Getting Stability and Reconstruction Ops Right…the Next Time

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U.S.-led reconstruction operations in Afghanistan have been plagued with problems.

I am the sponsor of a recently introduced bill, H.R. 2606, along with my colleague Peter Welch, Democrat of Vermont, calling for the establishment of a U.S. Office of Contingency Operations.

Why is this necessary?

Bluntly speaking, the way the United States currently plans for and implements stabilization and reconstruction operations does not work. The experience over the past decade of many of our military personnel and civilians, hundreds of whom lost their lives while involved in reconstruction work in Iraq and Afghanistan, confirm that the status quo is not viable.

In too many instances our national interests were actually harmed. We suffered not only the loss of lives and treasure but lost opportunities. We also suffered a diminution of our reputation as friends of the Iraqi and Afghan people due to duplicative, poorly-planned, and poorly-executed programs.

We must do better.

It is also a near-certainty, regardless of where you are on the political spectrum, that the United States will be involved in another stabilization and reconstruction operation. While they won’t be on the scale of Iraq and Afghanistan, they will still be dangerous, complex, multifaceted challenges which will require an agency that can break apart organizational stovepipes to produce an integrated, cross-agency planning capability — something we currently do not have.

Furthermore, creation of U.S. Office of Contingency Operations would go a long way towards minimizing unnecessary federal spending, which is a critical national priority.

Consider that over the past 10 years, the American people have spent $160 billion on the stabilization and reconstruction of Iraq and Afghanistan. Too much of this money – tens of billions – was wasted, because of a lack of planning and proper execution by administrations of both parties.

No one wants a war, but we must be prepared when they occur. Our concerns about potential overseas missions should not prevent us from doing a much better job to prepare for the inevitable.

H.R. 2606 would establish a small agency to replace the “adhocracy” that governs these efforts now. At the cost of $25 million annually, and with a staff of about 125, post-conflict stabilization operations can be planned by an organization which would also lead our response to these important missions.

In Iraq, these tasks were performed by officials in organizations for which the reconstruction and stabilization mission is both an extra duty and a distraction from their main missions of diplomacy, defense, or development. Having a single agency execute the mission will provide a level of accountability to the American people that was absent in Iraq. The bill is based on a recommendation by the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction, Stuart W. Bowen, Jr.

The bill is already attracting support across the political spectrum:

H.R. 2606 sets the course for the surest path to correct the failures of the U.S. stabilization and reconstruction operations over the past three decades. By establishing a U.S. Office of Contingency Operations, Congress will create a lean institution dedicated to planning, preparing and executing future stabilization and reconstruction operations. It will bring together the best of all worlds and provide unity of direction and uninterrupted vision so that the U.S. meets the challenges faced in future post-conflict situations.

Ambassador Ryan Crocker, who served as U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Syria, Kuwait and Lebanon.

(N)either the State Department nor USAID hires or trains people in large numbers for stability operations…This was evident during our engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan. Experience has shown that we need a corps of dedicated civilian professionals in order to conduct these stabilization operations well. This is where USOCO comes in…It would provide the first stability operations professionals ready to respond to emergencies abroad…When I was in charge of the S/CRS office at State…(there did) not seem to be a readiness on the part of the rest of the building to use it. It was something of a foreign entity in the State Department.

— Ambassador John Herbst, who served as coordinator for reconstruction and stabilization under Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

The fact of the matter is that the Department of Defense has been in the lead in our most recent stabilization and reconstruction operations. Unfortunately, this has created a situation where the core competencies of other government agencies and departments have not been adequately brought to bear. This is far from the optimum allocation of burdens among agencies – or the best results for the nation. Better integration of government agencies into an entity like the U.S. Office for Contingency Operations, as proposed in H.R. 2606, would be a giant step forward.

— Guy C. Swan III, retired U.S. Army lieutenant general and former chief of staff for Multi-National Force – Iraq.

We need a US Office for Contingency Operations now more than ever. We have an obligation to do better at the work of reconstruction and stabilization, and that is why H.R. 2606 is so essential. Reps Stockman and Welch have hit upon a bi-partisan and very workable solution.

— Michael Shank, director of foreign policy at the Friends Committee on National Legislation.

H.R. 2606 would help resolve long-standing, vexing and costly problems that have occurred during reconstruction following overseas missions. Tens of billions of dollars have been wasted in part because no single entity has been in charge of these activities. While there will be an annual $25 million cost for the new U.S. Office of Contingency Operations, the savings realized from the streamlining of operations and centralized oversight will more than compensate for this expense.  As just one example, a $40 million dollar prison, abandoned after being only partially constructed at Kahn Bani Sa’ad, Iraq, will never be used for its intended purpose — and cost $15 million more than the annual cost to run the contingency operations office.

Tom Schatz, president of the Council for Citizens Against Government Waste.

If we are truly serious about supporting our troops and civilians when we send them into future stabilization and reconstruction operations, then we should start long before they are deployed by ensuring that we have done the best possible planning for their use. A U.S. Office of Contingency Operations would do just that.

Rep. Steve Stockman is a Republican representing the 36th District of Texas, and serves on the foreign affairs committee.