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Guide to Rebuilding Governance in Stability Operations: A Role for the Military?

Authored by Derick W. Brinkerhoff, Ronald W. Johnson, Richard Hill. Edited by Professor Susan Merrill. | June 2009

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The Army's Field Manual (FM) 3-07, Stability Operations Doctrine, identifies five sectors as components of an integrated approach to stability and reconstruction (S&R): security; justice and reconciliation; humanitarian assistance and social well-being; participatory governance; and economic stabilization and infrastructure. Government has an important role in each of these sectors, so attention to restoring, rebuilding, and reforming the public sector in post-conflict societies is critical to achieving the end state conditions that FM 3-07's stability operations strategy establishes:

  • A safe and secure environment;
  • Established rule of law;
  • Social well-being;
  • Stable governance; and,
  • A sustainable economy.

FM 3-07 describes two categories of the range of activities in stability operations for achieving these end state conditions: reconstruction and stabilization.

Reconstruction is the process of rebuilding degraded, damaged, or destroyed political, socioeconomic, and physical infrastructure to create the foundation for long-term development.

Stabilization is the process by which underlying tensions that might lead to resurgence in violence and a breakdown in law and order are managed and reduced, while efforts are made to support preconditions for successful long-term development.

This guide examines an intervening force's contribution to creating a functional state that can deliver services effectively, is responsive and accountable to its citizens, and is capable of assuring security. For each of these three areas, the discussion summarizes key issues, trade-offs, and options for military strategists, planners, and personnel that relate to the restoration and rebuilding of government in the context of full spectrum operations. The guide provides counsel for military personnel in planning and executing stability operations tasks related to lines of operation to rebuild a capable government, but it is neither a blueprint nor a "how to" checklist. It is designed to supplement existing and emerging guidance, fill in gaps, and consolidate from some of these sources information specifically relevant to addressing the needs of public sector rebuilding in post-conflict situations. The material presented draws both from theory and from on-the-ground experience of military and civilian practitioners.

This guide will focus on three central aspects identified above but first will elaborate and clarify the central terminology and concepts—government, governance, and the social contract between citizens and the state. The Guide then discusses the three core functions of a state: 1) effective service delivery; 2) responsiveness to the citizenry; and 3) security. This discussion is set within the context of a review of the state structure or model (federal or unitary) and the relationship between the center and the subnational units (decentralization).


Rebuilding government and reestablishing or strengthening a viable social contract between the state and its citizens is a long-term endeavor. Apart from the first end-state condition in FM 3-07, a safe and secure environment, the others are highly unlikely to be in place by the time a given stability operation concludes. The unifying thread throughout all stability operations tasks, then, is to contribute as much as possible to establishing the foundation upon which the host country can build to achieve those end-state conditions over time. The guidance offered in this document is shaped by this consideration, and the options offered are geared toward actions that can create and reinforce host country actors' capacity to fulfill the three sets of governance functions necessary for a functioning, viable society.

This concluding section highlights this unifying thread with some suggestions for how S&R actors can increase the chances that actions will contribute to rebuilding government and enabling good governance. It offers thoughts on two topics: context and initial conditions, and prioritizing and sequencing.


It is now commonplace to stress that context matters for post-conflict reconstruction. But how it matters is more difficult to specify. Stability operations confront situations where a complex confluence of societal patterns and fissures has led to the eruption of violent conflict and the breakdown of order. This conflict is deeply rooted in history, culture, and indigenous institutions. Thus the initial conditions for S&R actors—that is, the starting point for stability operations—are for the host country a product of past institutional dynamics, socio-cultural interactions, resource endowments, and trigger events. These various factors create what is called path dependence, which means that the possibilities for social and institutional change today are significantly constrained by previous institutional choices and societal evolution. For example, the machinery of government discussed above—the parts, and the rules of the game—are highly path dependent. This is not to say that the institutional architecture of the state, both formal and informal, cannot be changed. History is not destiny; nonetheless, whether rebuilt government and governance reforms "stick" or not has a lot to do with what has come before.

The terminology of stability operations, with the emphasis on rebuilding and reconstruction, conjures images of architects, masons, carpenters, and electricians erecting a house. Yet societal reconstruction is a much more disorderly, uncertain, and long-term process. House builders have a high degree of control over the variables involved, but for peacekeepers reconstituting a government, S&R actors, the controllable variables are much more limited. The challenge for stability operations is to distinguish the uncontrollable factors in the country context from those variables S&R actors can control.

This manual joins FM 3-07 in emphasizing the importance of gathering and applying contextual knowledge for the design and implementation of stability operations. The following provide some summary guidance for looking at country context.

