June 1, 2011  

Capabilities, not clothes

Distinctions between military and civil services are unnecessary

Talk about the whole-of-government or comprehensive approach to complex operations such as post-conflict reconstruction often emphasizes that lasting success requires capabilities beyond those provided by the military. Indeed, a comprehensive approach is based on not only recognition, but also an embrace of this understanding of the engagement space. Yet the insight that the military alone cannot solve all the complex problems in fragile, failed or post-conflict states and regions is often conflated into a claim that civil-military coordination is the main concern. In this view, there are civilian capabilities on the one hand and military capabilities on the other, and with a comprehensive approach, they work more smoothly together. From this perspective, a comprehensive approach is fundamentally a method for adding necessary civilian capabilities to the military effort to manage complex international challenges through optimized international community interaction.

However, capabilities, except for a few exceptions involving the use of organized violence, are neither civilian nor military in essence. NATO, for example, is not simply a military actor — NATO is a political and military organization, fundamentally dedicated to, as Article 2 of the Washington Treaty says, “promoting conditions of stability and well-being.” It does not say “via military means.” NATO, as an alliance of nations, has many capabilities to bring to bear, and the military or civilian designation adds no value. The point is the promotion of well-being, not limiting the means of promotion to civilian or military. In this light, emphasis on the civil-military divide (even as a way to emphasize the need for bridges) and talk of “civilian” versus “military” capabilities, is of extremely limited utility.

A comprehensive approach is not simply the optimization of civil-military interaction, nor is it an internationalization of central planning in an effort to improve the efficiency of international community inputs.

1. It’s not simply about optimizing civil-military interaction.

There are three major problems with understanding a comprehensive approach as civil-military interaction optimization. First, neither civilian nor military organizations are monolithic. The military or civilian designation is a characteristic of the organization to perform a function, not the function itself, and so attempting an authoritative organizational delineation is neither useful nor necessary. Indeed, to understand the specific actors, it is necessary to refer to the specific civil or military organizations, instead of lumping the various organizations together in the two major, and not especially descriptive, categories.

Second, not only is there a wide variety of organizations in the civil and military domains, but countries draw the lines between civilian and military capabilities differently. Therefore, speaking in terms of military or civilian capabilities confuses more than it clarifies operational tasks. In some countries, heavy airlift is performed by civilian contractors, in others by military aircraft. Country A deploys a military member to command a provincial reconstruction team, while Country B sends a career diplomat.

We need not prejudge for the nations how they will organize their national capabilities to execute various functions. Military forces can build roads; deliver food, clean water and shelter; teach elementary school; run prenatal health programs; develop central and subnational government institutions, and so on. Indeed, military forces have performed these functions in the past as part of post-conflict stabilization and reconstruction activities. On the other hand, a hospital with no nurses or doctors, or a gas turbine power plant without maintenance technicians or affordable fuel, is no less useless if built by civilians rather than military personnel. Conversely, a soldier using a bulldozer to help the local community build a rammed earth school under guidance of an academic expert on traditional building techniques working for an nongovernmental organization funded by a national aid organization offers scope for significant gains.

This is not to say that we should be entirely indifferent to organizational character. While nations and other organizations can develop the expertise wherever they choose, there often comes a point where the gains from specialization outweigh the utility of multifunctional forces. Different organizations have different cultures, values and procedures, and processes optimized to do certain things are not optimized to do others. Combat is a difficult profession requiring extensive education and training. Mentoring local government officials is also a difficult task requiring extensive education and training. This does not mean that any particular organization cannot develop the capabilities to accomplish a task, but that generally it will be less costly in terms of money, time and personnel to have organizations already structured to perform a certain type of task engage in the learning necessary to do it well in the new engagement space than to have organizations optimized for entirely different activities develop the same capability. Both the effectiveness and the efficiency of the task will be increased by this division of labor. However, this division need not be based on the simplistic military or civilian category — forcing a certain organization to perform a function without considering the organization’s existing culture, capabilities and fitness for the task will degrade, not enhance, operational effectiveness.

The third risk posed by thinking of a comprehensive approach primarily in terms of civil-military relations is that it leads to a focus on increasing input efficiency by dividing into “lanes” — areas of civilian or military responsibility — instead of enabling the search for and development of local solutions to prevent crises or manage post-crisis activities facilitated by the best qualified local or local actor supporting external actor.

This tendency is rooted in the traditional practice in complex operations to first decide which organization should perform a function and then ask that organization to execute. This makes sense in many ways because it takes into account organizational specialization and funding. Yet while this is appropriate in a national setting, in a multinational/multiorganizational context, the approach is inadequate. The division into lanes assumes a high degree of command and control and willingness on the part of the individuals and organizations involved to follow central direction. An analogy with jointness in the military realm clarifies this point. From a joint perspective, two questions precede tasking a specific organization to act. First: “What is the challenge?” Second: “What capabilities are required to address this challenge?” Only after these questions have been answered can the third question be asked: “Which organization should do the job?” From the joint perspective of the planner and operator, the organizational affiliation of the capability is unimportant. A comprehensive approach extends this line of thinking to the multinational, interagency realm, asking, “What is the problem?” “What capabilities are required?” and “Which organization has the capability, geographical reach and readiness to act?”

