Nation-Building Approaches Continue to Evolve as SysAdmin Comes of Age

Stephen DeAngelis

March 24, 2010

Because of Enterra Solutions’ continuing interest in helping develop economies in emerging market countries, I have written a number of posts that have discussed the System Administrator concept proposed by my colleague Thomas Barnett. Tom has long argued that the U.S. is second-to-none when it comes to winning wars; but it has demonstrated much less acumen when it comes to securing the peace. The SysAdmin force (as Tom likes to call it) is envisioned as an interagency organization that brings to bear all of the nation’s toolkit (from force to diplomacy to economics) to either prevent conflicts or secure the peace in the aftermath of conflict. The SysAdmin force would have a security component but it would primarily consist of non-military personnel conducting non-military activities. When Tom first proposed this concept, there were more snickers than cheers. Over time, however, the concept has become increasingly embraced by military, government, non-government, and commercial organizations.

Blogger Larry Dunbar, for example, notes that the military’s Advise and Assist Brigades bear similarities to the SysAdmin force envisioned by Tom [“A Rose by Any Other Name…,” 10 March 2010]. Dunbar continues:

“There was no mention of it being manned by forces other than American forces. What was mentioned, and this is very important for a System Administration Force, that, to paraphrase, it is designed to rock the enemy back on their heels if necessary. These Advise and Assist Brigades are designed to take-over where the conventional forces will leave-off, when the conventional force, or as Dr. Barnett calls them the ‘Leviathan’ forces, are pulled-out. … Although it wasn’t mentioned at [a Congressional] hearing [on the subject], these forces will be equipped with the latest ‘Government in a box’ application developed in part by Oak Ridge Laboratories of the atom bomb fame. While the remarks pertaining to the Advise and Assist Brigades were not give much significance, the brigades represents a real new development in dealing with the insurgency … and conflict management generally and globally. Advise and Assist Brigades represent a combination of many strategies. Part counter insurgency and part counter terrorism, with a little bit of nation-building thrown in for good measure. While it may sound similar to the ‘advisors’ of the old Vietnam era war, I think it will be a part of a whole new strategy, especially when it is finally determined who is advising and who is assisting. Those advising and assisting will be from structures that form similar patterns, but will be from different origins. Advise and Assist Brigades represent a non-nationalistic military structure.”

Although Tom is pleased that his ideas continue to be discussed, he is even more pleased to see his concepts implemented on the ground — where they can make the difference between life and death and hope and hopelessness. One group that has paid particularly close attention to Tom’s ideas are the United States Marines; and they are putting his ideas to the test [“At Afghan outpost, Marines gone rogue or leading the fight against counterinsurgency?” by Rajiv Chandrasekaran, Washington Post, 14 March 2010]. Chandrasekaran reports on a group of Marines operating in around Delaram, Afghanistan, “home to a dozen truck stops and a few hundred family farms bounded by miles of foreboding desert.” He continues:

“[Delaram] is far from a strategic priority for senior officers at the international military headquarters in Kabul. One calls Delaram, a day’s drive from the nearest city, ‘the end of the Earth.’ Another deems the area ‘unrelated to our core mission’ of defeating the Taliban by protecting Afghans in their cities and towns. U.S. Marine commanders have a different view of the dusty, desolate landscape that surrounds Delaram. They see controlling this corner of remote Nimruz province as essential to promoting economic development and defending the more populated parts of southern Afghanistan. The Marines are constructing a vast base on the outskirts of town that will have two airstrips, an advanced combat hospital, a post office, a large convenience store and rows of housing trailers stretching as far as the eye can see. By this summer, more than 3,000 Marines — one-tenth of the additional troops authorized by President Obama in December — will be based here. … ‘If we’re going to succeed here, we have to experiment and take risks,’ said Brig. Gen. Lawrence D. Nicholson, the top Marine commander in Afghanistan. ‘Just doing what everyone else is doing isn’t going to cut it.’ The Marines are pushing into previously ignored Taliban enclaves. They have set up a first-of-its-kind school to train police officers. They have brought in a Muslim chaplain to pray with local mullahs and deployed teams of female Marines to reach out to Afghan women. The Marine approach — creative, aggressive and, at times, unorthodox — has won many admirers within the military. The Marine emphasis on patrolling by foot and interacting with the population, which has helped to turn former insurgent strongholds along the Helmand River valley into reasonably stable communities with thriving bazaars and functioning schools, is hailed as a model of how U.S. forces should implement counterinsurgency strategy.”

