Stabilization in Syria: Lessons from Afghanistan and Iraq


As operations against the Islamic State (ISIS) move forward in Raqqa, Syria, the United States and its partners must plan for what comes next. Yet, “stabilization” is a word that often elicits a visceral response within the policy community. Military and civilian veterans of the past 15 years of engagement with Afghanistan and Iraq associate the term with frustration and bitterness, dashed hopes, and unmet expectations. The attempts and failures to bring about security, relief, and basic services to the two war-torn countries now color emerging discussions around repeating those efforts in Syria. Although the hesitation in Washington, D.C., around restarting a stabilization effort is understandable—the U.S. government has already spent $15 billion in Syria since 2014 on counterterrorism operations and humanitarian assistance—the inescapable reality is that Syria is in dire need of help. The Syrian economy is set back by at least three decades, with the city of Aleppo alone suffering $100 to $200 billion of damage in the war, and millions of Syrians have either fled abroad or become refugees within their own borders. Moreover, failure to consolidate gains from counterterrorism operations against ISIS through stabilization of local communities will likely result in the regrowth of violent extremism. Despite the disappointments of the Afghanistan and Iraq stabilization efforts, the experiences offer significant lessons—and cautionary tales—that are applicable to and should inform a potential future U.S. and multinational effort in Syria.

Afghanistan and Iraq: An After-Action Review

The United States began its stabilization efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq with good intentions but without clarity of purpose and proper prioritization of goals. In addition to poor planning, the United States predominantly focused on “negative” goals at the outset—degrading al Qaeda and Taliban safe havens and deposing Saddam Hussein, respectively—and without a concrete plan for next steps. With some exceptions, such as the December 2001 Bonn Conference, there was an overwhelming focus on kinetic operations as opposed to governance and development efforts. Political goals that were set were highly aspirational. This resulted in political power vacuums that the United States was unable to fill successfully even with the cooperation of local and multinational partners. The lack of large-scale local buy-in and U.S. failure to plan and anticipate the results of pursuing these “negative”—or overly aspirational—goals, without establishing and resourcing a comprehensive plan, contributed to the political discord and insecurity we see in both countries today.

A great number of U.S. stabilization actors were either unfamiliar with the regions in question or with the functional skill set associated with stabilization. Consequently, the United States and its allies and partners pursued incomplete strategies in both countries. Additionally, there were issues with delegating and deconflicting duties within the U.S. stabilization effort—particularly along civil-military lines—and among the United States and its coalition partners. For example, parallel but uncoordinated Iraqi local governance initiatives launched by U.S.-led coalition military forces, the Coalition Provisional Authority, and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) in Iraq were largely duplicative. In Afghanistan, failure to reform local governance inadvertently empowered warlords and corrupt officials due to the lack of communication and coordination among the various U.S. and coalition agencies responsible for those efforts and the Afghan national government. The shortcomings of these efforts were exacerbated by a significant disconnect between initiatives undertaken by U.S. stabilization actors and the on-the-ground realities and dynamics in play in Afghanistan and Iraq. The lack of local buy-in, combined with misleading U.S. government characterizations that stabilization efforts were “successful,” resulted in expensive yet ineffective initiatives. These efforts were often unsustainable without continued U.S. assistance and unrealistic for the Afghan and Iraqi economic, political, and security environments.

Perhaps the biggest failure of efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq was that stabilization was a secondary priority to counterterrorism. In both cases, the emphasis on short-term “negative” results and lack of long-term planning, buy-in, and commitment resulted in the United States losing windows of opportunity in both countries to support sustainable institution building, infrastructure, and governance efforts to prevent encroachment by violent extremists and destabilizing actors. The absence of a positive frame for a pragmatic and achievable outcome resulted in many stabilization advisers and operators perceiving the missions as lacking strategic direction.

What Makes Syria Different?

