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Research Questions

  1. How can revisions to DoD stabilization policy improve the department's ability to effectively conduct and support such missions?
  2. What should DoD's role in stabilization be?

The pendulum regarding the level of U.S. military participation in stabilization efforts has swung dramatically since 2001, from a low level of preparation and participation in the early days of the Afghanistan and Iraq operations in 2003, to widespread stabilization activities costing billions of dollars in the ensuing years, to significantly scaled-back forces and resources devoted to stabilization in recent years. To remedy the initial lack of preparation, the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) issued a directive with guidance on stabilization requirements in 2005 and then updated it with more expansive requirements in 2009. This report supports DoD efforts to update this guidance by assessing the accumulated experience of the past 17 years and evaluating the appropriate roles for the U.S. military and its ability to execute them in conjunction with interagency and other key partners.

Without stabilization, successful warfighting often does not produce desired political outcomes. Yet warfighters are not the most capable actors for many stabilization tasks. Therefore, the authors recommend shifting DoD guidance on stabilization away from requiring high levels of proficiency in a large number of tasks to emphasizing three key roles for DoD: prioritizing security tasks; providing support to other actors performing stability functions; and performing crosscutting informational, planning, coordination, and physical support roles.

Key Findings

Stabilization must be embraced as a U.S. policy priority

  • There is common pattern of forgetting that stabilization is a vital function that must be performed across the range of military operations.
  • The military has a vital role to play, particularly in security and in supporting the stabilization activities of others.
  • The roles that the military is expected to perform should be more clearly defined.
  • The coordination mechanisms for unified action and a comprehensive approach remain a work in progress, but civilian entities, allies, and others do possess substantial expertise and capacity, albeit with some gaps.
  • A more focused approach to stabilization overall avoids waste and counterproductive effects, such as fueling corruption and conflict.

U.S. civilian entities and the United Kingdom, Germany, and France have specific stabilization roles and capabilities

  • The United Kingdom, Germany, and France have been active in coalition stabilization operations since the Balkans conflict.
  • NATO and the UK, German, and French militaries focus on developing stabilization skills that are closely linked to civilian stabilization skills and funding.
  • USAID has core competencies in areas of democracy, conflict resolution, and bottom-up restoration of services.
  • The United Nations Development Programme is the lead stabilization agency in Iraq.
  • The Department of State and USAID jointly lead the Syrian stabilization and humanitarian assistance effort for the U.S. government.


  • DoD should prioritize security and building security capacity to transition successfully to host-nation providers. DoD should increase the U.S. military capacity to provide training and security force assistance.
  • DoD should clearly define the specific military tasks and capabilities required for each of the four remaining joint stability functions (public order, immediate human needs, governance, and economic stability).
  • The U.S. military should reorient to support civilian interagency and international stability providers, rather than providing duplicative capabilities. The Department of State and USAID are the most appropriate leads for stabilization. This requires DoD to increase training and education that focus specifically on supporting interagency and international partners and integrating its activities into those entities' methods and structures.
  • DoD should improve coordination mechanisms to realize the much-touted yet rarely achieved unity of effort among military and civilian partners. The gaps have been repeatedly identified by official assessments, but greater progress toward eliminating friction and increasing synergy is needed. A policy-level coordinating body should be designated to focus efforts and delegate responsibilities.
  • A new approach to stabilization should be refined and adopted to incorporate the insights that experience has shown to be central to achieving lasting stability. Operating "by, with, and through" indigenous actors is the soundest method to ensure appropriate and lasting stabilization. This new approach would spend less, build less, and focus more on addressing the political drivers of conflict and building governing capacity and legitimacy.
  • Under this recommended approach, key DoD enabling capabilities — including civil affairs, military police, and construction engineers — play critical roles across the stability functions and in both conflict and preconflict environments. This assessment suggests a need to rebuild, reorganize, and improve these capabilities to support and conduct stability functions successfully.

This research was sponsored by the Office of the Secretary of Defense and conducted within the International Security and Defense Policy Center of the RAND National Defense Research Institute, a federally funded research and development center sponsored by the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the Joint Staff, the Unified Combatant Commands, the Navy, the Marine Corps, the defense agencies, and the defense Intelligence Community.

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