A focus on staying in one’s own “lane” can have significant negative effects on a mission as when, for example, the military asks people to leave an area in advance of an operation, promising them shelter and food, but then the nongovernmental organization that agreed to provide the services fails to deliver. Local people have expectations — they do not care about the affiliation of the organization providing the services, only that promises are kept. Therefore, a military force concerned about not transgressing the boundaries of its “lane” will generate significant negative effects on the overall effort to improve security if it breaks a promise. Far better to accomplish the functions necessary, and to honor commitments, than to argue over which organization is entitled to which job.

Focusing on capability requirements, not organizational affiliation, enables organizations to volunteer and self-synchronize to become efficient based on their comparative advantages without the need for command and control. A comprehensive approach is therefore a method to facilitate interaction temporally, spatially and functionally to accomplish the mission.

This brings us to a second important point.

2. It’s not about optimizing international community input.

Post-conflict state-building is often viewed as a complicated problem for which the solution is a stronger state. From the traditional perspective, sufficient coordination among international actors, including private organizations, nongovernmental organizations and national governments, and local actors, including the local central government, subnational government figures, business and other leaders, in the political, military, economic, cultural and virtual domains will generate a robust state. Therefore, international community actors of all flavors should coordinate their activities spatially and temporally to generate the state that constitutes the solution to a crisis.

Indeed, there is often a belief that distributed, decentralized attempts to deal with problems will fail because they are not adequately supported by the government. Only government bureaucratic infrastructure (explicitly modeled on a Western European welfare state) can make sustainable effects possible. This can be understood as an effort to develop the de facto (the ability of the state to actually exert its power effectively and perform activities), not simply de jure (the recognition of its on paper legitimacy, conferred through for example having won an election considered adequately free and fair by the international community), sovereignty of the state. In this view, the state is the only form of organization capable of providing the full range of goods and services demanded by citizens, and thus international community intervention must be structured to develop this state. Activities that do not directly support development of the government as the primary service provider are considered wasted. Inadequately coordinated actions by national governments and the aid organizations they fund, and the failure of provincial reconstruction teams to, for example, act only in accordance with the Afghan National Development Strategy, are referenced as examples of this decentralized, uncoordinated failure.

Effectiveness, from this perspective, requires improving coordination between international community actors to better support the government in providing goods and services. This means that the national government will develop the plan, and prepare and organize people on the receiving end of those efforts so they are ready to effectively utilize the goods and services now more efficiently provided as a result of input process optimization by the international community.

It is as though the local government were a truck, and the aim is for the international community to better manage loading the truck in accordance with the plan provided by the national government. This is an appealing vision — better international community coordination of the funding and services “packages” will improve the efficiency of the loading process. Improved truck loading by the international community will increase support efficiency and thus, because the community aims to support the national government, government-based service delivery. Each international organization is, as it were, on an assembly line in a distribution center, putting its packages onto the conveyor belt for the various government agencies to pick up the packages in their areas and load them onto their government trucks for delivery. The better the international community coordinates the delivery of these packages to the country, the more efficient government service delivery will be and, so the argument goes, the population will support the democratically selected government, not the insurgents, and the post-conflict state building effort will conclude happily.

This approach may prove successful with functioning states that have fallen on hard times due to a national disaster or are suffering spillovers from a regional conflict, but in post-conflict situations (especially in the first 10 years after an intervention), the lack of absorptive capability on the part of the host nation, not the will of the international community, is the limiting factor — there is no truck.

To put it more precisely, in many post-conflict situations, the government system of service delivery is nonfunctional. Thus, a more efficient way for the international community to load up the government (often the national-level government, not the subnational provincial or district governments) to provide services will not increase the overall effectiveness of service delivery and growth stimulation. This lack of local capability — not international community organization — is the root cause of suboptimal progress in stabilization and reconstruction activities, and an approach focused on international community input optimization will do nothing to address this root cause. Therefore, while coordination is indeed an element of a comprehensive approach, it is not the primary element.


A comprehensive approach provides a framework and strategic design methodology within which we can reconfigure our approach to capability development and deployment in complex operations. From this perspective, we are utterly uninterested in the capability sourcing process. We need people and organizations with functional area skills, whatever type of clothes they wear to work. Other actors may be concerned about how to resource capability development, and whether it should be done through access channels provided by the agencies within their governments or nations, but from the strategic, operational and tactical perspectives of everyone involved, these questions are insignificant and should have no bearing on the use of a design process to improve mission accomplishment on all levels. Instead of worrying about the civilian or military designation, the effectiveness and efficiency of our capability development processes will be increased (and the costs reduced) if we look to better utilize functional capabilities wherever they exist, and not waste effort in a futile attempt to optimize the balance of required skills between military and civilian organizations. Civilian control of the military, a fundamental principle of our nation and the alliance, coupled with the dynamic complexity of the environment, means that such efforts are not worth the return on investment they require. We are better off spending our financial and attention resources on deploying the capabilities required by our personnel who are working at great personal costs to increase local capability to enhance local life processes.

Indeed, we are in the early phases of a shift from centrally directed tasking of organizations to execute missions to requesting individual and organizational functional area performance in complex operations. This means we need to enhance our organizational structures to better enable organizations to self-synchronize with others to perform the functions in accordance with their own organizational mandates and missions. This shift requires an evolved conception of the people performing these functions — not military or civilian, but well-rounded individuals with cross-cutting sets of comprehensive capabilities.

CMDR. MICHAEL HALLETT is a staff officer at NATO’s Supreme Allied Command Transformation. His duties include strategic policy development and supporting NATO and partner nations with defense transformation through enhancing military lessons-learned capabilities.