Identify sources of political will and commitment. As noted, S&R actors need to connect and build consensus with those individuals and groups in the host country that have an interest in supporting the objectives of the stability operation. Among the lessons from experience is the importance of country actors who can set direction, engender legitimacy for change, and build constituencies (policy champions). Identifying and working with such leaders can be a critical step toward establishing ownership and political will. As remarked earlier, sorting the conflict entrepreneurs and spoilers from the "good guys" is rarely straightforward. "Good" may be relative: leaders in post-conflict societies may be former military combatants (government, militia, or insurgent) or civilian authoritarian actors whose commitments to a new order of democratic rule are likely to be less than whole-hearted.

Reaching the ultimate aim of stability operations requires that what begins as a process originated by outsiders becomes owned by country actors with the political will to rebuild and reconstruct forward on their own initiative. Detecting and reinforcing political will and commitment can be enhanced by: (1) understanding how the peacekeeper-country relationship affects the interests and motivation of country actors (and not simply national decisionmakers), (2) creating space for those with a stake in creating stability and moving toward more democratic governance, and (3) identifying the pressures and incentives within the host country society that each of the host country actors face. The institutional rules of the game will be particularly key to this latter assessment.

Integrate conflict sensitivity into contextual assessment. Throughout the manual, the stress has been on targeting early interventions on those elements of government rebuilding that address the original causes of conflict—grievances, ethnic fissures, and unequal distribution of resources and services. For example, start with the public services that citizens see as most critical for restoration and pay attention to perceived fairness and equity in distribution. Or pay attention to whether the behavior of public officials (e.g., police or district department heads) is engendering positive support among the population for a new government or is undermining state legitimacy and support through abuse and corruption. Numerous tools exist to integrate sensitivity to conflict issues into analyses of country contexts. One or more of these should be employed in preparing for, and carrying out, the options for rebuilding government reviewed in this manual.79

Rebuilding government should be grounded in indigenous processes and "rules of thegame." The above analysis highlights the importance of connecting S&R activities to rebuild government to indigenous practices. This can help for two reasons: (1) it can increase the chances that reforms will be seen by country actors as relevant and appropriate for their circumstances, which can assist in institutionalizing change; and (2) in cases where the formal state is weak and incapable, reliance on traditional practices can be the quickest route to providing some level of services. The traditional mechanisms for adjudication of conflicts presented above are an example. Rebuilding government options should look for ways to anchor reforms in contextually relevant practices, while remaining sensitive to the possibilities that some of those practices may have had a role in reinforcing inequity, exclusion, and/or exploitation, and may therefore have instigated conflict. Thus the conduct of conflict-sensitive assessment will contribute in such cases.

Reassess continually. As with any intervention in complex situations with a lot of unknowns, effective contextual analysis is not a one-shot activity. While perhaps not as dramatic and fast-moving as the shifting circumstances of kinetic operations, nevertheless, stability operations can confront rapidly changing conditions as well. The balance between controllable and uncontrollable variables that was present at entry—the initial conditions—will inevitably shift over time during the life of a stability operation, partly as a result of the interventions that S&R actors pursue. As political space opens, new leaders and citizens can become aware of different possibilities, debate new ideas and processes, and shed or modify old governance patterns. Constant and regular monitoring is essential for tracking progress and adjusting tactics and strategy.

Prioritizing and Sequencing. While there are relatively clear priorities in specific settings that dictate "ideal" sequencing of stability operations activities intended to rebuild or restore governance, there is no single "best" sequence that fits all circumstances beyond the well-recognized observation that safety and security merit immediate attention. The biggest difference in the circumstances in which stability operations take place affecting sequencing is the degree to which the mandate (international or unilateral) is to (1) rebuild or restore government where it has virtually ceased to function in the entire country, or (2) support an existing government in a conflict, post-conflict, or large-scale natural disaster situation to address governance issues in a region within the country. In the former circumstance, the basic rules of the game are largely inoperable or failing badly across the entire country. The economy likely has almost ceased to function except at the very local, and mostly informal, level; institutions of government are widely regarded as having failed and as illegitimate representatives of society's aspirations; and security conditions are likely to be dangerous in much of the country. In these circumstances, stability operations, usually under some international mandate, in many ways act in place of government for a period of time. Stability operations and their aftermath result in a new regime, substantial modifications in the system of governance, legal and economic reforms, and a new social contract that revises expectations regarding the relationship between citizens and government. Within the framework of peace accords or an imposed settlement, S&R actors have considerable leeway in what they do and in sequencing.

Where conflict or disaster has affected only a part of a country, and the existing governance system and regime remains in place, S&R personnel typically operate according to quite restricted mandates focused mainly on the affected locale(s) and not likely extending to fundamental governance or economic reforms. In these circumstances,existing government institutions, even though they may be regarded by many citizens as ineffective or even illegitimate, nonetheless continue to function in much of the country, and there is no international mandate for stability operations carried out within part of a country to fundamentally replace existing institutions, constitutional structures, or governance processes. It may well be that a serious breakdown of governance or major dysfunctions in the relationship between the state and citizens in the affected region has led to the violent conflict preceding stability operations. However, stability operations themselves are unlikely to include addressing the fundamental rules of the game in the existing system. Not only is the mandate for stability operations more limited, but sequencing of S&R activities is affected also.

