As troops come home from Iraq and we draw down forces in Afghanistan, there is little reason to breathe the sigh of relief that should accompany the end of conflict. American troops are being drawn down in a region whose political actors include extreme jihadists and Salafists, dangerously armed regimes eager to maintain power, and criminal groups. Instead of stable governments there are many fragile political experiments. The demise of a few egregious despots does not make the Islamic world stable or peaceful. We face years, even decades, of uncertainty and potential turbulence, where regimes can shift or implode quickly, creating crises that may require American forces on the ground to protect our interests.
And it’s not just the Middle East. With half of the world’s 200 nation states weak or failing, there are many potential hot spots that could erupt in vaguely comprehended political dramas. We could be forced to choose between ceding territory—de facto isolationism—and sending our troops to occupy territory. Neither should be our first choice.
There is a third approach. The United States could embrace a smarter, more adaptive security paradigm that complements military capabilities with new and improved intelligence and political operations, some relearned during our experiences in the first decade of this uncertain century. A U.S. leader who wants to prevent military conflict while maintaining America’s national security and global preeminence must be committed to understanding—and shaping—politics in volatile places. That entails bolstering leaders, political groups, and movements that share our values. Human rights and honest justice systems, in particular, are pillars of legitimate, stable governments.
U.S. intelligence has improved greatly over the past decade, with enhanced skill sets and expensive hightech systems. But if our goal is to know what is happening in a country, particularly in critical regions, we need to expand and reconfigure our human intelligence capabilities. We will need large numbers of trained professionals with local knowledge, foreign language skills, and the ability to operate for long periods in a given region. Building this force is difficult, though now we have a pool of resourceful veterans with years of experience in Iraq and Afghanistan, whose knowledge it would be a pity to waste.
What is the payoff? Consider how much better off we would be had we anticipated the series of events known as the Arab Spring. The region is critical to U.S. interests, yet we still have little concrete sense of where politics are headed. U.S. leaders are forced to negotiate with a multitude of emerging political actors we don’t sufficiently understand. We don’t have to accept this vulnerability. Given that we are competing around the globe with dedicated Islamic extremists and corrupt and criminal elites, our civilian leaders and military planners can’t afford to be blindsided again.
Another way to enhance intelligence gathering is by training the intelligence forces of our smaller allies. In the last decade we have honed the ability to train partners in Iraq and Afghanistan in methods that do not reveal ours, and which can be practiced by people limited to low-tech operations. Helping train these willing partners can dramatically multiply eyes on the ground, increasing the acquisition of information both nations need.
Creating a corps of professional political operators to help governments, as well as nonstate political organizations, achieve legitimacy and stability is a complicated endeavor. Some of it we have done for decades: helping emerging democracies set up a free press, hold elections, and bolster the technical capabilities of law enforcement and security forces. Some problems are better solved—and ideally avoided—with political reforms. Cultures that lack institutions of modern statehood, or have long traditions of corruption or political violence, need help achieving political goals. Many of them welcome such assistance. The United States has pieces here and there.
But a serious capability to head off crises and military conflict that might involve us will require a new U.S. force of political operators. They will need appropriate training and career paths that include embassy-based work, as well as more entrepreneurial political work “outside the wire” in civil society. To be effective at building local trust and connections, operators should remain in place for long deployments.