In this Jan. 28, 2012 file photo, members of the NATO- led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) patrol west of Kabul, Afghanistan. 

How do ‘whole-of-government’ programs actually work? Part I

Critical State, a foreign policy newsletter by Inkstick Media, takes a deep dive into how the implementation of whole-of-government counterinsurgency varied between the Swedish and German experiences in the war in Afghanistan.

Inkstick Media

This analysis was featured in Critical State, a weekly foreign policy newsletter from Inkstick Media. Subscribe here.

For the generation who came up in the era of The Surge — the US military’s doomed effort to turn around the Iraq War by adopting a new counterinsurgency strategy, deploying more troops, and taking branding advice from the X Games — one piece of defense-speak that sticks in the brain is the cursed phrase “whole-of-government.” We heard it hundreds of times, in press conferences, congressional testimony, and (for the nerdy among us) doctrine — counterinsurgents need to take a “whole-of-government” approach to counterinsurgency. For people still involved in insurgency studies and US policymaking around foreign security assistance, it’s still around, being used as a gold standard for other countries facing internal rebellions to live up to. 

But… does it mean anything? If we set aside the alarming connotations of a literal interpretation of the phrase “whole-of-government approach to counterinsurgency” — mail carriers delivering cash bundles to Shiite militias in Baghdad, park rangers marking trails for special operations forces to follow on night raids — what are we left with? How much of government is actually included in a “whole-of-government” effort, and how do different divisions of government coordinate? Those are the questions we’ll take on this week and next on Deep Dive, looking at research on how putatively whole-of-government programs actually function.

A new article in the European Journal of International Security by political scientist Maya Dafinova examines how the implementation of whole-of-government (which she mercifully shortens to “WOG,” an innovation we will also adopt going forward) counterinsurgency varied between the Swedish and German experiences in the war in Afghanistan. As Dafinova points out, the essence of WOG is in increasing cooperation, coordination, and coherence within a range of government agencies that extend beyond just the military. Within the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan, many members pursued WOG approaches to their deployments, but results were all over the map. Dafinova looks at differences within governments as potential causes of the variation in how WOG worked out.

Both Germany and Sweden are parliamentary democracies with coalition governments — that is, the government is made up of multiple parties that negotiate how they are going to govern. Dafinova hypothesized that those coalition negotiations might condition how WOG efforts function even more than politics within the bureaucracies that would actually be doing the coordinating. In other words, it might matter less whether the defense ministry, the foreign ministry, and the development fund all got along and more whether the defense minister’s party, the foreign minister’s party, and the development fund director’s party got along. 

In interviews with nearly 50 people on both civilian and military sides of the Swedish and German deployments in Afghanistan, Dafinova found that shifts in how WOG was prioritized and interpreted correlated very closely to shifts in the governing coalition of each country. In Sweden, when right wing parties gained more power, military and civilian officials felt more pressure to collaborate and pursue synergies in their work. When the left was ascendant, attention on WOG approaches waned and the debate turned to the value of having a military role in Afghanistan at all. That left the civilian and military bureaucracies to sort out cooperation among themselves – a recipe for little cooperation to take place. The Swedish International Development Corporation Agency even went so far as to limit its staff’s ability to interact with the military, worried that WOG approaches would just lead to their tactical cooptation by the defense ministry.

In Germany, the story was different but the importance of coalition politics was just as great. In contrast to Sweden, in Germany WOG approaches were a significant bargaining chip in coalition negotiations. In 2005, the left-leaning Green Party traded their vote on a missile defense integration program for moving €10 million from the defense budget to the Provincial Development Fund, a major vehicle for civilian-led intervention in Afghanistan. By 2010, a focus on WOG approaches was a crucial factor in allowing the German government — deeply ambivalent about its role in the US-led war on terror — that its involvement in Afghanistan was not fundamentally a matter of military intervention. 

In all, Dafinova found, the presentation of the WOG concept as an apolitical commitment to uniting military and civilian instruments of national power bore little resemblance to the way WOG approaches were actually implemented. The pressure for military and civilian agencies to work together was highly conditioned on the state of national politics, and subject to the same horse trading and ideological demands as any other political issue. In the end, the government referred to in “whole-of-government” is less the bureaucracies at the operational level of the state and more the political coalitions atop it.

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