In Case of Emergency: Don't Panic, Plan
Colette Rausch and Tina Luu
“Act in haste, repent at leisure”—it’s an old proverb[i] but it’s one that those charged with planning and executing today’s foreign missions might want to splash on billboards all along Pennsylvania Avenue to catch the eye of policymakers. Similar billboards might equally well adorn the streets of many European capitals. Indeed, the international community as a whole is frequently guilty of acting hastily and either planning only for the short term or not planning at all. When they should be planning, they are panicking or else trusting that they can make things up as they go. It’s no way to run a war, a foreign policy, a foreign assistance program, or a peacebuilding campaign.
If we want to increase the chances of our missions succeeding, we must first understand the complexity of what we are dealing with and plan accordingly. Moreover, we need to treat planning not as a one-time activity but as an ongoing, iterative affair that is responsive to the continual and multifaceted changes characteristic of complex crises. We need to stop wasting time and resources looking for quick fixes to unanticipated problems in systems we know little about. Instead, we need to develop a planning and assessment culture that prizes flexibility and proactivity, and that understands the importance of continually adjusting to dynamic environments.
This article spotlights four activities that are key elements of such a culture. The description of each activity includes key questions to ask (and answer), as well as a real-world example of how the step was successfully taken by the US military, the United States Institute of Peace (USIP), or both of them acting together.
Complex Problems, Impulsive Responses
The early twenty-first century offers plenty of excellent reasons for concern, even alarm, about international stability: great powers vying for dominance, terrorists showing their resilience and ruthlessness, fragile states teetering on precipices—the world is getting hotter in lots of ways. Alongside these perennial problems, there are also bona fide emergencies setting off alarm bells across the globe: the unprecedented refugee crisis, violent extremists setting up governments, Venezuela in free fall, the flight of the Rohingya, the loud rattling of nuclear sabers across the 38th Parallel—in some places, the world isn’t just hot; it’s on fire.
These threats and emergencies demand a response. And in many (perhaps most) cases, they get one. All too often, however, the response they elicit is more of a knee-jerk reflex than a carefully considered and choreographed reaction. Famously, the United States rushed into Afghanistan and Iraq without any plan for what to do with those countries once the US and coalition forces departed. Many people pointed this out even before US troops invaded, but for the most part their voices went unheard, policymakers preferring to listen to advisers who foresaw a smooth process of regime change.
This impulsiveness is by no means just an American trait. In Kosovo, in the aftermath of the eviction of Serbian forces, the international community persistently displayed an “emergency mentality,” trying counterproductive short-term solutions instead of looking into the long-term drivers of conflict. More recently, Europe’s response to mass illegal immigration has illustrated the pitfalls of shortsighted responses.
Equally, in countering violent extremism, a military response alone will not work because it fails to address those factors that push or pull people towards extremism.[ii] In some cases, poorly conceived military intervention can strengthen the narrative of violent extremism and it then becomes a push factor. The temptation to look for quick wins achieved with scant preparation must be resisted. As Pillar III of the U.S. National Security Strategy (2018) explicitly notes, “We must sustain our competence in irregular warfare, which requires planning for a long-term, rather than ad hoc, fight against terrorist networks and other irregular threats” [emphasis added].[iii]
What would policymakers and planners accused of ad hocery say in their defense? That careful, far-sighted planning takes time and resources that individual agencies and ministries, multilateral organizations, and even rich and powerful countries often do not have? It might sound like a good defense—until one realizes that rushing in without a plan is often worse than not going in at all.
Moreover, a plan is not, or should not be, a set of rules inscribed on stone tablets for all time. A good plan is a living thing that evolves as the world around it evolves. Faced with demands for quick action, policymakers can first conduct a “good enough assessment” that can generate enough clarity and data to allow an effective, context-aware, and farsighted plan to be put together. That plan—and the underlying assessment—can then be updated and elaborated over time, as knowledge deepens and conditions evolve.
What does one need to do to put together a good enough assessment and translate into action the notion of continuous, iterative planning? There is no single or precise formula but each of the following four activities is likely to be a key part of any effective modus operandi
Conduct a Baseline Conflict Assessment
As human beings, whether in the military, political, or nonprofit space, we are wired for survival, reacting to threats with quick, instinctive, problem-solving capacities. But when contemplating interventions in complex conflicts rooted in multiple, nuanced, and interconnected issues, we must be proactive in our research and strategic in our planning. This requires understanding the history, politics, and sociocultural dynamics at play.
Planners must examine not only the current situation (whether at the regional, national, or local level, or at a combination of those) but also the primary actors involved and their goals; the political, power-related, and historical root causes fueling the conflict; and how all these elements interact. The picture that emerges will form a baseline assessment that will have to be continually refined in light of shifting circumstances and new data.
