areas.”

This argument recognized the importance of establishing and maintaining area security in combat and post-combat periods. During and after war, area security is the challenge of establishing freedom of action in a territory to ensure not only that enemy forces do not attack U.S. troops, but also that people may safely leave their homes and get about the business of daily life. The absence of area security is arguably more damaging than a successful combat operation is helpful, for without area security enemies can establish a foothold and begin a chain of destabilizing events reversing previous military achievements.

Second, War Department officials argued for the necessity of retaining unity of command in a tough, politically complex theater. The Army’s experiences in the Philippines revealed serious tensions between General Arthur MacArthur, military governor of the Philippines, and William Taft, whom President William McKinley subsequently appointed civilian governor. President McKinley believed that, although military commanders should remain supreme while combat was ongoing, civil commissioners could undertake certain governance tasks and eventually take over from the military. This generated serious tensions between Taft and General MacArthur, who was upset at his loss of power to the new civil commission and urged a clearer division of authority. These tensions influenced the War Department’s subsequent arguments. Secretary of War Weeks argued to the Congress that it was not possible to separate civil and military problems; they “interlocked”, and a separation of the issue would “handicap the Department in meetings its responsibilities.” The War Department maintained that there was a direct link between the military and civil activities on the ground there. By the same token, Weeks acknowledged that policy officials would always hesitate before appointing “Army officers to all those places which are civilian in character.”

Third, War Department officials argued that, unlike other agencies of the U.S. government, only the military could avoid “frequent and unnecessary changes in the incumbents” on the ground. Furthermore, the War Department “had available at all times a large and carefully selected personnel, many members of which have had long service in the principal insular possessions and are familiar with the conditions existing there, with the people, the language and the customs.” Officials maintained that those who had accumulated knowledge in a theater could be very helpful in managing the political and social challenges that were part of reconstruction. Moreover, apart from the military, no other government entity could require the deployment of personnel for lengthy periods of time.

Despite these arguments, the War Department eventually lost its battle. Congress finally decided in 1939 to transfer the Bureau to the Interior Department. Thus on the eve of World War II, which ended with four of the U.S. military’s largest occupations ever—Japan, Germany, Italy and Korea—the War Department had essentially no capacity to examine occupation and reconstruction matters strategically, revealing perhaps the persistent reluctance by civil and military leaders to institutionalize efforts in the Department for such occupations.

The Three Challenges, Still

The three challenges articulated in the 1920s by the War Department—area security, unity of command, and stability of personnel—have arisen to bedevil virtually all U.S. stability and reconstruction operations from those during and after World War II, to Vietnam, to Panama in 1989, to the Balkans in the 1990s, to Afghanistan and Iraq today. The failure to effectively resolve and institutionalize responses to these three challenges has created significant tensions in the past, has had serious repercussions in Iraq, and threatens to undermine U.S. effectiveness in future stability and reconstruction operations.


Area Security:

Despite the recurring challenge of establishing and retaining a secure area within a territory, the Army has not approached the problem of area security strategically, nor has it really settled on an operational means for achieving it. Area security has never been a central mission or requirement in the Army’s traditional approach to war. In the past, the Army saw the problem as a tactical one: Area security meant preventing enemy forces from threatening U.S. military units or command centers. It has generally not involved consideration of the broader requirements, and advantages, of stabilizing a wider swath of territory.

Time and again, the Army has responded to the requirement for area security in a war zone with ad hoc approaches. During and after the American Civil War, with bands of troops and refugees wandering the countryside, crime was a recurring problem. In response, the war governors—those appointed by President Lincoln throughout the South—gradually replaced civilian police forces in cities with newly created provost marshals. The new Provost Marshal General and his staff were responsible, among other things, for maintaining security in towns and cities with specially created cavalry and infantry detachments, sometimes augmented by Union military troops. In World War I the Army created its first formal military police (MP) units to address security problems as major combat ended. But there were never enough MP units to address the problems on their own, and they were disbanded after the war (only to be re-created in World War II). Various historical reports from World War II reveal a consistent need to address security problems. Fairly common observations included: “Number one on the agenda for [the military government] during the critical early stages of the campaign was the security problem”; or “all resources . . . were harnessed to control civilian movement and to enforce other security measures.” Another report noted that area security was necessary to “imbue” the population with “confidence in the strength of Allied arms.” By 1959, despite these many various earlier experiences, one Army officer observed, “rear area damage control had never been thoroughly considered by commanders nor has adequate doctrine been published.”