Despite the fact that the Marines are achieving some success, Chandrasekaran reports that not everyone is pleased. The Marines are operating with a greater degree of autonomy than other forces in Afghanistan which has led some critics to proclaim “that the international security force in Afghanistan feels as if it comprises 42 nations instead of 41 because the Marines act so independently from other U.S. forces.” The Marines desire for autonomy has roots that stretch all the way back to the Second World War. Chandrasekaran explains:

“The Marine demand to be supported by their own aviators and logisticians has roots in the World War II battles for Guadalcanal and Tarawa. Marines landing on the Pacific islands did not receive the support they had expected from Navy ships and aircraft. Since then, Marine commanders have insisted on deploying with their own aviation and supply units. They did so in Vietnam, and in Iraq.”

If you have watched the first couple of episodes of HBO’s miniseries “Pacific,” you understand why the Marines are passionate on this subject. Their autonomy, however, has permitted them to operate in unique ways. Chandrasekaran continues:

“Marine commanders note that they did not choose to go to Helmand — they were asked to go there by McChrystal’s predecessor, Gen. David D. McKiernan, because British forces in the area were unable to contain the intensifying insurgency. But once they arrived, they became determined to show they could rescue the place, in much the same way they helped to turn around Anbar province in Iraq. They also became believers in Helmand’s strategic importance. ‘You cannot fix Kandahar without fixing Helmand,’ Nicholson said. ‘The insurgency there draws support from the insurgency here.’ The Marine concentration in one part of the country — as opposed to Army units, which are spread across Afghanistan — has yielded a pride of place. As it did in Anbar, the Corps is sending some of its most talented young officers to Helmand. The result has been a degree of experimentation and innovation unseen in most other parts of the country. Although they account for half of the Afghan population, women had been avoided by military forces, particularly in the conservative south, because it is regarded as taboo for women to interact with males with whom they are not related. In an effort to reach out to them, the Marines have established ‘female engagement teams.’ Made up principally of female Marines who came to Afghanistan to work in support jobs, the teams accompany combat patrols and seek to sit down with women in villages. Working with female translators, team members answer questions, dispense medical assistance and identify reconstruction needs. Master Sgt. Julia Watson said the effort has had one major unexpected consequence. ‘Men have really opened up after they see us helping their wives and sisters,’ she said. The Marines have sought to jump into another void by establishing their own police academy at Camp Leatherneck in Helmand instead of waiting for the U.S. military’s national training program to provide recruits. The Marines also are seeking to do something that the military has not been able to do on a national scale: reduce police corruption by accepting only recruits vouched for by tribal elders. … Then there’s what Marines call the ‘mullahpalooza tour.’ Although most U.S. military units have avoided direct engagement with religious leaders in Afghanistan, Nicholson has brought over Lt. Cmdr. Abuhena Saifulislam, one of only two imams in the U.S. Navy, to spend a month meeting — and praying with — local mullahs, reasoning that the failure to interact with them made it easier for them to be swayed by the Taliban.”

The most important thing is that the strategy appears to be working. Chandrasekaran explains:

“In December, columns of Marine armored vehicles punched into the city of Now Zad in northern Helmand. Once the second-largest town in the province, it had been almost completely emptied of its residents over the past four years as insurgents mined the roads and buildings with hundreds of homemade bombs. Successive units of British and U.S. troops had been largely confined to a Fort Apache-like base in the town. Every time they ventured out, they’d be shot at or bombed. To Nicholson and his commanders, reclaiming the town, which the Marines accomplished within a few weeks, has been a crucial step in demonstrating to Helmand residents that U.S. forces are committed to getting rid of the Taliban. … Nicholson notes that Helmand’s governor supported the operation, as did many local tribal leaders. Hundreds of residents have returned in recent weeks, and at least 65 shops have reopened, according to Marine officers stationed in Now Zad.”