One of the first steps in conducting a conflict assessment is to identify the data that already exists. A variety of governmental, intergovernmental, and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) make in-depth conflict and other assessments and backgrounders available on their websites.[iv] Other organizations do not publish their assessment reports; however, it may be possible to reach out to them and ask them to share their reports under a guarantee of confidentiality.
Another productive step is to connect with diverse international perspectives, including international and regional organizations, bilateral donors, and international NGOs working in the country or on the pertinent issues. Individuals can also be a source of valuable insights and information. They may be members of a diaspora living in the country where the intervention is being planned, or they may be nationals of that country who have lived or are still living in the state targeted for intervention.
The broader the range of local actors and subject matter experts with whom one engages, the more nuanced will be the resulting assessment. There is never a single story or narrative on a conflict; each set of stakeholders has a different perspective. It may be tempting to meet only with the “usual suspects,” namely, the elites from the capital city. While they may speak your language (meaning both English and the technical language of donors and policymakers), they often do not understand the perspectives of non-elites and rural communities, where much of the conflict may be taking place. If security considerations limit travel to rural areas or if resources do not permit in-person engagement, planners or their support staff can conduct conversations by phone, email, Facebook, or Skype.
Key Questions to Ask
- What are the drivers of the conflict? Drivers can range widely, from poverty to environmental degradation, suppression of dissent to absence of rule of law.
- Are the society and the country sufficiently resilient to withstand instability caused by conflict? Can they, for instance, manage drivers of conflict, withstand political manipulation of explosive issues, resolve conflicts that do erupt, and marginalize spoilers determined to divide communities?
- How strong is rule of law? Can serious crimes such as organized crime, smuggling, and trafficking in persons, drugs, and goods exacerbate conflict?[v]
Example: Enhancing Conflict Understanding via Training Courses in Libya and Burma
Training courses can—and should be—two-way streets, with the international trainers and the local trainees both learning something. For example, in Libya in 2012, USIP combined two rule of law assessment missions with a series of rule of law training courses that were held in several locations. While participants received three days of interactive training on how to build the rule of law after conflict at the local level, USIP personnel were able to develop a more sophisticated understanding of the national and local dynamics at play. The training exercises culminated in recommendations for the transitional government and local decision-makers that also informed USIP’s rule of law strategy. The next year, USIP conducted a similar initiative in Myanmar (Burma). USIP trainers conducted a series of workshops around the country for civil society actors, religious leaders, and justice actors that focused on how to build the rule of law in transitional states. Interactive exercises generated in a wealth of information about the rule of law in Myanmar, the drivers of conflict, and the state of the country’s resilience. The participant lists for the workshops in both Libya and Burma went far beyond the usual suspects and included farmers, pharmacists, mothers, teachers, and business people.
When different government agencies work together from the planning of a mission through its execution, they are likely to reduce duplicative, and thus redundant, effort; to save resources; and to enhance the prospects of the mission achieving its goals.
Partners can be found not only among other government agencies but also among local actors, including local NGOs and even host government agencies. A local partner must have influence, legitimacy, and credibility, as well as complementary skills and resources.
To identify potential partners and areas for collaboration, first determine what the mission needs; then inventory one’s own department’s resources to identify gaps in terms of mission requirements; discover what resources other departments possess; and then work with those departments that do have relevant resources to draw up a plan that will capitalize on your comparative advantages. The plan should lay out a division of labor, arrangements for sharing information, a system for joint planning, and so forth.
Key Questions to Ask
- What other actors are engaging in this issue?
- What are their capacity, credibility, and spheres of influence?
- How can they complement our efforts?
- Are there local partners (NGOs, officials, community members or leaders) we can connect with and invite to our planning sessions for insight?
- Are we reaching out to a sufficiently diverse set of potential partners, or are we considering only those organizations with outlooks similar to our own?
Example: 3D Approaches to Recent Crises
USIP recently looked at three case studies that demonstrated the advantages that accrue when the US government takes a systematic and collaborative approach to foreign crises.[vi] The crises in question were in Myanmar/Burma (2009–15), Jordan (2011–16), and the Lake Chad region (2013–16). In each case, Washington took a “3D” (defense, diplomacy, and development) approach, combining the efforts of the Department of Defense, the Department of State, and the US Agency for International Development, which worked together to tackle security, political, and capacity challenges by combining various components of their respective toolkits. These three examples provide a sound model for future coordinated efforts. Such unity in effort is indispensable in tackling today’s complex crises, which demand a multilayered approach.
