Thinking Strategically About Transitionby Dr. Rich Yarger
The aftermath of the Cold War posed unanticipated challenges to U.S. national security. In response, the U.S. military adopted full spectrum operations in order to focus renewed attention on the importance of stability operations and the "...continuous, simultaneous, combinations of offensive, defensive, and stability tasks..."1 inherent to the kaleidoscope of 21st century military missions.
Stability operations leverage the coercive and constructive capabilities of the military force to establish a safe and secure environment; facilitate reconciliation among local or regional adversaries; establish political, legal, social, and economic institutions; and facilitate the transition [author's emphasis] of responsibility to a legitimate civil authority. Through stability operations, military forces help to set the conditions that enable the actions of the other instruments of national power to succeed...2
Transition is an important concept in stability operations, but it is inherently problematic and poorly understood. It has multiple meanings depending on where on the spectrum of conflict the stability operations are conducted and the level at which you are participating—strategic, operational, or tactical. As our experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan continue to illustrate and the emergence of "whole of government" and "comprehensive" approaches emphasize, transition is a strategic issue of the first order. It is well past the time to take a closer look at the volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity (VUCA) that elevates transition to the strategic level of concern and the implications
for U.S. strategy, planning, and operations.
You can only reduce the VUCA of transition if you first embrace it—you must comprehend what transition is, how to think strategically about it, and how it fits into strategy, planning, and tactics. While such understanding of transition is complicated by the lack of an appropriate definition
and theoretical construct, the basis of both exists in a growing literature in conflict studies and state-building and the collective practical experience acquired over the past twenty years by the United Nations, sponsor states, and nongovernmental organizations. Transition can broadly be described
A process or set of processes leading to a specific decision point in conditions and time that morally and legitimately justify the transfer of responsibility, authority, power (capabilities, resources and influence), and accountability for governmental responsibilities to aspiring host nation agencies and authorities from external and internal actors who have assumed host state functions of sovereignty through challenge, necessity, or practice. Transition's moral and legitimacy qualities require manifestation of the host nation populace's acceptance of the government in power, adherence to accepted international standards of good governance, and evidence of sufficient capacity to be successful. Transition occurs incrementally on multiple levels (tactical, operational, and strategic) over time, but success is ultimately defined by acceptable host nation sovereignty.3
This description offers an encompassing definition for transition and the components of a theoretical framework. Success is defined as an acceptable host nation sovereignty: (1) a state government that is acceptable to its own population, implying internal legitimacy; (2) one that adheres to accepted international standards of good governance, implying external legitimacy; and (3) evidence of sufficient capacity, implying competence, organization, and infra-structure in governance, services, security, and economics. It suggests that moral, legal, cultural, and power contexts matter and accepts that multiple internal and external actors have usurped the state's sovereignty for numerous and varied reasons, and in differing ways. It acknowledges that transition is a shared responsibility and collaborative act among the usurpers and an aspiring host nation government. It is small wonder that transition exhibits the strategic characteristics of VUCA.
Transitions are collaborative and interactive processes that occur between and among state and non-state actors and the host nation at all levels—tactical, operational, and strategic. Successful transition at the strategic level does not occur until transition at lower levels is sufficiently nested in volume (capacity), kind (capabilities), and quality (competence) in a national paradigm. This choreographed relationship among capacity, capabilities, and competence across levels and time builds resilience and manages expectations. In order to facilitate this nesting, the host nation's national paradigm—narrative, identity, governance, rule of law, security, economic and fiscal infrastructure, physical infrastructure, and services—must provide an acceptable pattern, establish favorable conditions for individual and community success, support realistic expectations, and be self-sustaining. A national paradigm must consider local, national, and international perspectives in regard to governance as well as the cultural, social, and geographic realities in which the state exists-context matters! It must be mindful of the past, aware of immediate expectations, and accommodate the long-term—seeking a calculated balance that leads to a peaceful and prosperous stability. Processes and actions at lower levels must nest into the national paradigm, adhering to the pattern and contributing to the favorable conditions and self sustainment—but the national paradigm must facilitate this nesting in vision, stimulus, and capacity in and over time. Consequently, leadership and shaping context are key components of any transition effort.
Since transition occurs incrementally on multiple levels and these levels are interdependent, the leadership of the host nation and supporting state(s) and organizations must shape the context for successful transition to occur. The purpose or goal that justifies a transition must be properly articulated and supported by a believable paradigm, hard accomplishments, and consistency in actions and values inherent to the paradigm by both host and supporting actors. In particular, leadership in the host nation and the key supporting state(s) must provide congruent strategic guidance for nesting transition goals and objectives across the strategic, operational, and tactical levels. There must be strategic clarity from both about where the host nation is headed, why the supporting state is present and what they are doing, what the necessary conditions for transition are, and what reasonable expectations should result from a successful transition. Context shaping must be accomplished in such a manner that it accounts for or supplants the interests of the multiple state and non-state actors with their varied interests.
Transition at any level or in any area always involves the transfer of responsibility, authority, power (capabilities, resources, and influence), and accountability. The better the transfer is integrated and negotiated at the various levels and among the various internal and external actors, the higher the probability of a successful transition. The more disparities produced among them—whether between an accepting agency and a transferring agency of the supporting and host states, among or within levels in either, between old and new elites, or with other state and non-state actors—the greater the difficulty and the less likelihood of success. Disparities in volume, kind, and quality at any level or among levels affect transition hierarchically and horizontally, and often exponentially as unmet expectations and apparent inequities materialize. Chance and malevolence can also disrupt transition on any sector and any level. In strategy and planning, transition must be viewed from the perspectives of cumulative, sequential, and simultaneous actions in order to create synergies and success, but also to take advantage of or mitigate unanticipated consequences.
Ultimately, the goal of any transition is a peaceful and prosperous stability within the host nation and in that state's relationships within the international order. Provisional or interim governments may represent progress in transition but they are not a satisfactory political end state for the host nation or long term stability and progress. Properly pursued, transition minimizes corruption and dependency. It significantly enhances the probabilities of the success of the host nation in achieving a new and positive competitive stability in the emerging world order. Leadership within the host nation and the supporting nation must create and pursue national visions for the prosperity and stability for both states that are evident for both populations. For the U.S. military, the professional concern cannot end until any military mission success has been converted into lasting political success. Strategy and planning by the host nation and supporting state create a framework for properly integrated actions at the tactical, operational, and strategic levels leading to this political success. While spoilers may seek other goals, they are out of step with history. Good strategic thinking on the part of the host nation and the United States confirms this.
1Headquarters Department of the Army, Field Manual (FM) 3-07, Stability Operations, Washington, DC:, October 2008, p. 2-1,. 2Ibid, p. 2-2. 3Harry R. Yarger, "Successful State-Building: Thinking Strategically About Stability" (Draft Monograph, U.S. Army Peacekeeping and Stability Operations Institute, Carlisle, Pennsylvania, 2010).
Dr. Rich Yarger is the Ministry Reform Advisor in the Security, Reconstruction and Transition Division of the Peacekeeping & Stability Operations Institute, Carlisle, Pennsylvania. Prior to joining the Institute in September 2009, he served as Professor of National Security Policy in the Department of National Security and Strategy at the U.S. Army War College where he held the Elihu Root Chair of Military Studies.