Past stabilization mistakes and lessons in Afghanistan and Iraq are certainly instructive in informing future efforts that might take place in Syria. What the U.S. government must be careful to avoid, however, is cookie-cutter approaches that are not applicable to Syria.

To start, the United States faces a fragmented country without a single national authority to partner with. The regime under President Bashar al-Assad regularly targets civilians and weaponizes aid as part of its strategy, while opposition groups are weak and fractured, unlikely to coalesce as a viable national alternative to the current government. The atomization of Syrian society proves an additional obstacle to sustainable stability efforts, without a local framework to house development and governance initiatives once U.S. and coalition assistance decreases or ceases to exist. Stabilization approaches in the north may look far different in the south and east and involve different actors and application of resources. There is human capital potential within the highly literate and skilled population that remains in Syria, but the toll of the conflict and the impact on the next generation’s access to education, health, and socioeconomic opportunities will prove to be significant impediments to stabilization.

Afghanistan and Iraq differ from Syria in that they did not face the same degree of foreign involvement—most importantly, foreign use of military force, either direct or by proxy—that Syria does today. With the United States, Russia, Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, UAE, Jordan, and Israel all invested to varying degrees in Syria, it will be difficult to agree on a common stabilization frame that passes every actor’s approval. Additionally, the current U.S. administration faces budgetary pressures, domestic spending priorities, and lack of public support for involvement abroad after the experiences in Afghanistan and Iraq, which constrain U.S. ability to support stability operations in Syria. Finally, contrary to Afghanistan and Iraq, Europe has a greater stake in the future of Syria due to geographic proximity and significant refugee flows. Prior stabilization efforts have worked best with multinational planning, resourcing, and involvement, but they do require leadership to drive priorities forward.

The Syrian crisis has proven complex and consuming, such that it now has regional and geopolitical consequences for the United States, Europe, and the Middle East. If the U.S. government attempts stability operations again, if only to consolidate its counterterrorism gains to prevent the regrowth of violent extremist groups, it must do so cautiously. Rather than recoiling at the thought of yet another stabilization effort, the U.S. government should thoroughly review and appraise its difficult experiences in Afghanistan and Iraq, learning the right lessons and implementing pragmatic and appropriately scoped policies to achieve enduring stabilization outcomes that support broader U.S. strategic aims in Syria. This need not be a nation-building exercise but a way to connect and secure counterterrorism gains from the bottom up to an eventual top down politically negotiated outcome to the Syrian conflict.

Applying Stabilization Lessons to Syria

The experiences in Afghanistan and Iraq offer myriad lessons for the U.S. government as it contemplates its strategy in Syria. The following are some of the most important and relevant lessons from the recent past as applicable to the Syrian civil war.

Clarify Purpose and Priorities

The U.S. government must be transparent about its priorities and decide on clear objectives in Syria. In both Afghanistan and Iraq, there were conflicting objectives and at times an unclear sense of purpose for U.S. actors on the ground, which cannot be repeated in Syria. At the moment, the main U.S. priority is the counterterrorism effort against ISIS and al Qaeda elements; should the United States decide to pursue a stabilization approach, it must reevaluate its priorities and align them to clear and achievable end goals.

Set Realistic and Sustainable Goals with Local Buy-In

One of the biggest U.S. failures in Afghanistan and Iraq was spending money and effort on development and governance initiatives that were either poorly suited to the environment on the ground or difficult to sustain without continued involvement by the United States. Elaborate governance plans cannot succeed in a country with a fractured bureaucratic structure; lofty infrastructure development goals cannot be met when basic provision of services is a challenge; and security metrics that work for one part of the world cannot be transplanted onto another. The U.S. public and polity does not have the stomach or resources for yet another highly involved and unsustainable stabilization, and so the administration must set realistic security, development, and governance goals for any future stabilization efforts in Syria. These goals should be worked by, with, and through the Syrian people rather than thrust upon them, so that the objectives are suited to the ground realities in the country and are viable past U.S. involvement in the country.