Address Both Short-Term Problems and Long-Term Issues
All conflicts involve the interplay of short-term problems and long-term issues, and any intervention that seeks to tackle only the former will at best do no more than put a temporary lid on the violence. That lid will likely blow off soon after the intervening forces leave. One cannot, of course, ignore short-term problems such as urgent security threats and humanitarian needs. But one must do so at the same time as one works on long-term issues, not least because problems that demand immediate attention arise out of complex, deeply rooted systems, whose moving parts are social and cultural as well as political and economic in nature.
Ultimately, preventing the reemergence of violent conflict and turning a fragile state into a resilient one requires that state to undergo a process of “social transformation” where reforms take place not just at the political or economic level, but also at the societal and community level. Where interpersonal and intercommunal relations have frayed or snapped, they have to be strengthened or rebuilt. However, social transformation cannot be enforced by the military or imposed (via, for instance, stability or peacekeeping operations) by foreign governments alone.[vii] Those most affected by conflict and crises are civilians, and only their active participation in rebuilding can enable postconflict reconciliation to take place and the state to become peaceful and stable.
One way to encourage social transformation while tackling short- and long-term issues simultaneously is through multistakeholder dialogue.[viii] The kinds of issues to be addressed through such dialogue (e.g., recent outbreaks of communal violence against a backdrop of long-standing hostility between ethnic groups; escalating criminal activity amid enduring mistrust of security forces), and the types of support needed to enable dialogue to take place (e.g., security, facilitation expertise) can be discovered by conducting a conflict assessment and tapping the knowledge of international peacebuilding organizations and local NGOs. USIP has successfully used facilitated dialogues in a range of countries from Iraq to Nepal, Burkina Faso to Tanzania, to gather diverse perspectives on justice and security, as well as to help communities to address local, short-term problems. The dialogues can inform initial planning and enrich an ongoing process of assessment, while building a solid base of programmatic activity.
Key Questions to Ask
- What is my organization seeking to achieve from this intervention?
- What are the possible consequences—intended and unintended—of the intervention?
- At this particular time, are we in a position to make a constructive impact and achieve our goals?
- Do we have the resources needed to achieve the goals we have set ourselves, and if not, should we not proceed with the intervention or should we find partners who do have the right resources?
- What assumptions are driving the proposed intervention?
Example: Mahmoudiya, Iraq
After eleven months of intensive operations to halt communal fighting, the US Army’s 10th Mountain Division worked with its local Iraqi partners and USIP in Mahmoudiya, part of Iraq’s former “Triangle of Death,” to initiate dialogue among thirty-one tribal leaders to halt the violence and prevent revenge killings.[ix] This reconciliation effort took place between local Shia and Sunni tribal leaders, government officials, military officers, and civil society leaders. Efforts were led largely by a small team of Iraqi mediators who were trained and supported by USIP. As a result of this dialogue and peacebuilding work, an agreement was reached that halted the ongoing violence and allowed the US Army to reduce the number of troops in the area by almost three thousand. The peace accord has held and Mahmoudiya remains stable to this day, giving the long-term process of tribal reconciliation time to take root.
Self-Reflect and Adapt
As is increasingly recognized, conflicts and crises are not neat, predictable, or linear—and neither should be planning or reform efforts. Kristen R. Hajduk, for instance, has noted that, “to perform more effectively, the United States needs a new planning method that removes constrictive models of war, does not assume understanding prior to involvement, forces adaptation, and fully realizes the combined potential of all tools of U.S. foreign policy.”[x]Addressing crises or threats as linear processes fundamentally limits our ability to be agile and to adapt to changing contexts.
In complex environments, it is critical to step back and reassess the motives and goals not only of the conflict actors but also of the interveners. Examining one’s own assumptions about the conflict, how it will be affected by the proposed intervention, and why that intervention is timed to occur now will reduce the chances of being misled by one’s biases and unrealistic expectations and thus enhance the prospects of success.
Further, it is essential to continually update one’s analysis, constantly elaborating, refining, and in some cases overhauling the baseline assessment. Given the volatility of conflict and the unpredictable and dynamic interplay of key players and social, economic, and political factors, one must always monitor the conflict environment, assess the nature and extent of ongoing changes, and adapt one’s plan accordingly.
Key Questions to Ask
- Have circumstances changed? What are the social, political, and economic changes that may affect my intervention outcome and priorities?
- How might we need to adapt our current plan to address these changes?
- What has worked? What hasn’t? What might need to be done differently in order to reach the end goal?
Example: Adapting to Changing Circumstances in Nepal
USIP sent a delegation to Nepal in April 2006. The focus of the trip, which had been planned long in advance, was law reform assistance. As it turned out, USIP’s team arrived in Nepal the day after a popular uprising forced the king to step down from power. The political situation on the ground changed dramatically, and so the USIP team, responding to the needs expressed by the stakeholders they were meeting, stopped focusing on law reform and started providing information about transitional justice and constitution making. The trip was extended, and team members began to organize impromptu workshops and trainings in response to the fluid situation on the ground. Over the next decade, through 2016, an entire program of activities evolved in response to the changing security and political context. For instance, the program conducted the country’s first baseline survey of the public’s view of the justice and security system, developed the capacity of local NGOs, and facilitated a process of dialogue between the police and communities that led to numerous joint efforts to improve security. Throughout, the program evaluated its effectiveness and worked with local communities to address its shortcomings and capitalize on its strengths.