A disturbing example of the Army’s reluctance to integrate the area security problem fully into its strategic and operational planning was the failure by U.S. troops to halt massive looting after the 1989 invasion of Panama—events that foreshadowed the situation in Baghdad in April 2003. Unsure of their role in stopping the emerging disorder, U.S. troops watched as looting resulted in serious damage to the Panamanian economy, reportedly costing the country some $1 billion. The deficiencies that led to the problem were never seriously examined, and never fixed.


Unity of Command: The challenge of developing politically acceptable and operationally effective command relationships in reconstruction and stability operations also persisted through most of the Army’s stability and reconstruction operations from World War II to the present. It remains a serious weak link in the current Administration’s reform efforts regarding stability and reconstruction.

Taking decisions about appropriate command arrangements in a theater in which civil and military activities are closely entwined requires difficult judgments about civil-military relationships, sensitivities rooted in American history as well as in traditional military approaches to war. The military itself has approached reconstruction tasks warily, concerned about the potential diversion of funding and attention away from perceived combat priorities. Historically, U.S. political leaders have been reluctant to place the military in governance or overtly political roles. On the other hand, civilian organizations have proved less than optimal for such tasks. Elihu Root recognized the problem. He expressed great pride in America’s reconstruction efforts in “poor bleeding Cuba” and “devastated” Puerto Rico, but he was also careful to placate critics and reassure them that no American army would “make itself a political agent” or a “Pretorian [sic] guard to set up a President or an emperor.” Almost a hundred years later, the commander of U.S. Central Command, General Tommy Franks, reiterated the prevailing view when discussing the dilemmas of who should lead reconstruction in Iraq: “Civilian control of government has long been an American value”, reflecting the Army’s persistent reluctance to undertake such tasks.

In Vietnam, the United States made a concerted effort to hammer out some of these coordination issues. Unfortunately, they were implemented too late in the war to make a critical difference, and the war’s bitter legacy has been such that a full absorption of the important model that emerged never took place. The Civil Operation and Revolutionary Development Support (CORDS) was the umbrella organization for coordinating and controlling all pacification programs in South Vietnam. Pacification sought to address the political, social and economic dimensions of the war, while continuing the military effort. It involved building schools and hospitals, developing economic programs, strengthening the country’s infrastructure, enhancing local security and promoting democratic processes. The architects of pacification recognized that its success would hinge upon truly integrated civil-military efforts. Policy advisers to President Johnson such as Walt Rostow argued in early 1967 that pacification was a “two-fisted, military-civil job” and that “Westy [General Westmoreland, the military commander] and Cabot [Henry Cabot Lodge, the U.S. Ambassador to Vietnam] should live in each other’s pockets.” At the same time, Robert Komer, the architect of the CORDS program, observed that pacification efforts would be ineffective if they were “left mostly to the civilians with 20 percent of the assets, while the US/ARVN military (with 80 percent of the assets) still give it only a lick and promise.”

These concerns resulted in a CORDS organization with a hybrid civil-military structure. Komer described it well:

Soldiers served directly under civilians and vice versa, at all levels. They even wrote each other’s efficiency reports. Personnel were drawn from all the military services and from STATE, AID, CIA, USIA, and the White House. But CORDS was fully integrated into the theater military structure. The Deputy for CORDS served directly under General Westmoreland and later General Abrams—perhaps the first American of ambassadorial rank to serve directly in the military chain of command as an operational deputy, not just a political advisor. To support him, a MACV general staff section was created under a civilian assistant chief of staff with a general officer deputy. Four regional deputies for CORDS served the U.S. corps commanders. The cutting edge was united civil-military advisory teams in all 250 districts and 44 provinces.

CORDS recognized the “vertical” and “horizontal” nature of the pacification challenge. Vertically, it provided for civil-military integration at most command levels; horizontally it recognized the need to project a presence throughout South Vietnam. Although few make the connection, in World War II elements of the CORDS idea were employed as well, with the combat commanders transitioning to forms of organization that corresponded to the particular political and geographic landscape of the occupied country. Provincial Reconstruction Teams in Afghanistan today are also composed of civilians and military personnel and deployed to various regions of the country. Still, U.S. government efforts have not gone far enough in codifying and adapting the kind of integration that existed under CORDS. Instead, planners of U.S. stability and reconstruction operations from Haiti to Panama to Iraq have created and recreated new models, establishing various civil-military “coordinating committees” with little of the accountability and genuine integration that existed under CORDS. We start from scratch every time.


