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Harnessing Post-Conflict "Transitions": A Conceptual Primer

Authored by Mr. Nicholas J. Armstrong, Ms. Jacqueline Chura-Beaver. | October 2010

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Since the end of the Cold War, members of the international community have undertaken more than 20 major operations to stabilize post-conflict societies, yielding mixed results. Stability operations are tremendously complex and demand successful direction of multiple, simultaneous transitions that range from transforming violent conflict to a sustainable, peaceful environment, to the process of forging sustainable governing institutions from fragile or nonexistent infrastructure. Yet, the very notion of transition eludes policymakers, professionals, and scholars because the concept lacks precise meaning, and its application varies according to context and conditions. At no other time has understanding transition been more critical, especially as “clear, hold, build, transition” becomes the dominant theme for ongoing operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Together, professionals and academics share the challenge and opportunity to improve how the international community conducts stability operations—through the comprehensive understanding and implementation of transition.

This monograph addresses the challenging topic of transition in post-conflict stability operations and is intended for a wide audience that includes military and civilian policymakers, international development experts, and scholars in academe. It is a primer, systematic review, and comprehensive assessment of the fields of research and practice. From a sample of more than 170 sources, the monograph presents and appraises the major lenses (process, authority transfer, phasing, and end state), categories (war-to-peace, power, societal, political-democratic, security, and economic), approaches, and tools under which post-conflict transitions are conceived. Considering these wide and often diverse perspectives, the authors present a holistic definition of transition in the context of complex stability operations:

Transition is a multi-faceted concept involving the application of tactical, operational, strategic, and international level resources (means) over time in a sovereign territory to influence institutional and environmental conditions for achieving and sustaining clear societal goals (ends), guided by local rights to self-determination and international norms. Transition is inherently complex, and may include multiple, smaller-scale transitions that occur simultaneously or sequentially. These small-scale activities focus on building specific institutional capacities and creating intermediate conditions that contribute to the realization of long-term goals.

This monograph lays the groundwork for both future research and greater collaboration among diverse international and local actors who operate in post-conflict environments—specifically to develop a comprehensive definition of transition and adequate tools to address all facets of the concept. Recommendations for future research and improved transition policy include a more focused emphasis on areas that include:

  • Cross-institutional (political, security, economic) and multi-level (local, regional, national) studies that explore the interdependencies between simultaneous transitions;
  • Underlying assumptions of current transition tools and indicators;
  • Relationships between transition and institutional resilience; and,
  • Thresholds and tipping points between transition phases.

The exploration of the foundations and actual workings of transition detailed in this monograph hope to encourage the interagency and multinational community to provide greater attention to the importance of transition in current operating environments. This piece is intended to provide the baseline for more in-depth and relevant analysis.


Today, the United States and members of the international community find themselves wrestling with the grim dangers—security, economic, and humanitarian—posed by fragile states. Almost 60 fragile states are unable to meet the basic standards for statehood (Brookings Institute, 2008; Foreign Policy, 2010). Not only do these nations experience difficulties providing their citizens basic civil protections and services, many suffer from repeating cycles of intrastate conflict. Without question, these problems are complex, multifaceted, and pervade all aspects of social life. Yet, state fragility is invariably linked to weak or ineffective political, economic, and societal institutions (Fukuyama, 2004; Ghani & Lockhart, 2008; Paris, 2004; Paris & Sisk, 2009, p. 3; Rotberg, 2004a, 2004b; van de Walle, 2004).

Given the mixed record of accomplishment of interventions in recent history, how can the international community improve its efforts to assist in transforming the domestic institutions of fragile states? Certainly, institution building is a slow, evolutionary, and transitional process. Accordingly, international organizations, government agencies, and militaries have recognized this reality. Yet, one missing, critical piece is a clearer understanding of transitions in the context of stability operations. This paper is a modest attempt toward developing clarity of an often-indistinct concept.

