How Stability Operations Can Fortify Fragile States

Our world is increasingly complex: Gone are the days when a nongovernmental organization could operate in conflict zones or areas of instability without significant risk of unintended physical and reputational consequences.

Today more than ever, with an estimated 40 to 60 fragile states, militaries and NGOs are embracing the need for stability operations that deliver a holistic interagency approach unified behind the common goal of sustained peace.

Former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright testified before the Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee on International Operations and Terrorism: “Our international assistance programs are not money down a rat hole. They are poison down the snake hole of terrorism; helping to choke off the hatred, ignorance, and desperation upon which terrorism feeds.”

While there are unique challenges for all NGOs, each player involved in stability operations plays an integral part in the fight against terrorism, and we must work together to secure fragile communities from the rising threats posed by conflict and disaster. We do this in three ways: engaging in conflict prevention and resolution, taking part in conflict intervention, and participating in post-conflict reconstruction and stabilization.

Has the stability operations approach ever worked? Indeed it has. South Korea was once one of the poorest nations in the world, war-torn and lacking infrastructure and natural resources. Enemies surrounded the country, and the people were demoralized. So how did South Korea turn its fate around to become the most innovative economy in the world? This success story is the result of a large-scale multiagency coordinated effort incorporating kinetic intervention, military training, investment in necessary institutions, and the creation of an economic foundation over a generation.

With the end of the Korean War in 1953 and the establishment of the Demilitarized Zone, South Koreans banded together to propel their country through a rapid period of economic growth. Now, far from its impoverished state of 1953, South Koreans clock the second highest working hours in the world and are consistently innovating their economy to stay relevant. After the war, the U.S. government collaborated with South Korea to establish government, military, and education structures to set South Koreans up for stability and success. This foundation, along with national unity among South Koreans, has seen the country through several economic crises.

Afghanistan’s recent history, on the other hand, shows what can happen without stability operations in an unstable environment plagued by conflict and disaster. The lack of a reliable and effective central government creates a power vacuum waiting to be filled by any group willing to provide a semblance of order and, more importantly, offer basic needs.

By 1989, nearly 6.2 million Afghans had become refugees, fleeing the Soviet invasion to neighboring countries. Almost 1.6 million landed in similarly rural areas such as the province of North Waziristan in Pakistan, and are only now beginning to return to Afghanistan. The collapse of the Soviet invasion left the country in civil war; returning refugees, who were struck by the overall lawlessness and corruption taking over their homeland, welcomed groups like the Taliban because they already had established infrastructures that were, in many ways, more efficient social support organizations than the local or state government.

The Taliban moved into Kandahar and put Sharia law into place in an attempt to bring order and justice to the region. The local population responded to the new sense of order and security. Meanwhile, the Mujahedeen, warlords who had banded together against the Soviets, had moved into the government in Kabul but were not much stronger than the previous regime. The Taliban associated this fledgling government with Westerners and the Soviets, and these differing approaches led to lingering conflict at the conclusion of the civil war.

As the Taliban slowly pushed the Mujahedeen back into the north, people saw that every province taken over by the Taliban became more peaceful and necessities like food and water were available. Hence, the population supported the Taliban “revolution” because, in fact, it gave them a sense of stability.

Rather than letting these populations rely on groups like the Taliban, NGOs should coordinate with international organizations and state actors to educate and support refugees, avoiding their exploitation by insurgent and terrorist entities in situations like Afghanistan’s.

Militaries have evolved beyond their traditional kinetic operations and frequently engage in humanitarian assistance, disaster response, and reconstruction activities. However, this shift comes with significant risk, especially in terms of unintended consequences. Local communities, for example, are often targeted if assisted by military actors and humanitarian aid workers. With a staggering 474 aid workers targeted by attacks in 2013 and 329 in 2014, the danger for both aid workers and refugees seeking their help is very real.

Hence, a true interagency approach that is balanced, aligned, and well controlled will help fulfill the three-pronged approach mentioned above while mitigating risks as much as possible.

Read part two to learn more about the components that make up stability operations, and part three to learn about the obstacles the acting agencies in stability operations face.

Previously published in full on LinkedIn

Mina Chang is CEO of Linking the World, a humanitarian organization that builds resilient communities in areas of instability and conflict. Mina also served as a fellow with the Center for the Study of Civil-Military Operations at West Point, where she developed community-focused academic programs in areas requiring humanitarian assistance.