Deploying Knowledgeable and Stable Personnel: The challenge of deploying a stable personnel force in complicated theaters has had serious strategic implications for the United States. Personnel issues tend to be wrongly dismissed as uninteresting and unimportant. They are anything but, and the problem is not merely bureaucratic sloth: It is structural.

The past and present system, in which only the U.S. military has the authority to order the deployment of individuals abroad for a lengthy period of time, has resulted de facto in the Defense Department being the leading stability and reconstruction agency on the ground. There have been no civil organizations capable in wartime of taking on the tasks to same degree as the U.S. military. When the Army established its first school of military government in 1942, it did so recognizing that it was the “sole agency capable of initiating the reconstruction process.” In the occupations during World War II, personnel issues were a central factor in determining that the Defense Department would play the leading role in reconstruction. General Lucius Clay, the military governor of Germany, expressed these sentiments clearly. Although he hoped the occupation would be short, he recognized that it would be difficult for the Army to leave quickly, since “there wasn’t anybody of requisite size that would volunteer to take the job . . . except an Army officer whom you could tell to take it.” Thus, Clay worked hard to build an organization that could “be transferred bodily to a civil branch of government.”

A U.S. Provincial Reconstruction Team member in Afghanistan [credit: France Keyser/In Visu/CORBIS]

Rather than creating a separate corps of expert civilians who could be deployed into conflict areas, the U.S. government has tended to integrate “civilian expertise” into reconstruction operations by deploying so-called civil affairs units. These units have been traditionally located in the Army Reserve, and these reservists have offered expertise, based on their civilian jobs, in areas such as governance, finance and education. Yet there is little systematic data on whether these reservists actually offered the civilian skill sets they were purported to have. Until 2003 the Army Reserve did not even collect data on the civilian jobs of reservists. Hence, not surprisingly, the sense among officers who served on active duty in Iraq with civil affairs reservists was that the units were a “mixed bag.” One officer told me that in Iraq a civil affairs functional specialty of “economics officer” was filled by “a loan application administrator for a HUD office in Louisiana.” On the other hand, there have been few if any efforts to develop a deployable civilian cadre to be deployed to reconstruction missions, so an officer must make due with the personnel he’s been assigned—whether they have the appropriate skill sets or not.

Administration Fixes: Not Far Enough

Plenty has been written about the deficiencies of the “Phase IV” post-combat reconstruction phase of the Iraq war. Yet a resolution of the issues embodied by the three problems outlined here remains lacking. Although the Army is re-examining its approaches to counterinsurgency and rethinking the structure and organization of its Special Operations forces, a better prepared Special Operations community by itself cannot resolve the three recurring problems we still face. The issues are bigger than that, as Iraq demonstrates.

The failure to rise to the area security challenge has been an implicit subtext in the recent bitter debates about appropriate troop levels in Iraq. While the popular debate has focused on numbers, the questions—What kinds of forces should have been deployed to provide area security in key regions of Iraq, and who should have controlled them?—are more relevant. The operational solution to this problem—whether security is an inherent part of the military’s job or can be delegated to contractors—requires resolution first at the strategic and then the operational level. Should the military-police model be expanded? Is the mission primarily one for U.S. infantry forces?

A resolution of the area security problem involves the intersection of conventional and counterinsurgency (COIN) doctrines. The new COIN doctrine and the active, ongoing debate about COIN in the Army (and the Marine Corps) is important. They seek to address key issues related to shaping the political environment in war. But the link between major combat and counterinsurgency efforts is truly critical. The failure in “conventional” wars to consider area security as a central requirement can create power vacuums that can be exploited by insurgent forces. The April 2003 looting in Baghdad created a power vacuum that was exploited to great effect. Tom Ricks’ Fiasco (2006) quotes Colonel Teddy Spain, commander of a military police brigade, who states that had his military police brigade not been reduced in the spring of 2003, U.S. forces “could have taken control of the streets much better” and that “Baghdad would have been different. I just didn’t have the assets.”