In the last 2 decades, interstate conflict and state fragility have led to a groundswell of United Nations (UN) and U.S.-led interventions (e.g., humanitarian, peacekeeping, stabilization, and reconstruction operations). Since the end of the Cold War, scholars and practitioners have drawn together to explore and better understand the nature of these operations and the challenges facing those tasked to design and implement them. Although contingent on many factors that range from history and culture to root causes, one common theme has emerged in these operations: a fundamental, normative goal of transforming a state and society in ways that promote sustainable peace, good governance, and economic prosperity. An expanding body of literature addresses distinct, but related, research in peace-building and conflict transformation (Berdal, 2009; Dayton & Kriesberg, 2009; Doyle & Sambanis, 2006; Paris, 2004), state-building (C. Call, Wyeth, & International Peace Institute, 2008; Fukuyama, 2004; Ghani & Lockhart, 2008; Paris & Sisk, 2009; Rotberg, 2004b), and stabilization and reconstruction operations (Brinkerhoff, Johnson, & Hill, 2009; Christoff & St. Laurent, 2007; Durch, 2008b; Englebert & Tull, 2008; Kramer, Megahan, & Gaffney, 2008; Looney, 2008; Szayna et al., 2009; U.S. Department of Defense, 2003; U.S. Department of the Army, 2009a). While many studies and field reports among these research programs address transition elements, no attempt has been made to systematically review the transitional dimensions of stabilization, reconstruction, and peace-building operations as a defined, holistic concept.

Additionally, practitioners have struggled with creating a conceptual framework and adequately operationalizing activities inherent to transition. Several attempts have been made to codify the term by assigning concrete attributes and qualities to transition mechanisms, but this has caused much consternation in the actual application of the term to stability operations. In 2009, the Peacekeeping and Stability Operations Institute (PKSOI), based at the U.S. Army War College, attempted to bridge the gap between policy and practice by creating a transition definition based on the insights of domestic and multinational collaborators involved in these operations. The result was a working definition of the term:

Transition is defined as both a multi-disciplinary process and points of change, in time, when conditions for stability are achieved in security, justice and reconciliation, infrastructure and economic development, humanitarian and social well-being, and governance and reconciliation, through the enabling and empowering of Host Nation Institutions, in order to facilitate enduring positive effects and improved quality of life for citizens (Peacekeeping & Stability Operations Institute, 2009).

While there have been substantial efforts to define transition, its implementation provides an equally troubling set of problems to practitioners. The fundamental challenge in providing guidance, creating doctrine, and planning operations is the term’s application to diverse and adapting stability situations. Each level of interaction in transition—tactical, operational, and strategic—maintains its own vantage point in regards to the goals, desired outputs/outcomes, and significance in achieving transition. While the diversity in responses and understanding of the causes and consequences of transition is appreciated for dealing with the term’s complexity, this differentiation can cause significant problems in planning and implementing transition policy at the national level, and even significantly complicate collaboration with interagency and multinational partners. The ambiguity in many of the terms, as well as the differing ways to interpret and activate them, may cause significant confusion and setbacks if not defined for all actors involved in the transition process. A better definition of transition is needed to create a more comprehensive meaning and better understanding of the term for all actors engaged in stability operations.

This monograph is a primer on the concept of transition, a systematic review of literature found in both academic and practitioner circles, and an assessment on the state of these fields in terms of understanding transition in stability operations. The authors have reviewed numerous books, edited volumes, journal articles, think-tank reports, field experts’ commentary, conference, and workshop proceedings, and government documents to map the current intellectual landscape on transitions. While this piece draws upon many foundational texts from peacebuilding, state-building, and stabilization operations, it is not a comprehensive review of these subfields, but rather a focused, targeted appraisal of how research and practice currently address the concept of transition and transitional aspects of rebuilding fragile states and societies directly. As a result, it provides a useful contribution to transitional studies to further inform and guide research and policymaking.

The monograph begins with an attempt to reconcile the definitional challenges mentioned above and posits a more useful definition of transition in the context of stability operations. It follows with a detailed literature review and typology of transitions, organized by the six different forms (or levels) in which transitions are most typically explored. This is followed by a survey of the various approaches and tools that governments (civilian and military agencies) and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) currently use in practice to identify, measure, and assess transition in stability operations. The authors conclude with an assessment of the current state of transition literature and provide recommendations to guide future research and policy development.

