A member of U.S. army hands a box of relief supplies to a civil-military liaison coordinator with the U.S. Agency for International Development in Dominica during the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. Photo by: Ian Leones / U.S. Marine Corps / CC BY-NC-SA

WASHINGTON — The Trump administration is releasing the first of its kind interagency review of United States overseas involvement that creates a framework for how the State Department,  U.S. Agency for International Development, and Department of Defense can coordinate efforts to streamline diplomacy, aid, and military operations around the world and maximize resources and results.

The Stabilization Assistance Review, or SAR, is based on lessons from Syria and Iraq, as well as other areas of the world in which the U.S. government is engaged, and is intended to be a guide for operations in conflict zones and fragile states.

“This helps USAID because it establishes a clear division of labor and responsibilities in the joint efforts of USAID, State, and DOD in stabilization,” USAID Administrator Mark Green said. “It also helps us because it delineates mission parameters as quantifiable objectives as opposed to really open ended good intentions.”

The review process began in May of last year when — in consultation with the National Security Council — the State Department, USAID, and DOD collectively recognized the need for a better understanding of what functions each entity was most equipped to carry out in stabilization contexts and how roles and responsibilities could be better defined. The complete report is expected to be released as soon as this week.

Defense department spokesperson Maj. Audricia Harris said in working together, the three agencies can better multiply their efforts and have a greater impact.

“The SAR specifically outlines steps to establish a State Department-led interagency process for developing political strategies for all future stabilization engagement,” Harris said. “It’s going to allow us to leverage diplomatic engagement and foreign assistance in concert with our defense activities to help stabilize conflicted areas.”

Stabilization includes restoring basic services such as water and electricity, as well as helping ensure access to medical care and education. In certain situations, none of that can be accomplished without help from the military, which plays a key role in clearing rubble from towns decimated by fighting so civilian populations can return and begin to rebuild their lives. DOD also helps USAID and State get into areas it would not be able to go into without additional security.

“Our success — USAID's success — depends upon the success of the State Department in mobilizing international resources in their role, but also, of course, DOD helping us to have access and security. Without their success, we can't possibly do what it is that we seek to do,” Green said. “All of this, I think has created important lessons for us in the Stabilization Assistance Review report, and I think that that will be a lasting positive product from all of the work and all the challenges that we've seen.”

U.S. government stabilization efforts depend on the context of the situation in which agencies are trying to work, like whether there is still active conflict, if there are armed groups present, and whether the country’s government is a viable partner. Because the U.S. does not cooperate with the Assad regime in Syria, its work there is limited because American agencies only operate in areas that are not held by Syrian government forces. In Iraq, which faces similar challenges, U.S. government efforts are more widespread because the Iraqi government is a willing partner in stabilization. That allows USAID to focus on strengthening good governance and civil society.

“Our experience in Syria and northern Iraq has certainly taught us a lot,” Green said. “And it's certainly influenced our thinking.”

An interagency team conducted research and consultation that involved interviews, focus groups, literature reviews, and case studies, as well as quantitative reviews of U.S. foreign assistance in conflicted areas. The report was finalized in December last year, and signed by Green, former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, and Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis in February. Copies of the SAR were distributed on April 4 to relevant congressional committees to give legislators the opportunity to review it before it is released publicly.

The framework will require ongoing dialogue between all three agencies to ensure they are constantly maximizing cooperation and resources. Harris said the SAR is intended to be a “living document” that will be updated to reflect future realities and lessons for interagency cooperation, as well as current political realities.

That is going to be no easy feat, said Robert Ford, a former ambassador to Syria who has also served in Iraq. He said tensions between diplomatic and aid efforts and military needs were a natural part of working in conflict areas.

“What they’re trying to do is really, really, really hard,” Ford said, noting that he observed during his time in the Middle East how difficult it can be for all three agencies to agree on priorities and execute a plan when they have such different ways of doing business.

“How you structure this — I can imagine different ways of going about it — you’d have to end up integrating military and State almost into one single team. And that’s not normal to either the culture of the State Department or the Pentagon,” Ford said. “It’s not impossible, but it’s not easy. My sense is that they’ll say that the State Department is in charge but it will actually be Special Ops.”

Another important consideration is how to resolve disputes between the agencies.

“The framework agreement is vital but I think there has to be a very clear mechanism for resolving conflicts,” Ford said. “If Colonel So and So wants to go off in direction A and USAID project officer Fred wants to go off in direction C, who’s going to decide?”

The State Department, which the SAR says will be the lead agency on future reviews guided by the framework, said the document “makes it clear that as a matter of policy, stabilization is transitional in nature and meant to establish a foundation for longer term development.”

“The SAR establishes a U.S. government-wide definition of stabilization as a political endeavor to create conditions where legitimate authorities and systems can manage conflict and prevent violence,” a State Department official said.

This common consensus between the three agencies will also make it clear that ultimately, they all have the same goal of ensuring U.S. national security.

“The SAR will make it official that stabilization programs are more than just manifestations of American generosity,” Green said. “They are, instead, key components of our national security planning. They're part of the apparatus that is brought to bear in some of the most chaotic places in the world.”

About the author

  • Teresa Welsh

    Teresa Welsh is a Senior Reporter at Devex. She has reported from more than 10 countries and is currently based in Washington, D.C. Her coverage focuses on Latin America; U.S. foreign assistance policy; fragile states; food systems and nutrition; and refugees and migration. Prior to joining Devex, Teresa worked at McClatchy's Washington Bureau and covered foreign affairs for U.S. News and World Report. She was a reporter in Colombia, where she previously lived teaching English. Teresa earned bachelor of arts degrees in journalism and Latin American studies from the University of Wisconsin.