October 1, 2008  

Analysis: Taking the lead

Allow interagency planning groups to set national security objectives

The U.S. government has a mature foreign policy formulation process but lacks procedures that ensure unity of effort in support of national objectives. When agencies interpret policy guidance differently, set different execution priorities and do not act in concert, overall American effectiveness is diminished.

In “Beyond Goldwater-Nichols: Defense Reform for a New Strategic Era,” the Center for Strategic and International Studies argued that “the past decade of experience in complex contingency operations, from Somalia to Iraq, has demonstrated that success requires unity of effort not only from the military but also from across the U.S. government.” The National Security Council (NSC) process allows for interagency policy and strategy collaboration through the Policy Coordination Committees. However, once policy is set, there is no interagency process to ensure unity of effort in execution exists.

The lack of an interagency planning and execution process hurts U.S. government effectiveness in applying national power. Problems arise when each government department interprets NSC policy guidance differently, when they set different priorities for execution and when they do not act in concert. To more effectively coordinate with the different bureaucracies, the Defense Department created Joint Interagency Coordination Groups (JIACGs) on each combatant command staff. A Joint Warfighting Center pamphlet describes the JIACG as “an advisory element on the commander’s staff that facilitates information sharing and coordinated action across the interagency community.” While the JIACG provides the organization with “interagency perspective” in “joint planning and operations,” it is recognized across departments that “they are not empowered to make policy, task or prioritize agency efforts, unilaterally commit agency resources or to execute plans.” Unfortunately, those are exactly the powers that are required to most effectively focus interagency resources toward a national objective.

Recognizing that, from the perspective of other government elements, a combatant commander is only responsible for the “assigned military tasks, while striving for operational compatibility with other government agencies,” it makes sense that an element of his staff would not hold greater power over nonmilitary agencies. That is not to say that JIACGs, and their subordinate Joint Interagency Task Forces, have not had success, particularly in U.S. Central Command, but they are set up by the Defense Department to guide employment of military effort and ensure military unity of effort with the other instruments of national power, not to coordinate all the instruments of power.

From Somalia to Afghanistan

Examples from the past decade highlight attempts by the government to synchronize interagency efforts at the operational level and the requirement for a more structured process. When he was U.S. ambassador in Somalia, Robert Oakley held regular coordination committee meetings to synergize humanitarian efforts of military and diplomatic organizations, nongovernmental organizations and United Nations relief agencies. The meetings created an interagency dialogue and acted as an ad hoc interagency coordination group. The cooperation that started there filtered down to lower-level cooperation between the U.S. military joint task force commander and U.N. forces, as well as partnership between Defense and State Department humanitarian efforts. At least initially, this arrangement worked well because the ambassador, as the president’s representative in country, had the power to focus and task all American agencies.

In Afghanistan, the CIA and U.S. Special Operations Forces had an unprecedented level of cooperation but still operated under separate chains of command. During later operations, the CIA put paramilitary assets under military control, but no other government organizations were as integrated in the overall U.S. effort. While CIA tactical assets were under the control of Central Command, there was never an operational-level plan that integrated interagency assets toward a single operational goal. The unprecedented level of cooperation between the CIA and the military in Afghanistan serves as an example of successful interagency operations, but it must be expanded to include other interagency assets, such as police, reconstruction resources, and economic and diplomatic expertise.

Post-war Iraq reconstruction efforts lacked an integrated U.S. government plan to apply all aspects of national power. The Bush administration envisioned the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance for Iraq as an interagency task force for reconstruction of sorts, but it never had the authority or resources to fulfill that role. The president made the Defense Department the lead agency, and it had the bulk of funding, but all the subject-matter expertise and experience was in the State Department.

These examples support retired Gen. Anthony Zinni’s view that, “No other time in history begs more for interagency integration and cooperation within the U.S. government.” To accomplish this synergy, the NSC requires a number of specific powers, including giving it the authority to grant lead federal agency responsibility to a given department, as recommended in the Center for Strategic and International Studies report. Next, the NSC must be able to task the lead agency to set up an Interagency Planning Group (IAPG), reporting back to it, with the NSC empowered to require other departments to support the planning group with the appropriate manning and resources. One senior official from the lead department should be designated as the IAPG director and made responsible for planning. An IAPG could be set up on a regional or functional basis, as a standing organization or ad hoc, just as the Policy Coordination Committees are organized under the NSC. In traditional military terms, the IAPG would be responsible for deliberate and crisis action plans using resources from across the interagency toward a national objective, just as combatant commanders plan using resources from across the military departments. Granting the NSC this power would elevate the authority of the national security adviser, in effect making the position a chief of staff for national security, with more directive power over department secretaries. Additionally, the national security adviser and the president should establish clear, consistent, standard procedures for interagency operational planning.

When the time comes to execute a national contingency plan, the IAPG should create an Interagency Task Force (IATF), with one person from the lead federal agency appointed as the director and put in charge of the mission for the president, responsible for the application of all U.S. resources toward the national objective. In many cases, this person may be the ambassador in the country in question, but in other cases, a special representative of the president could be charged with the mission. This process mirrors the way a combatant commander designates a joint task force commander to execute a plan using assigned resources from across the military services. To most effectively synchronize all the elements of national power, the IATF director must have directive tasking authority over all American resources in the region. The owning agencies would maintain responsibility to organize, train and equip resources to be deployed for contingencies and would retain administrative responsibility. The lack of deployable resources from civilian government agencies has hampered the flexibility and effectiveness of American responses. Mirroring the relationship between military services with joint force combatant commanders and the joint task forces they set up to handle contingencies would put all available resources toward a problem, focused under the direction of one lead federal agency and one person.

Congressional action

Conceptually, implementing both the relevant recommendations from the Center for Strategic and International Studies report, plus the IAPG and IATF concepts, is within the power of the executive branch. The reality is that empowering the NSC to the level required — giving it directive authority over the departments — would likely require congressional action to update applicable laws. The national security adviser would need the authority to ensure departments assign the appropriate priority and resources to a national planning effort led by an IAPG and leave the operational direction of those resources to the IATF director. As the “Beyond Goldwater-Nichols” report notes, “it is likely that future operations will be both interagency and international in character, requiring a high degree of integration and coordination.” Implementing the recommendations to empower the NSC to designate a lead department on any particular issue and to run a more structured interagency strategic planning function is a big first step toward that integration.

The second step is to empower the lead department to create an Interagency Planning Group and require other departments to support it with manning and expertise.

Lastly, the NSC must empower the lead department to create an Interagency Task Force, designate a director and require supporting departments to assign it resources, allowing the IATF director to apply those resources.

Setting up standard procedures for formally creating and empowering such planning and execution organizations would go a long way toward creating focused synergy between all U.S. government efforts.

Lt. Col. Rob Lyman is commander of the 96th Communications Squadron at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Air Force or Defense Department.