A Window of Opportunity
How one can develop a culture in which ongoing and iterative planning and assessment are part of the prevailing M.O.? It’s a question with many answers, each shaped by factors such as type of organization, its command structure and size, overall and mission-specific goals, and available resources. The answer for a small human rights NGO operating on the ground in a conflict-affected society will likely be very different from the solution for a vast multilateral institution active at various political levels in numerous countries. Some will find the required cultural shift relatively easy to embrace; others will discover it’s an uphill struggle.
In the case of the military and diplomatic arms of the US government, putting the ideas outlined in this article into practice may be easier today than at any time this century. There’s growing recognition at the Pentagon, the State Department, and USAID of the need to rethink their basic approach to planning for and conducting missions and to working together. In an article published in this journal just a few weeks ago the lead architects of the Stabilization Assistance Review (SAR) called for “fundamental new ways of thinking about how civil affairs and other DoD elements work alongside State, USAID, and other civilian partners . . . and how the U.S. government ultimately measures and defines success.” Among the more specific changes the authors recommended were “more coordinated planning and operations that better align civilian and military efforts around bottom-up, locally-owned approaches,” and targeting “those dynamics that are fundamental to establishing basic peace and stability. The goal of stabilization is not to remake societies but to help those with legitimacy to peaceably manage conflict.”[xi]
More recently still, former commander-in-chief of CENTCOM, General Anthony Zinni, told an audience at USIP of the need for government agencies to work together within a joint command like different branches of the military do, researching, learning, training, and planning together so that when they deploy they can hit the ground running. This command, Zinni proposed, could liaise with NGOs or even have NGO representation within the command.[xii]
In the 1950s, President Dwight Eisenhower recalled being told by “a very successful soldier” that “plans are worthless, but planning is everything.” The soldier’s point, the president explained, was that specific plans quickly become outdated but that participation in a planning process teaches the value of thoroughly exploring options that might work in a given situation. When an emergency actually occurs, policymakers can apply that lesson, and plans can be revised accordingly and updated continually.[xiii] That soldier’s wisdom is as valuable today as it ever was. If it is heeded, and if the ideas embodied in what Zinni and the SAR’s authors have proposed are listened to, then the chances of institutionalizing the approach laid out in this article will increase significantly. If that happens, the likelihood of US policymakers and planners rushing into crises with unworkable plans or no plans at all will decrease substantially.
[i] An early version of the proverb dates to 1693, when the playwright William Congreve offered this advice to bachelors: “Marry in haste, repent at leisure.”
[ii] Georgia Holmer, “Countering Violent Extremism: A Peacebuilding Perspective,” Special Report no. 336, (Washington, DC: United States Institute of Peace [USIP], September 2013), .
[iii] White House, National Security Strategy of the United States of America (December 2017), 23, .
[iv] See, for example, the Human Rights Reports issued by the US State Department, ; the Country Mandates published by the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights,
; and a wide variety of country reports issued by NGOs such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.
[v] For a more comprehensive list of questions, as well as resources for assessing the serious crimes situation, see Colette Rausch, , rev. ed. (Washington, DC: United States Institute of Peace Press, 2017), 46–55.
[vi] Beth Ellen Cole et al., Breaking Boko Haram and Ramping Up Recovery: US Engagement in the Lake Chad Region (Washinton, DC: USIP, 2017), 3, .
[vii] Colette Rausch, “Everyone, Not Just the Military, Has a Duty to Keep the Peace,” War on the Rocks, October 16, 2017, .
[viii] For more information, see .
[ix]Nancy Lindborg, “To Stabilize Iraq after ISIS, Try a Method That Worked,” United States Institute of Peace, June 27, 2017, .
[x] Kristen R. Hajduk and Justin Lynch, “Operational Planning as a State of Mind, Not a Starting Point,” Commentary (Washington, DC: Center for Strategic and International Studies, May 31, 2017), .
[xi] Kevin Melton et al., “A New U.S. Framework for Stabilization: Opportunities for Civil Affairs,” Small Wars Journal, October 22, 2018, .
[xii] See a report on Zinnni’s comments, “To Better Halt Wars, Does America Need a ‘Crisis Command’?” United States Institute of Peace website, October 26, 2018, .
[xiii] See “Plans Are Worthless but Planning Is Everything,” QuoteInvestigator.com, November 18, 2017, .