Securing cities and regions is a centerpiece of America’s emerging “oil spot” strategy in Iraq.2 Yet taking area security seriously only in COIN-type operations risks repeating early mistakes in Iraq, such as the lack of preparedness for an initial period of disorder following major combat operations, “conventional” and “unconventional” alike. The Army must plan for area security as a central, recurring requirement in all military and stability operations.


The problem of how to achieve unity of command also requires tough decisions. Instead of dealing head on with the issue of who should be in control in a theater, the Bush Administration has focused on unity of effort. Unity of effort, described in several Administration policy documents, stresses that activities such as rebuilding police and schools, staffing new ministries and rebuilding infrastructure should be coordinated among various U.S. government agencies. Yet coordination in government is often an excuse to avoid assigning responsibility and accountability for the accomplishment of a particular objective. As Robert Komer later observed, in such situations “everybody and nobody” is in charge. The unity of effort approach ignores one of Komer’s most important insights about Vietnam: At no time “during the entire 1955­–1971 period [did the U.S. government] go far enough toward pulling together all the disparate facets of their anti-VC/NVA effort under some kind of unified command arrangement.”

Unity of effort ultimately fails to ascribe the same level of importance to the political and military parts of any intervention plan. While military forces operate under a well-established chain of command that includes accountability, links to resources and clear operational guidance, “non-military” actors generally do not. Moreover, explicitly de-linking key activities like the rebuilding of infrastructure and the reconstruction of government services from military activities on the ground further separates the political objective of war from the very military operations supposedly conducted in support of such objectives. Today, the White House must take decisions on how to create a single chain of command in a theater of war or instability that extends beyond immediate combat operations but acknowledges the central role of the military in stability and reconstruction tasks. The CORDS approach is an excellent place to start.

A second weakness of a unity of effort approach is that it presumes that all actors are or can be linked in a synchronized, coherent plan. But coordination is an exchange of information, not an action plan. The U.S. capacity for truly integrated planning remains very weak, despite virtually universal agreement that planning for Phase IV operations in Iraq was deeply flawed. Military plans, generally drawn up by America’s five regional combatant commanders, do not consider in operational detail the kind of complex requirements to rebuild the political and economic infrastructure of a country beset by war. By the same token, purely civilian planning would be unlikely to influence how specific military tactics and operations could shape political dynamics as they unfold in a theater.

Furthermore, there simply are no civilian government agencies that even remotely duplicate the serious strategic planning culture that exists in the U.S. military. Absent a single integrated planning organization designed to address both military and political requirements in any intervention, unity of effort risks merely endorsing the current ad hoc disconnected approaches that almost invariably tilt toward military modalities to solve essentially political problems. Several analysts have advanced suggestions for adapting existing strategic and operational planning organizations. Several focus on adapting U.S. combatant commands—where much of planning for regional contingencies takes place—to commands that integrate civilian and military experts.3 These ideas should be taken seriously.

Unity of effort embodies a classic government response—meetings and more meetings— to an operational problem. This is not a problem unique to the defense or foreign policy realm. The absence of unity of command remains a key problem throughout government: Everyone owns part of the problem, but no one has the authority, responsibility or resources to actually get a job done. Until the Bush Administration takes tough decisions about the appropriate division of labor between the Defense and State Departments, and establishes a new and fully staffed strategic planning model, unity of effort will remain merely a “holding action” to satisfy interagency interests in Washington. It will never result in effectively executed operations on the ground—in Iraq or anywhere else.


The development and deployment of a cadre of reliable, knowledgeable personnel to conduct stabilization and reconstruction operations remains a third key challenge for the Bush Administration. Although the U.S. military has been historically reluctant to undertake long-term reconstruction, the absence of a viable civilian alternative has been a fact of American foreign policy for decades. This continues to be the case. Critics of the “militarization of American foreign policy” are vociferous, but the fact remains that if a non-military response is to be deployed, serious non-military capabilities must exist. But as the brief and ill-fated history of the Coalition Provisional Authority showed, they don’t, and until they do, DoD’s leadership will prevail by default.

