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.”