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Research Questions

  1. What is the value of minimalist stabilization?
  2. What can be done to improve the chances of achieving durable, strategic success?
  3. What are the implications for U.S. defense policy, particularly for defense restructuring debates and partnership strategies?

The authors assess the utility and limitations of "minimalist stabilization" — small-scale interventions designed to stabilize a partner government engaged in violent conflict. They propose policy recommendations concerning when minimalist stabilization missions may be appropriate and the strategies most likely to make such interventions successful, as well as the implications for U.S. Army force structure debates and partnership strategies. Minimalist stabilization missions do not significantly increase a partner government's odds of victory in a counterinsurgency campaign, but they do dramatically reduce the probability of defeat. Minimalist stabilization typically yields operational successes that degrade rebel capabilities and make it unlikely that the insurgents can topple the government. Such missions typically do not, however, alter the underlying structure of the conflict. They usually do not help foster significant political reforms in the partner government. Nor are they typically able to cut insurgents off from their resource bases. These dynamics suggest that the operational gains attributable to minimalist stabilization can usually be converted into strategic success only if the underlying political or international structure of the conflict can be altered. Military power plays a role, but the infrequency of victory suggests that the role of force is more about creating the framework within which a political process can operate successfully rather than winning per se. These findings do not yield simple policy prescriptions. These findings do, however, caution against viewing minimalist stabilization as a panacea. Modest resource commitments generally yield modest results. In some circumstances, such modest results will be adequate to secure important U.S. interests. In other cases they will not, and in some cases the under-resourcing of interventions may have catastrophic results.

Key Findings

The Value of Minimalist Stabilization

  • Avoiding defeat may secure at least minimal U.S. objectives if the loyalty of the client government is the United States' greatest concern.
  • Minimalist stabilization may secure U.S. interests if the United States is not opposed to a compromise that would offer insurgents real political power and security guarantees.
  • Minimalist stabilization may be a useful approach if a prolonged period of low-level violence is an acceptable outcome.
  • Minimalist stabilization may be appropriate if there is little concern about the "externalities" (e.g., refugee flows, the spread of disease, depressed licit economic activity in neighboring states) of prolonged conflict.

Improving the Probability of Success

  • Carefully choose the circumstances in which minimalist stabilization operations are launched. Avoid the temptation to view them as a low-cost panacea; they are not always appropriate and can potentially undermine U.S. strategic objectives.
  • Combine minimalist stabilization with nonmilitary instruments to improve its effectiveness. In conditions where the effectiveness of nonmilitary instruments is doubtful, minimalist stabilization may secure only a temporary respite rather than enduring gains.
  • Commit to stabilizing the eventual peace.

Implications for U.S. Partnership Strategies

  • Whenever possible the United States should seek to enlist partners in such missions. Such partners, however, often have their own limitations and agendas which may undermine U.S. objectives, making long-term U.S. commitment essential.
  • Any time the United States helps to build the military capacity of other countries, it is critical that it put in place safeguards to ensure as best as possible that its assistance is not abused.

Research conducted by

The research described in this report was sponsored by the United States Army and conducted by the RAND Arroyo Center.

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