Efforts to create a civilian alternative have met with little progress over the past two years. The new State Department Office of Stabilization and Reconstruction had to fight mightily under its first director, Carlos Pasqual, to acquire funding to staff itself—a very small office in a very large building—let alone get funding to create deployable civilian reconstruction teams. A Senate bill to create merely 250 Federal personnel able to deploy rapidly to crisis zones remained stuck in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee for close to 18 months. The House version remains stuck in the International Relations Committee as of November 2006. Continuity of tasks on the ground will require many hundreds of civilians to be able to deploy for lengthy periods of time in tough theaters.4 Otherwise, the military will end up doing the job, supplemented by groups of disconnected contractors—many of whom have very different priorities and approaches to reconstruction.

If the policy community decides that the military should continue to play a central role in stabilization and reconstruction missions, then its personnel system—particularly the Army’s, which is likely to remain the key uniformed player in stabilization and reconstruction—must be revamped to build the skills required to fight the Long War. There has been much-needed attention to the problems associated with the toll that lengthy and frequent deployments take on individuals and their families. An equally pressing problem, however, is that of the cultural biases within the military’s personnel system—biases still geared toward heavy units and, generally speaking, the demands of the 1980s and 1990s. The 1986 Goldwater-Nichols Department of Defense Reorganization Act emphasized the importance of joint doctrine, joint planning and combined-arms warfare—not broader political-military issues or interagency, integrated planning experiences among civilian and military experts. Military personnel requirements—rotations and career development—are based on “punching certain boxes” deemed important in the late 1980s. Veering off a prescribed career track can kill an individual’s career. Officers generally spend at most three years on assignment then rotate to something different.

The military’s personnel rotation habits make little sense in the context of the Long War. Sustained, effective engagement requires sophisticated knowledge of a region. Often, however, an officer’s choice to pursue higher education is made by sacrificing future promotions. Spending several years in, say, Afghanistan developing an understanding of its complex social structure is no guarantee that an officer won’t subsequently be deployed to Korea. Generals who have been successful in Afghanistan have been shipped off to completely unrelated positions in Washington, while the goal in Afghanistan has yet to be achieved. Most telling, perhaps, are the examples from Iraq, where it is common knowledge that many of the officers deemed to have been successful in stabilization and reconstruction efforts have had to work around and against the Army’s personnel system, creating their own internal support networks in order to get the right people into the right jobs.


With two years left, the Bush Administration has an opportunity to leave a lasting legacy that significantly improves the ability of the United States to reconstruct states during and following conflict. But real improvements will occur only if military and civilian leaders resolve, once and for all, the issues that have plagued U.S. stabilization and reconstruction efforts for more than a century. General purpose forces must plan, equip and train to secure a region once major combat ends. Politically sensitive decisions about command and control in a theater must be made today in order to avoid the emergence of a dangerous vacuum of power in a theater tomorrow. Improved coordination is not enough, particularly in the early stages of a stability and reconstruction operation; unity of command is critical. And the military bureaucracy—as well as the State Department—must acquire the new skill sets needed for the effective conduct of stability and reconstruction operations in the future. Congress must facilitate the acquisition of such new skill sets, not obstruct them.

Above all, the Administration needs genuine leadership both in the White House and in the Pentagon to take these problems seriously and overcome the persistent obstacles to succeeding in stabilization and reconstruction tasks. By making the tough decisions today, the Bush Administration can do honor to the hard-fought efforts of Elihu Root. ?

1. The source for this and all historical quotations in this essay are available from the editors upon request.

2. See Andrew F. Krepinevich, “How to Win in Iraq”, Foreign Affairs (September/October 2005).

3. See Center for Strategic and International Studies, Beyond Goldwater-Nichols: U.S. Government and Defense Reform for a New Strategic Era (Phase 2 Report), Lead Investigators: Clark A. Murdock and Michèle A. Flournoy (July 2005); and Matthew F. Bogdanos, “Joint Interagency Cooperation: The First Step”, Joint Force Quarterly, Issue 37, pp. 10–8.

4. Informal data suggests that the average tenure of many Coalition Provisional Authority officials in Iraq was roughly six months to a year. It is tough to achieve real continuity and progress in a difficult operating environment. Furthermore, even within the CPA, close to 30 percent of personnel were military and some 25 percent were contractors and temporary employees hired under special authorities.

Nadia Schadlow is a senior program officer at the Smith Richardson Foundation.