For Syria, stabilization should focus on reestablishing a safe and secure environment and providing essential governmental services, emergency infrastructure reconstruction, and humanitarian relief. The effort should be complementary to counterterrorism and a necessary condition for political reconciliation.

Pick the Right People

With a dearth of expertise on Afghanistan, the United States could only draw upon a small cadre of military and intelligence officers, academics, and historians in the planning stages of its operation in the country. Things were different in the case of Iraq, with preexisting diplomatic, military, and academic expertise on the region within the U.S. government. In both cases, however, the U.S. military was given the prime responsibility to lead stabilization efforts, with development and governance experts integrated more evenly at later stages. The United States must focus on picking the right people to take on stabilization in Syria, with the regional and functional expertise to truly understand local dynamics and implement tailored initiatives to bring about lasting relief and security to the country. Through its experiences in Afghanistan and Iraq, the United States now has stabilization veterans who have been through the growing pains of planning and executing efforts very recently, whose fresh memories should be leveraged constructively to benefit future efforts in Syria.

Delegate and Deconflict Stabilization Tasks

With the diversity of actors involved in stabilization, it is inevitable that there will be some stepping on toes or duplication of effort as the U.S. government navigates a new mission. However, the experiences in Afghanistan and Iraq prove that a lack of clarity over delegation and jurisdiction of responsibilities can seriously hinder stabilization efforts. In a case as complicated as Syria, it is even more important that the United States work with others to delegate and deconflict the various tasks associated with stabilization, both within its own interagency structure, but also within the broader international coalition, should one exist. Clearly delineating responsibilities and authorities in Syria would likely produce a more efficient and harmonious operating environment for the United States and any international partners involved in stabilization efforts.

Avoid Oversimplification of Ground Dynamics and Realities

The tendency to fit ground realities into neat categories and “black-boxing” complex dynamics serves only to hinder instead of help stabilization efforts in a state as complex as Syria. As proven by the experiences in Afghanistan and Iraq, tribal, ethnic, and sectarian dynamics are not as black and white as the United States has the tendency to categorize them, and a mishandling of such dynamics could exacerbate an already volatile civil war in the country. An outside power oversimplifying ground dynamics can pit people against each other, create or exacerbate fissures locally that did not previously exist, and complicate stabilization efforts further. In Syria, healthy Arab-Kurd dynamics are most risk prone, given the reliance on Syrian Kurds to clear ISIS-held territory.

Counterterrorism Must Complement Stabilization, Not the Other Way Around

Perhaps the most significant shared lesson from Afghanistan and Iraq is that stabilization efforts, once launched, must be the main priority of the United States and be complemented by security operations, rather than being implemented as an afterthought to a broader military effort. As opposed to being predominantly focused on “negative” objectives related to pure counterterrorism—such as degrading and defeating ISIS—the United States should also work with Syrian partners to establish “positive” and pragmatic goals such as rebuilding critical infrastructure and developing a functional, sustainable, decentralized, and self-reliant system of governance. Partnerships brokered with credible local councils have been critical to beginning to stabilize parts of northern Syria already cleared of ISIS.

Counterterrorism, while an important priority for the United States, cannot succeed as a strategy unto itself. It will not alone address the drivers of instability, dislocation, and poor governance, which violent extremism can exploit and use to develop safe havens. It should, however, serve as a goal within a broader framework that seeks to reestablish security within Syria to bring about governance, rule of law, and resumption of basic and humanitarian services to the Syrian citizenry, which directly address drivers of the Syrian conflict in which ISIS and al Qaida have taken root.

Hijab Shah is a research associate with the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Melissa G. Dalton is a senior fellow and deputy director of the CSIS International Security Program. This Commentary is informed by a private roundtable discussion convened by the CSIS International Security Program in May 2017 on stabilization lessons learned from Afghanistan and Iraq.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

© 2017 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.

Photo credit: Natalie Behring-Chisholm/Getty Images

Hijab Shah

Melissa Dalton