The success generated by SysAdmin-like operations has not gone unnoticed. In a recent article Tom reported on an amazing “living city in crisis” that serves as a training ground for such operations [“The New Rules: Vision for the Long War Finds a Home,” World Politics Review, 22 March 2010]. This training ground, the Camp Atterbury-Muscatatuck Center for Complex Operations, is located an hour south of Indianapolis, Indiana. Tom reports:

“For close to a decade now I’ve been roaming the world, delivering in Johnny Appleseed fashion a message that I refined just after 9/11 for the secretary of defense’s Office of Force Transformation: The world’s core powers must develop a systemic approach to postwar and post-disaster coalition interventions inside what I call the ‘Non-Integrated Gap,’ by which I mean those countries and regions least connected to globalization. This vision encompasses the so-called ‘whole of government’ approach, but extends it vigorously to also include the private sector, based on the knowledge that jobs are the only exit strategy. In short, when it comes to rehabilitating failed and failing states, ‘Treat ’em and street ’em,’ doesn’t translate to victory in a meaningful sense. Of course, vision alone accomplishes nothing. It only finds purchase where operational realities pile up, triggering bureaucratic responses. Iraq and Afghanistan represent a tsunami of operational experience building up, and they have triggered all manner of bottom-up responses throughout the U.S. government — in the form of personnel and units and agencies looking to both expand their capabilities and connect with one another in larger, more effective combinations.”

To support his vision, Tom has remarked (somewhat tongue-in-cheek) that a new Department of Everything Else needs to be established to oversee the functioning and funding of a SysAdmin force. At Camp Atterbury he sees the beginnings of better interagency cooperation. He explains:

“The center is a thoroughly impressive and innovative effort to construct an urban training center of unprecedented scale and realism. Even better, it is for use by virtually any public entity in the United States that is looking to get smarter on everything from defending the homeland to winning the peace overseas. The sprawling facility’s history is fascinating in and of itself. It originally housed the Indiana State Farm for the Feebleminded, which was founded in 1920 and eventually grew into an isolated colony of 6,000 inhabitants — about half patients and half staff — during the Great Depression. It subsequently morphed into a co-educational facility, surviving in that manner for decades, before being leased in 2005 by the state to the Army in an arrangement not unlike a mall, with the U.S. Army serving as the ‘anchor store’ and providing 49 percent of the funding. The business model here is equally intriguing. Atterbury’s commanding officer, Gen. Clif Tooley, describes it as the “stone soup” approach from the familiar children’s story: All the entities that utilize the training facility contribute to its development. A good example is the detention facility — or jail — still under construction. The original building hails from the days of the work farm. Today, its three floors are being fitted out — in the manner of a hands-on museum — with cells from three different historical eras, meaning trainees can prepare themselves for a variety of back-to-the-future operational environments typical of developing economies and former colonies. All of the cells are recycled from actual closed facilities — emblematic of the entire facility’s gritty frugality. … Tooley boasts that it’s hard to beat Muscatatuck’s ‘sheer volume and complexity,’ a claim whose validity is immediately apparent to any visitor. Dozens of originally constructed administrative structures, which evoke the stolid architecture of many a Third World capital, are being augmented by dozens more to create the dense urban corridor of ‘Lubak’ city. (For its real-world inspiration, just spell the name backwards.) Imagine Disney’s EPCOT theme park, but instead of fairy tale-like urban recreations from around the world, think crowded urban slums, rubble-strewn houses, a shantytown and hard-scrabble farms. On one end of the ‘studio lot’ is an oil refinery that can be blown up on command, on another, a six-story hotel, ‘pre-damaged’ to look like a car bomb or earthquake just caved in one of its sides. You want to practice post-quake search-and-rescue? Muscatatuck has fields of rubble galore. You need to familiarize yourself with the day-to-day workings of Third World farms? Muscatatuck can even provide the animals. Everyone on the base, it seems, is a real-world vendor or business that services the upwards of 2,000 personnel who populate it on a daily basis. The catch? Depending on the exercise, everybody is potentially in play. … But what most thrills this would-be Johnny Appleseed is Tooley’s ultimate goal: turning Muscatatuck into a mecca for any local, state, federal or allied agency looking to achieve ‘doctoral level’ training in complex operating environments. By drawing them in and ‘mushing them together,’ Tooley plans to build the social networks that make the goal of ‘whole of government’ — indeed, ‘whole of coalition’ — operations an enduring reality.”

