Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs
Center for Human Rights and Humanitarian Studies (CHRHS)
Stanislava Mladenova

Stanislava Mladenova, CHRHS Global Fellow

Candid Reflections from a Global Fellow

A Conversation with Stanislava Mladenova, CHRHS Global Fellow

What was the moment that has shaped your professional experience so far or has been the most meaningful experience you’ve had?  

Probably the most meaningful experience for me overall has been working in fragile and conflict-affected situations, in different high-impact roles. But a specific moment that comes to mind is during my time in Afghanistan in 2013 when I was working as a Political Advisor with the NATO Senior Civilian Representative (NATO SCR). The military had turned to our office to help with coordinating the clearance for a medical evacuation. All of our work was with the embassies around Kabul, so we were the “in” when it came to anything diplomatic and multilateral. Essentially, we were presented with a situation where we had to medically evacuate a third-country national. In NATO terms this means an individual from a country that was not a contributing nation to the mission, and consequently had no Embassy in the country. They had what we call in diplomatic terms a “contact Embassy,” where all requests relating to the country and its nationals, were to be addressed. It was about 7pm, and a young captain working in the downstairs office ran up the stairs, and into our office, saying that there was an emergency and they needed to get in touch with the Embassy. Apparently, a young man experienced a ruptured spleen and was losing blood very quickly. As the POLAD working on crisis response, this landed on my desk. Quickly, I had to figure out what the ask was, who needed to be involved, and what the sequence of events was. This young man was in a province where NATP forces no longer had a presence, and sending them in to evacuate anybody who is not a member of the military came with very strict rules. First, we needed to ensure that military assets used in the evacuation were not distracting from the military mission. Second, the person had to be cleared, meaning that we needed to have a record of who this individual was, their background, clearance level, the reason why they were in the country, etc. The military cannot mobilize assets unless all these boxes were checked. As you can imagine, in a military operation, information comes very quickly, it is not always accurate, and the time to verify it is extremely limited. With the amount of turnover, there is also a constant relearning of the procedures, rules, and standards. With all of this, I had to quickly work to get clearance from the closest contact Embassy, which was not even in Afghanistan – making multiple calls, through my contacts both in the country, and abroad, keeping everyone informed, drawing on information that was available, and more importantly, identifying where it was not. I had to figure out who the decision makers were, and brief the appropriate leadership. Oh, and did I mention that this was all happening over a bad phone reception and internet connection, on a Friday night at 7 pm – the day which was considered a weekend for most international and government civil servants. I had only several hours to prevent someone from literally bleeding to death. In the end, he was safely transported to the nearest Role III.  

Other than feeling huge relief at how we managed to pull this off, something else became clear to me me that night. On the diplomatic front, we always think of our contributions to emergency situations as somehow secondary to what the military can provide with their logistics. Or what an NGO can provide with its medical specialty. But this was the moment that convinced me that all of us involved in this space have a contribution to make. On the diplomatic side, we fight with words and ideas, and in this particular case, it was with translating information between different entities, connecting the dots, and keeping the momentum to see this through. I have realized that when it comes to chains of command – no matter the organization, as individuals, we each hold power. Power to move forward, power to halt, power to give everything we have at that particular moment. For me, giving it all I had shaped me into who was to be going forward in my career. Even now I have projects or tasks, which I treat with the same level of tenacity, as if I were still in a war zone, and it is a life or death situation. 

What inspired your interest in the sector and civil-military research in particular?
As a Program Officer at the United States Institute of Peace in 2017, I worked with our partners on the ground in West Africa to find better and more productive ways for local communities and security forces, in this case the police, to better communicate and know one another through engaging in dialogue. We specifically focused on how security forces understood the limitations/constrictions of working with civilians. Conversely, we focused on how civilians would be in a better position to understand their rights as citizens, when it came to their interaction with the police. As a NATO Political Advisor in Kabul, Afghanistan between 2012 and 2014, I was responsible for the human rights and humanitarian portfolios for the NATO Senior Civilian Representative Office, where I oversaw the implementation of reforms in the Afghan Local Police, concerning the recruitment of child soldiers into the armed forces, as detailed in UNSCR 1612, regarding – the Children and Armed Conflict. Naturally, this work, too, involved interacting with, and bringing to the table the civilians and the military concerned about this issue. 

