For 25 years, a small Army office known as the Peacekeeping and Stability Operations Institute has played an outsize role in preparing military personnel and civilians to work in regions recovering from war. But with President Trump’s administration pushing back on such operations, the Army’s top civilian leader has proposed shutting the institute down.
The Army has yet to announce the institute’s fate, but according to sources inside and outside the service, as well as emails obtained by Yahoo News, even the most optimistic outcome will see the institute renamed, with its funding slashed and personnel strength cut by more than two thirds to help pay for higher priorities.
“It is a potential bill-payer for the effort to remodernize the Army,” said retired Lt. Gen. Guy Swan, a vice president of the Association of the U.S. Army.
Founded at the Army War College in Carlisle, Pa., in 1993, the institute, known as PKSOI, serves as the main point of contact with the U.S. military for other government agencies, nongovernmental entities and international organizations, such as NATO and the United Nations, on subjects that include peacekeeping and stability operations and humanitarian assistance. The institute enables those organizations to have input to U.S. military doctrine that concerns these topics.
Army Secretary Mark Esper’s proposal to eliminate the peacekeeping institute has been met with resistance from other areas within the Pentagon, Congress and scores of former government officials, including senior officials in the office of Defense Secretary Jim Mattis.
Inside the Pentagon, the Army’s move appeared to catch those in Mattis’s office by surprise. “The Office of the Secretary of Defense has relied on [the Army Peacekeeping and Stability Operations Institute] for many years for a host of stabilization and peace operations contributions that benefit the entire Department,” wrote Owen West, the assistant secretary of defense for special operations and low-intensity conflict, in a Sept. 26 letter to Esper obtained by Yahoo News. The letter asks Esper “to delay any decisions regarding” the institute until the defense secretary has approved a Defense Department-wide plan to institutionalize irregular warfare capabilities.
That plan is scheduled for completion in June 2019, according to West, whose office is developing the plan with the Joint Staff.
Without the institute, other government agencies, such as the U.S. Agency for International Development and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), would be at a loss for an entry point to the Army bureaucracy. Dealing with that organization “can be a daunting task,” said Beth Cole, a former director of the Office of Civilian-Military Cooperation at USAID.
Were it not for the institute’s outreach, the doctrine would not reflect “what it’s really like to be an NGO out there in Afghanistan or what it’s like to be a USAID mission director in Iraq,” she said. “It’s just really, really important that there is a way to have that input.” The institute also helps prepare civilians “that are going to go out and work alongside the military in some of the worst environments on the planet,” she said.
Though there is no indication that the White House is involved in the move, the Trump administration has proposed cuts to a number of areas related to peacekeeping, including USAID and the U.N. peacekeeping mission. Trump has also been a frequent critic of efforts to rebuild other countries, saying the money and effort should be invested instead in the United States.
The Army plans to farm out some of the institute’s current work to other organizations, but observers are skeptical that any of them will be able to fill the holes that would be left if the institute is depleted or eliminated.
Esper is the institute’s chief bureaucratic opponent, said an officer on the Army staff in the Pentagon. “Everyone else is at best neutral,” the officer said. “There’s no question about that,” said Cole, who was the senior adviser on conflict, fragility and violent extremism at the U.S. Institute of Peace until last fall. “We can’t find any other prominent actor who is in favor of trying to do this.”
Esper has “vehemently gone after” the institute, having failed “to understand how a small investment by the Army — 43 people and $3 million — was punching above its weight,” said retired Col. John Agoglia, a former director of the institute. “It just doesn’t make sense, and it makes me think that Secretary Esper really doesn’t understand irregular warfare.”
But Esper told a Washington, D.C., audience on Nov. 8 that he was committed to ensuring that the Army retains its capability to conduct irregular warfare, even as it shifts its attention to high-intensity conflict. “We cannot lose that focus on irregular warfare, because it will be with us for a very long time,” he said at the American Enterprise Institute. “That’s counterterrorism, that’s [counterinsurgency], that’s peacekeeping and stability, all those things. We have to make sure we maintain those capabilities.”
A senior Army officer downplayed Esper’s role in the events surrounding PKSOI, saying that the discussion about the institute’s future grew out of a larger Army analysis aimed at streamlining the parts of its institutional force structure that concern irregular warfare. “Where are you going to find billets based on where we have redundancy?” the senior Army officer said. “It’s a savings approach, both in manpower and dollars.”