To see pictures that Tom took while visiting the Center, click on his Weblog. All of this SysAdmin-like activity has not gone unnoticed by defense industry executives. As military efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan wind down, they see an inevitable decrease in revenues from big-ticket military hardware sales. On the other hand, they see a potential new source of revenue in supporting SysAdmin-like operations [“Defense Industry Pursues Gold in ‘Smart Power’ Deals,” by August Cole, Wall Street Journal, 23 March 2010]. Cole reports:

“Lockheed Martin Corp. became the nation’s No. 1 military contractor by selling cutting-edge weaponry like the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. Its latest contribution to the U.S. arsenal: training prosecutors in Liberia’s Justice Ministry. The U.S. government has hired the defense contractor to test an emerging tenet of its security policy. Called ‘smart power,’ it blends military might with nation-building activities, in hopes of boosting political stability and American influence in far-flung corners such as Liberia. U.S. officials are concerned that nations imperiled by poverty and political strife could spark regional conflicts and foster terrorist networks. Defense Secretary Robert Gates says the problem posed by failing states ‘is in many ways the ideological and security challenge of our time.’ The Pentagon and the State Department are now leaning on defense contractors to come up with ways to stave off crises before they occur, with programs as simple as mentoring lawyers or teaching auto repair. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has advocated for ‘smart power’ initiatives abroad. In a speech earlier this month, the Pentagon’s top officer, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Adm. Mike Mullen, talked about the need for more civilian efforts—or ‘soft power’—overseas, instead of just military muscle.”

A decade ago, one would have been hard-pressed to find anyone besides Tom predicting that “smart” or “soft” power would play such a central role in America’s national security strategy. Recently, the Chairman of the Joints Chiefs of Staff, Mike Mullen, stated, “Should we choose to exert American influence solely through our troops, we should expect to see that influence diminish in time.” With the extent of America’s economic influence now being questioned, it would be foolish to pursue strategies that diminish its influence in other areas as well. Cole continues:

“Defense firms are eager to oblige. ‘The definition of global security is changing,’ says Lockheed’s Chairman and Chief Executive Robert Stevens. … Lockheed is one of several defense firms expected to bid for a State Department contract to support ‘criminal justice sector development programs world-wide,’ that could be worth up to $30 billion over five years. Northrop Grumman Corp., the No. 3 Pentagon contractor behind Boeing, has trained Senegalese peacekeeping troops in the basics of human-rights law. Another giant defense contractor, BAE Systems Inc., has provided anthropologists to accompany U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan to aid understanding of local cultures. BAE said it is seeking more ‘smart power’ contracts, including in Africa, where much of the government’s efforts are being targeted. … Morgan Stanley defense analyst Heidi Wood says Lockheed’s early push into this realm sets it apart from competitors. It is too soon to pinpoint a financial impact, she says, but the moves will pay off. ‘It’s a complete paradigm change.'”

Not surprisingly, Cole reports that critics question whether defense firms are “the right ones to carry these programs out.” They also wonder, should desired results not be achieved, if Congress will have any better luck halting soft power programs than they have had stopping hard power programs. Cole continues:

“Defense firms are going into an area that was the domain of smaller firms and nongovernmental organizations, not shareholder-minded corporate giants. [William Hartung, director of the Arms and Security Initiative at the New America Foundation, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington,] questions whether defense firms have a long-term commitment to this kind of work. ‘It’s a little bit outside their comfort zone and different from their normal corporate activity,’ he says. Recently, defense firms have begun investing in this direction. In January, DynCorp International Inc. bought Casals & Associates Inc., which specializes in building up public-health and legal systems in the developing world. … In 2008, L-3 Communications Holdings Inc., a major military technology and services contractor, bought International Resources Group Ltd., which works on economic development, energy and other projects in dozens of countries. … In 2006, Lockheed spent $700 million to acquire Pacific Architects and Engineers Inc., which built bases for the U.S. during the Vietnam War and more recently did extensive work in Africa for the U.N.”

None of this should be surprising. Companies will always try to position themselves in front of money flows. The fact that defense companies have acquired expertise rather than pretend they can build it in-house is a good sign. As the developed world in general and the U.S. specifically grow weary of conflict, it is natural to look for new and better ways to promote international security. “‘We cannot kill or capture our way to victory,’ Mr. Gates said in a 2008 speech that outlined the new policy. He has said the biggest threats to U.S. security ’emanate from fractured or failed states,’ and to combat them, the Pentagon needs to engage with these countries in a way ‘that reduces the need for direct U.S. military intervention.'” It seems the SysAdmin concept has come of age.