Regime Replacement.

In the case of a UN or international mandate to replace the existing regime or to deal with complete state failure, stability operations are likely to involve international actors, particularly peacekeeping forces, in a temporary assumption of authority throughout the country. Interim governance includes fundamental governance tasks, including restoring order; disarming or otherwise neutralizing combatants; addressing urgent humanitarian needs for food, medical care, and shelter; initially providing basic services; repairing or rehabilitating damaged or destroyed infrastructure and other public facilities; maintaining civil order and dealing with criminal and civil justice issues; and taking on the roles and responsibilities of public officials. These are the more immediate S&R tasks to perform.

As the immediate tasks are met, as rapidly as possible stability operations turn over to interim government officials many of the tasks that the military and civilian personnel (government, contractor, or NGOs) have been performing on a temporary basis. The authorities that these interim officials will exercise will be different from those of the previous regime.

Box 21. Transitional Administration in Iraq.
For example, in Iraq the Transitional Administrative Law (TAL) written by the CPA, along with several CPA directives, created an entirely new authority structure between central and local government, establishing provincial, district, and sub-district levels of government for the first time in Iraq's history. These laws and directives were in effect for the last several months of the CPA and, by agreement of the interim Iraqi government that succeeded the CPA in late June 2004, remained in effect until superseded by a new constitution and new legislation authored by a new permanent Iraqi government. Stability operations thus involved creating a new, albeit temporary, governance system that then was run by an interim Iraqi government, but assisted financially and technically by ongoing stability operations and a transition to more traditional development assistance and diplomacy activities.

In the case of prolonged violent conflict, the military may need to provide the support to rebuilding government during stability operations that in other nonkinetic situations would be considered by some as traditional development assistance. In Iraq, stability operations have continued to provide substantial support to rebuilding government, both through independent activities and in close coordination with traditional development assistance and diplomatic activities, primarily focusing on strengthening the capacity of, and bringing resources to bear at, the provincial and lower levels of government. In this kind of extreme circumstance, the distinction between stability operations and regular development and diplomacy activities is blurred.

Stability Operations in Support of an Existing, Functioning Regime.

As discussed, stability operations are different in degree, sequencing, and concept when they take place within a country where conflict or a natural disaster surpasses the coping capacity of the existing regime, but is sufficiently localized that regime replacement is not one of the options. Immediate and urgent actions to address humanitarian assistance needs for food, water, shelter, and medical care are highest on the priority list. Military forces may, in fact, temporarily perform the functions of government officials in the affected locale(s) within the country when local authority has dissolved or is unable to function, and central government is temporarily unable to mobilize personnel and resources. Actions that are designed to reform an existing or previous, now deposed, government typically are not part of stability operations when they are undertaken in support of an existing, functioning regime. Even when an existing regime's coping with the conflict or the natural disaster is ineffective, or where its policies and practices toward a particular geographic region or ethnic minority contributed to the outbreak of violence, the peacekeepers may have a limited mandate to deal with the root causes.

That is not to say that there may not already be ongoing efforts by diplomatic means and development assistance to exert pressure for reform. But it is likely that these will have preceded the onset of stability operations that are precipitated by an escalation of violence and conflict, and that they will not be merged into the mandate and management of stability operations. An interesting exception is the post-tsunami reconstruction in Aceh Province in Indonesia. Prior to the tsunami the Indonesian government did not permit development assistance programs in the province and turned a deaf ear to diplomatic initiatives. However, the scale of the disaster and the need for substantial external assistance opened the door not only to emergency humanitarian relief, but also to a fresh look by the government as well as international actors at the issues that had heretofore affected that province. As a result, local governance reforms assisted by stability operations and development assistance programs have had an impact on the character of the regime. Similarly, governance issues are being addressed in areas of the Philippines where stability operations are taking place in coordination with central government.

But overall, these types of stability operations are more time-limited, have less far reaching effects on governance and the governance system, and are more focused on immediate and/or temporary support until the existing regime is once again able to resume control and perform the basic functions of government. Longer-term governance reform will most likely be the focus of diplomatic and development initiatives that follow stability operations.


79. See the Interagency Conflict Assessment Framework, Washington, DC: International College of the Armed Forces (ICAF), summarized in Annex D of FM 3-07. Other useful analytic tools can be found on the website of USAID's Office of Conflict Management and Mitigation at www.usaid.gov/our_work/cross-cutting_programs/conflict/