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Jul 10, 2014 | Commentary

Over the last few years, there has been a rapid expansion of stabilisation activity, much of which has been focused on the security sector in some form. Stabilisation has often been weakly defined, often allowing a whole range of activities to claim to be stabilising with little supporting evidence. The recently new definition from the UK’s Stabilisation Unit states that:

“Stabilisation is one of the approaches used in situations of violent conflict which is designed to protect and promote legitimate political authority, using a combination of integrated civilian and military actions to reduce violence, re-establish security and prepare for longer-term recovery by building an enabling environment for structural stability.”

Yet stabilisation is something of a dirty word in some quarters, particularly in the United States where it is deeply associated with the Stability Operations that took place in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Despite this stabilisation is here to stay; over the last 15 years, an increasing number of authorised multilateral missions have been specifically tasked to undertake ‘stabilisation’ activities. At least 16 missions – from Bosnia, to Haiti, to the Democratic Republic of Congo, to Somalia, among others – have witnessed stabilisation activities (and this is before we mention either Iraq or Afghanistan).

Stabilisation also matters because stability matters – evidenced by the 29 UN, European Union, and North Atlantic Treaty Organization missions mandated to promote stability, often through the use of a whole range of interventions, up to and including security sector reform (SSR) and associated political and economic reforms. Stabilisation in many of these contexts is seen as a precursor to longer term stability and key to the delivery of other international support programmes, such as SSR. To be sure, not all stabilisation activities are necessarily focused on the security sector, a good example being those focused on small scale civil infrastructure. But some of its most important activities do deal with a country’s security sector, chief among them the use of civilian and military means to protect the population.

Where stabilisation and security sector reform have struggled are places like Afghanistan, where multiple approaches and reform processes have been attempted simultaneously (including counter-insurgency, stabilisation and statebuilding). Indeed, many of the reform processes that the international community supports – concerning not only the country’s security sector but also its economic policy and indeed the process of globalisation more broadly – have themselves contributed to instability.

As practitioners, thinkers, and policy-makers grapple with moving SSR beyond its current modalities, it is important to reflect on how security sectors change and adapt in and through conflict. This should inform the design of international interventions to support a country, and specifically its security sector, to move from conflict to (relative) peace. It is in this space that stabilisation largely operates. What is poorly understood is the way in which interventions in the security sector during conflict have direct determining effects on later SSR programmes – or in other instances, where stabilisation activities alter ground realities to make SSR programming obsolete.

In Afghanistan, substantial international programmes to support SSR were very broadly defined to include justice, DDR (disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration), counter-narcotics, as well as training a new army and reforming a police force made up of former mujahedeen. International reform efforts were so far removed from both the realities in Afghanistan and the second and third order effects of the internationally-engineered Bonn Agreement that SSR was effectively by-passed in favour of a massive counter-insurgency campaign, led by the United States. In this way, America’s financial support obliterated any intent on reform and instead provided a security-military system upon which the Afghan state will now have to rely on (and control) as it deals with the ongoing Taliban insurgency.

A more positive example can be seen in the case of Nepal, where SSR and integration of Maoist combatants limped along for several years while political wrangling in Kathmandu dragged out. The slow pace of progress demonstrated the discipline of the Maoists, the Nepal Army, and the Nepali political class to stick to the process, however challenging it may have been (and still remains). Even then, the overriding focus on the integration of Maoist forces overlooked a substantial shift in the nature of the use of force in Nepal and a broader fragmentation of the security sector.

The Comprehensive Peace Agreement (in 2006) saw the holding of the Constituent Assembly elections (in 2008) and the dawn of a new era in Nepali politics without the monarchy. However, the end of the conflict also led to the fracturing of parts of the Maoist coalition, particularly with Madeshi groups who felt politically marginalised by the Pahadi (Hill) dominated Maoist leadership. This directly contributed to the mushrooming of armed groups across the Terai who used the Indian border as a source of refuge and income from smuggling.

The Nepali state failed to grasp this fundamental change and apply sufficient resources to promote security – as demonstrated by the Madeshi Andolan of 2007, an uprising by Madeshi groups calling for greater political engagement by the central government, which caused widespread disruption, public disorder and many deaths. This only confirmed that the use of violence as a political tool in Nepal had not finished with the successful Maoist insurgency campaign against the Nepali state and monarchy. Instead, insecurity spread and many districts that had hitherto been relatively safe began to be affected by instability.

In Afghanistan, international support for ‘reform’ ignored rapid changes on the ground which would stymie attempts at progress in reform. In Nepal, an overriding focus on formal institutions ignored the rapidly changing nature of (in)security for the population. These examples illustrate that ‘reform’ approaches of the kind supported through SSR are not necessarily fast enough or flexible enough to adapt to the changing nature of security provision in and immediately after conflict. In both cases, stabilisation activities in the security sector, by the state, the population, international actors, and insurgent groups (who often have a stake in the future of the security sector) would have pointed to ways to mitigate some of the effects of the violent conflicts.


Christian Dennys has a PhD in Stability and Stabilisation from Cranfield University. His book, Military Intervention, Peace and Stabilisation: The Search for Stability was recently published by Routledge. He is speaking at a number of events in the coming months. More information can be found at christiandennys.com. Views expressed are solely the author’s.