But the officer on the Army Staff took issue with that explanation. The institute “was going to be killed irrespective of the irregular warfare review,” the officer said. “It appears that Secretary Esper is using the review as cover to protect him from the can of worms he unleashed in his ignorance.”
At first, cutting the institute seemed like an easy solution, because senior Army leaders underestimated the level of support it enjoyed outside the Pentagon and did not comprehend the full scope of its work on behalf of the Defense Department, according to the officer on the Army Staff. “Everybody sort of said, ‘Yeah, let’s cut it,’ without having any understanding of the potential political ramifications of this,” the officer said.
The controversy burst into the open in August, when the War on the Rocks website published an open letter from 75 figures from the national security world calling upon the Army to save the institute. Signatories included two former heads of U.S. Central Command – retired Army Gen. David Petraeus and retired Marine Corps Gen. Anthony Zinni – as well as Nadia Schadlow, who resigned in April as deputy national security adviser in the Trump administration, and several retired ambassadors.
When word of the institute’s impending demise reached Capitol Hill, members of Congress and their staffers were immediately concerned, Cole said. “They’ve been asking for a brief from the Army since they learned about this in early August, and they have not gotten a brief,” said Cole. Senior staffers from both the Senate and House Armed Services Committees have gotten involved but have had no luck getting answers out of the Army. “They’ve just been completely stonewalled,” said Cole.
“The issues of peace operations and stabilization are something that are very important issues” for the Pentagon’s civilian leadership, Mark Swayne, acting deputy assistant secretary of defense for stability and humanitarian affairs, told Yahoo News in a brief interview. Swayne said he doubted that the Army would turn its back on such missions. “Certainly, the United States military supports lots of peacekeeping operations,” he said.
With pressure building on Esper after word spread of the plan to eliminate the institute, he directed the Army’s Training and Doctrine Command at Fort Eustis, in Virginia, to come up with a solution, according to the officer on the Army Staff and emails obtained by Yahoo News.
Training and Doctrine Command is now “between a rock and a hard place,” the officer said.
Training and Doctrine Command spokeswoman Megan Reed acknowledged that the command had been put in charge of figuring out what to do with the institute, but only as part of a larger task to “realign” what the Army calls its “Irregular Warfare Enterprise,” of which the institute is one of six organizations.
The latest version of that plan, according to the officer on the Army Staff, would shrink the institute by more than two thirds to three military personnel and 10 civilians. The remaining 30 or so billets would be split between an academy that trains personnel destined for the Army’s new security force assistance brigades and a new irregular warfare office the service is establishing at Fort Leavenworth, Kan.
The average level of rank and experience of the personnel that would remain in the rump organization would be much lower than today, according to Cole and Agoglia. The officer on the Army Staff said that he had not heard that detail but that at less than a third of its previous size, the institute would be forced to shed much of its present task list either way. Reed would only say that “as with any realignment and balancing of the workforce, each of the six [irregular warfare] organizations will have changes to billets and personnel.”
There has been discussion about moving what remains of the institute to Fort McNair in Washington, D.C., which is home to the National Defense University, according to Bill Flavin, who spent 17 years at the institute before retiring in July as its assistant director. That would be a bad idea, he says, because part of the reason the Army put the institute at the Army War College was “to get it out of the day-to-day maelstrom that occurs in the Pentagon and around the Pentagon,” he said.
In addition, he said, his former civilian co-workers have no intention of sticking around as the Army shreds their organization, let alone moving to the high cost of living and traffic they associate with the nation’s capital. “Most of the experts and expertise at [the Army PKSOI] will probably jump ship and leave, and it’ll be several years before we try to put this all back together,” he said.
However, the latest word is that Esper has proposed keeping the rump organization at Carlisle, but not as part of the Army War College, according to a U.S. government official. The diminished peacekeeping cell would instead report to Fort Leavenworth’s Combined Arms Center, which is part of Training and Doctrine Command.
The Army will also likely rename the rump organization. One option under consideration is to call what remains of the institute the “Center for Stability,” according to Cole and emails obtained by Yahoo News. However, Reed said that name was not part of current plans and added that the command had not been ordered to come up with a new name that avoids the word “peacekeeping.”
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