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US Nation Bulding Efforts:  Lessons Learned - 2004-04-20


Since the end of the Cold War, the United States has engaged in a new-nation building effort on average every 18 months. At a recent conference in Washington D.C., analysts examined what lessons drawn from the past experiences it has applied in the re-building of Iraq and Afghanistan.

Analysts recognize at least two distinct phases in nation building. The first takes place immediately after the end of an armed conflict and includes restoration of basic services, such as security, water, electricity, transportation and health care. The second is involved in a country’s broader development, including the creation of self-sustaining political and economic institutions that will enable the intervening forces to withdraw.

Francis Fukuyama, a political economy professor at Johns Hopkins University, says he was hoping that by now and especially after the capture of Saddam Hussen, nation building in Iraq would be in this second stage: “Unfortunately, it does not seem to be the case and I say that the military aspects and the security aspects of the situation, particularly in Iraq and in many ways still in Afghanistan, remain at the fore front.”

Judging by the examples of Somalia, Bosnia, Kosovo and other earlier nation-building efforts, it may take many more years before Iraq and Afghanistan are able to function as states without external help, says Professor Fukuyama. Some analysts say it is because lessons gleaned from the past have not been put to use.

“The greatest single failure of the United States was, has been, and continues to be our failure to provide effective security throughout Iraq,” says Kenneth Pollack, director of research on the Middle East at the Brookings Institution in Washington.

“We did not bring enough American and other First-World troops to provide security for our own personnel, for aid workers, including those from NGO-s and international organizations and most important of all, for the Iraqi people,” says Mr. Pollack.

Iraq’s economy cannot recover largely because goods cannot move safely on the roads. Stores and factories are subject to looting. The lack of security discourages investors and frightens workers from coming to work. And, adds Mr. Pollack, it also causes coalition personnel to isolate themselves from the Iraqi people, creating an atmosphere of mistrust. The lack of communication with local citizenry has made it easier for radical Islamic leaders such as Moqtada al-Sadr to gain a following.

The most important lesson about nation building, proven time and time again, say analysts, is the need for a comprehensive integrated strategy. Michele Flournoy, an advisor on international security at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, says this strategy must be in place before any action is taken: “Any strategy for success has to integrate political dimensions, military dimensions, economic dimensions, humanitarian dimensions, public information strategies and so forth. In practice this requires establishing capacity or mechanisms for ensuring that integration; be it in the planning stage when you are preparing for an operation, or in the execution phases as things unfold on the ground.”

Michele Flournoy notes that while the military action has been mostly successful both in Iraq and in Afghanistan, the political and economic development has lagged behind.

A smooth transition of power must be a part of an integrated strategic plan, say analysts, and that is something to be determined by the conditions on the ground. Many fear Iraq may not be ready for a smooth transition of power on June 30.

Thomas Carothers of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace says rushing the transition, indeed the whole democratic process in Iraq, has been a major mistake: “The desire to move the country so quickly through the basic processes of the formation of democracy, the initial idea of rushing the country through the writing of the constitution, through party formations, into elections. Now it’s been slowed down by the force of reality and the force of events, but there’s still been an unnaturally fast timetable.”

Mr. Carothers says in order to speed up nation building, the United States has retained too much control, failing to include some of the major segments of the Iraqi society into the process. And these groups are now rebelling.

But some observers say the U-S strategy has incorporated lessons from the past well. The problems have occurred in its execution, says James Dobbins, former US ambassador to the European Community and co-author of “America’s Role in Nation Building: From Germany to Iraq.” He cites disbanding the Iraqi Army as one example: “There is a well-understood process of disarmament, demobilization and reintegration, which we’ve repeatedly employed. And what you do with these people is: you take them, you register them, you give them a monthly stipend, you tell them you haven’t decided what you are going to do with them yet, but don’t worry you are going to get paid. You will either be re-trained to be a computer technician or you are going to go back in the army.” Some observers say nation building efforts by foreign powers are more likely to fail than to succeed and they are too costly in terms of economic resources as well as human lives.

“If I had to summarize it in a sentence, I would say that every time you get the urge to engage in nation building, lie down until it goes away,” says Amitai Ezioni, director of the Institute for Communitarian Policy Studies at George Washington University. He cites a Carnegie Endowment study which shows that only a handful of nation-building projects have succeeded in the past half century, among them Germany, Italy and Japan. But in all of these countries, he notes, economy, education and political development were at a much higher level than in most countries where nation building is usually attempted.

Some analysts say the high cost of nation building ultimately pays. Said Jawad, ambassador of Afghanistan in the United States, points to the progress his country has achieved since the removal of the Taliban regime. “In the past two years, most Afghans have experienced a significant improvement in their living conditions. Last year, we reached an economic growth rate of 30 percent and continuing at 20 percent this year, according to the International Monetary Fund.”

Ambassador Jawad says the country is also seeing a growth of political parties, civic organizations, media outlets and other democratic organizations that had no chance of developing during the Taliban regime.

Abdulwahab Alkebsi of the National Endowment for Democracy, notes promising signs of positive developments in Iraq: “Iraqis are reclaiming the right to participate in public life as evidenced in the burgeoning of the political and civic activity and the formation of over 300 political parties and NGO-s during the past few months. In addition to establishing new small and medium size businesses, Iraqis are organizing local business groups, trade associations and chambers of commerce at an encouraging speed and enthusiasm.”

The ultimate success of a nation building effort depends on the full participation of a country’s people. But, most analysts agree, outside forces can help start the process and offer guidance along the way.

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