In both of these, and many other instances, I have been a witness to how despite their differences, both of these sides ultimately find ways to communicate, listen, understand, and learn. I was always puzzled at how these two organizations – security forces and civilian organizations, especially when it came to conflict settings, continued to be confined to absolute categories – one doing good things for populations, and the other only hunting down terrorists or using hard power. Was this the black-and-white reality of war? These were the questions that fascinated me early career, and ones that I have continued to ponder.   

What do you envision yourself doing going forward? What areas of research are you interested in delving deeper into? 

I remain fascinated by how military and multilateral actors interact in various settings given differences in their organizational cultures, their operational processes, and their ideas about the world, etc.  At the same time, often they are after the same thing – peace and stability, even if their means of achieving those are different. So many organizations are in this complex space – UNICEF, IOM, UNOCHA, NATO, EU, and African Union – to mention a few. There was so much I wanted to learn about how these organizations face and navigate places where soft and hard power are mixed, and where objectives are constantly competing. Taking into account my own deployment experience, I am hoping that I can think about how security, development and diplomacy intersect in new and different ways. I am especially interested in multilateral organizations because of their diversity, and their need to be robust, while also operating as traditional bureaucracies. 

I want to focus future research on the tools that field practitioners can use to better accomplish their missions. We know that every context is different. So, how can we turn our general understanding of civil-military interaction into adaptable, easy-to-use tools for operators who are constantly having to navigate, learn on the spot, then quickly cycle out of their short-term assignments? I also want to delve deeper into how we do this in unstable settings where conflict may be possible, or where security forces are omnipresent. In short, I want both practitioners and academics to think about the way in which civilian and military actors can start coming to the table more proactively, as opposed to reactively when crises occur. This is especially the case for spaces suffering from fragility.   

Based on your research, what are the main trends with regard to civil-military affairs globally? 

The first and most important trend is that conflict has lost its fluidity, becoming a constant shift between degrees of short-term stability and long-term chronic instability. This is nothing new, but we are just seeing more of it happening. As such, both civic and military actors are forced to adapt. On the one hand, the military can be security providers, intelligence gatherers, combatants, mentors, and teachers of other militaries. But they can also lead or support the implementation of development and humanitarian projects - building schools and clinics, and providing emergency and disaster relief services. The US military, in particular, did a lot of this in Afghanistan and Iraq, but it still does it today, even if it is on a smaller scale. 

The other change is that NGOs are also operating differently, and outside of what they do traditionally. Namely, humanitarian NGOs no longer exclusively address short-term humanitarian needs in crisis settings, contrary to development NGOs which address social and economic systems in peaceful settings. These fields are blending. NGOs have entered the fragile spaces once principally restricted to security actors, as well as spaces that were once not sufficiently stable for normal development programming to occur. In doing so, NGOs are also having to navigate the interests of their funders, and the needs of their clients, namely local communities. As the providers of humanitarian assistance and development, NGOs have become essentially unrestricted, and now operate in every space that the military operates. 

Why should we be thinking about civil-military relations now? 

We should be thinking about it because the fragile space where these actors are interacting is expanding. Most of modern conflict is this constant shift between stability and instability, not the conventional deployment of forces, which we are seeing in Ukraine right now. Approximately 1.5 billion people live in fragile states and countries experiencing low-intensity conflict. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) projects that, by 2030, that amount will increase to 2.3 billion, including 60% of the world’s extreme poor. A variety of factors are increasing cross-regional fragility. These are climate change, resource dependence, commodity shocks, communalism, and natural disasters. All of these contribute to economic vulnerability, human rights abuse, and political instability. As a result, these spaces are characterized by a persistent, vicious cycle of poverty, instability, and state fragility - just short of full-scale war. They will need both development and military actors. Consequently, these actors must learn how to work well with each other in a space that naturally draws both of them and the capabilities they have to offer.