Ungoverned Space: A National Security Challenge

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Whoever the American people elect to be our next president in November, she or he will inherit numerous problems, including terrorism, the hollowing out of nation states by narcotics traffickers, and instability in the Middle East.  All of these problems have at least one thing in common.  They arise and/or prosper in either ungoverned or weakly governed space.   The question of ungoverned or weakly governed space is one of the predominant national security challenges facing the U.S. today.  

The United States possesses unparalleled precision intelligence as well as military, covert action, and law enforcement hard power that it uses to great effect to disrupt and degrade terrorist and narcotics organizations, and in counterinsurgency campaigns.   At the same time, helping partner nations and their citizens provide effective governance (i.e. security, public health, education, economic activity, political enfranchisement) in those ungoverned spaces, where terrorism, insurgency, and drug running are generated, has proven to be a strategic challenge throughout our history.  Most recently, in mid-April 2016, President Obama described what he called the failure to plan sufficiently for the day after in Libya the worst mistake of his presidency to both the Atlantic magazine and Fox news.       

Much of this difficulty is due to the nature of the task itself—motivating and enabling others to do things inside their own societies that might be different from what has been done in the past or run counter to established cultural norms.   Most importantly, the question of what do the people of the partner nation think to be in their best interest, because that is what they are most likely to do, is critical in governance assistance.

Keeping in mind these daunting challenges, until the ungoverned/weakly governed space where our adversaries rest and generate forces and operations is denied to them, we will be in a constant campaign in which we win battles but never conclude the campaign.  Effective governance in previously ungoverned/weakly-governed space by a partner nation is a significant part of eventually concluding these counterterrorism, counternarcotics, and counterinsurgency campaigns.  Consider the following limited but not exhaustive list of governance assistance issues:

  • The rollback of ISIS in Syria and Iraq will continue to gain momentum.  The question of who will govern places like Mosul and eventually Raqqa the day after ISIS is driven out is already at the center of the table.

  • The struggle to find a real partner for the U.S. in ISIS’ emerging stronghold of Libya will turn in large degree on the issue of who in Libya can actually provide governance to some of the Libyan people and control some land.

  • How much U.S. hard power and governance assistance will be needed to continue to suppress al Qaeda and the Taliban in the Afghanistan/Pakistan border region in order to continue to minimize the threat to the U.S. homeland?

  • Despite the decapitation of every significant narcotics cartel in Mexico, those same cartels continue to hollow out and in some cases supplant the state in several regions of Mexico.

The next administration may want to consider the following in order to help partner nations develop effective governance to keep them and us safe:

First, assisting partner nations in providing governance in previously ungoverned or poorly governed space is a task that the next president and senior policymakers must make a top priority. Absent this senior leadership attention, it will not be the central planning factor it should be in USG strategy and foreign policy, nor will it be resourced as it should be.

There are numerous doctrinal publications, think tank studies, policy recommendations, and histories available to the new administration reflecting America’s involvement in both intervention and governance assistance.  Understanding this data and creating an overarching policy will be needed.   

Second, in 2007, former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates called for greater use of all elements of our national power, especially significantly increased civilian expertise in dealing with the challenges of asymmetrical warfare.   He honored the hard work and patriotism of the people working this issue but described the effort as too often done on an ad hoc basis.   Gates was skeptical that what was needed could be done using existing government structures. That said, a new administration may want to review the structures currently in place across the USG before creating any new organization.

More important, however, than organizational structures in Washington is finding the right people, civilian and military, with the expertise and ability needed, and then regularly training them together to deploy to conflict zones and other countries to assist partner nations with governance.  Whatever the structure, many of these civilian experts will come from the State Department and USAID; two organizations whose personnel are already stretched thin.   A new administration may want to examine authorizing both State and USAID to add personnel and to fund sufficient equipment and training to sustain a multi-year effort. 

Third, we must continue to listen to our foreign partners and create solutions that work in their context and culture.   Close study will reveal that in many instances faith, tribe, and regional identity matter more to them than the nation state.  This does not mean we give up on governance assistance to the nation states as they exist today, but it does argue for realism in what can be accomplished in the context of culture.     

Fourth, we need to significantly increase training of foreign cadres.  The U.S. Government has a number of civilian and military international training programs that range from a few weeks travel to the USA to yearlong language and professional training experiences.  This money is very well spent.  Not everybody will love us after this exposure, but on balance, creating large numbers of effective military and civil servants, who return home with greater skills and a better understanding of the USA, serves both their country and ours.        

Fifth, a partner nation may have a very different perception of its own interest versus what we think.  This may force the United States to do what it must to ensure its own safety and limit the U.S. ability to assist with improving partner nation governance.  In those cases, continued engagement when we can agree is needed, and clear understandings of where and why we differ will be needed as well.     

Sixth, we must develop accurate ways to measure how much assistance is enough and how/when to reduce our presence and assistance.      

Seventh, we should deploy military and civilian forces abroad with the understanding in our own minds that in most cases we have made a commitment to be there for a significant period of time beyond the actual fighting.   We need to be prepared to ensure the gains won on the battlefield by our forces and those of our partner nation allies are not lost by a too hasty withdrawal.

The essence of sound policy on ungoverned space will be staying long enough to build sustained partner nation good governance.   This will require policy priority; an effective doctrine; civilian and military forces organized, trained and equipped to the task; resources; time; strategic patience; and an ability to work in foreign cultures so that we are not creating more resentment and problems than we are solving.   This will be extraordinarily difficult, but to do otherwise is to invite the ungoverned space to be a sanctuary for our enemies and create decades more conflict for ourselves and our allies.    

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