Findings and Recommendations

On the whole, the academic research on transitions is broad and varies in depth along the lines of the six types of transitions. By far, the democratic transitions literature provides the most depth of analysis and employs the widest range of methodologies. The academic research on transitions also tends to be compartmentalized within the six types of transitions. This compartmentalization is a natural reflection of the disciplinary nature of social science research and existing research programs—international relations and security studies, comparative politics, anthropology and peace studies, and economics, for example. More scholarly attention should be given specifically to the topic of security transitions as much of the present research focuses on broad lessons learned and prescriptive aspects of security sector reform. Little is understood about sequencing aspects of security transition beyond macro, institutional-level analyses. Even less is known about thresholds and tipping points between critical phases of stability operations or the degree of resilience necessary to sustain institutional reforms in the long term. Also, due to the often-noted complexity and indeterminacy of transitions in general, more research exploring interactions across social, political, military, and economic institutions in transition is needed as well. Certainly, all of these future areas of research would be best addressed through an interdisciplinary approach.

We find that there is much to be gained from all forms and methods of future inquiry (inductive generalizing vs. deductive particularizing and qualitative vs. quantitative) on transitions. For those interested in pursuing more generalized knowledge, the literature is full of case studies and edited volumes on countries, conflicts, and specific aspects of transition, but no attempt has been made to squarely and systematically address transition itself in stability operations across a range of cases. Alexander George’s (2005) method of “structured, focused comparison” which demands researchers clearly define their research objective and ask the same specific questions to standardize data collection and analysis would be an ideal approach. Once a baseline program is established, more researchers would be able to contribute and conduct cross-case comparisons.

Likewise, more particularized, subjective-oriented methods of research (i.e., content and document analysis, ethnography, interviews, and focus groups) will add depth and richer understanding of the complex nature of transitions, particularly with regard to the gaps noted above. Practitioners often characterize transition according to their own subjective experience. These experiences are shaped by their particularized location, role, and influence on stabilization activities as well as the broader context of the stability operation they operate within. Their experiences are essential to capturing lessons learned and individualized explanations of transitions. However, because these actors are often from other countries, their views retain a degree of objectivity as they are outsiders and thus have no ethnocentric bias. As such, researchers must also seek out local actors in these operations. While more difficult to access, members of critical institutions would provide important information that will act as an important hedge against hidden assumptions and bias. Both sources of information (practitioner and indigenous) on transitions should be captured in a systematic manner.

Of the numerous tools available to policymakers to measure and assess transition, no single tool fully captures the dynamic nature of the concept. Many of the measures are based on very narrow and concrete definitions of transition that are often not applicable to other actors undertaking similar or parallel activities. Often times, these tools intend to serve particular goals of an agency rather than solve transitional issues on a strategic and interagency level. More research must be undertaken to test underlying assumptions of presently popular transition indicators and explore other potentially influential factors affecting transition. In addition, transition community actors should collaborate on this pertinent topic to develop a more comprehensive tool for stability actors.


Transition continues to be one of the most pervasive and elusive aspects of stability operations. There is little question that the international community will remain charged and challenged with the responsibility of stabilizing fragile states now and for the near future. This will be true as long as post-conflict stability operations involve myriad actors and are each unique in their specific and circumstantial complexity, and, most important, while they each share one desired outcome: long-term stability. As academics and practitioners alike wrestle with figuring out how to achieve stability, the inherent transitional nature of these operations will continue to be a burning question.

This monograph has provided an exhaustive catalog and assessment of the state of research and practice on transition as it relates to stability operations. It offers a rudimentary system of classification through mapping characteristics (process, phasing, authority transfer, and end-state) and types of transitions (war-to-peace, power, societal, political-democratic, security, and economic) in the current literature. The conceptual clarity and systematized focus areas that such an endeavor provides will allow scholars and decisionmakers to think more concretely and critically about all aspects of transition. Moreover, our definition of transition makes a significant and innovative contribution to this field of research and ongoing policy debates between joint, interagency, and multinational actors conducting stability operations and evaluating roles and responsibilities abroad. While this monograph has not evaluated specific hypotheses, explanations, or predictions on transitions in stabilization operations, it sufficiently carves out a line of scholarly and professional inquiry and provides a solid foundation for future research.

Academics and professionals have both the challenge and opportunity to improve how stability operations are conducted in the future. Transition is one among many issue areas requiring more attention to adequately confront this larger task. This work sheds light on an often-imprecise subject matter. As the international community continues to rebuild fragile states, it is our hope that the concepts outlined herein contribute to an improved understanding and implementation of stability operations.