A Lesson in How Not to Leave

By Emily Messner and J. J. Messner
Saturday, June 10, 2006

With the East Timorese military split into two warring camps, soldiers loyal to the government laid siege to police headquarters last month. A proposal for ending the standoff called for all parties to disarm, and the police complied. When the unarmed officers came outside, the soldiers gunned them down.

This is what has become of East Timor, until recently touted as a success story of U.N. peacekeeping. Yet it was the United Nations that laid the groundwork for this degeneration by reducing its missions in East Timor too much, too soon and too abruptly.

Walking around the capital city Dili earlier this year, we saw throngs of unemployed, idle young men. The large international presence had provided temporary relief by hiring local support staff and by pumping dollars and demand into the economy. But when most of the foreigners left a year ago, the jobs disappeared.

When a U.N. mission's mandate runs out, the exodus of personnel leaves a gaping hole in the economy. In tiny East Timor, the U.N. presence peaked at upward of 10,000 peacekeepers and transitional staff after the 1999 vote to break from Indonesia. In 2002, when East Timor officially declared independence, the size of the mission was cut in half, eliminating 800 local staff positions in less than two months. Another massive drawdown three years later axed 500 more local jobs in a matter of weeks. Each drawdown results in a glut of unemployed vying for precious few opportunities in an economy too small to absorb the workers.

The United Nations cannot be expected to stay indefinitely just to create a job market for locals, but it can take steps to mitigate the effects of its departure. If it does not, it will continue to leave scores of jobless people in its wake after each mission to an economically weak country -- helping to set the stage for future unrest.

To this end, the United Nations should plan for longer and more gradual withdrawals from nation-building missions. Members of the Security Council sought an early exit from East Timor, despite the recommendations of the secretary general and a plea from the young nation's president. The Security Council must resist the urge to do peacekeeping on the cheap.

The deadline-driven nature of U.N. mandates encourages a system in which the native government has many responsibilities suddenly handed over to it and then has logistical support taken away on the date the mission ends. The shifting of responsibilities to a nascent government should begin as early as possible, but it should then be drawn out over a longer period. After handing off one area of authority, U.N. personnel should remain available to help work out the kinks that inevitably arise. When external support is no longer necessary, those staffers can withdraw, and the focus can shift to giving the fledgling government its next dose of responsibility.

As the government's burden increases, it should be encouraged to expand its ranks. Donor nations may desire a small, efficient government, but in a post-conflict country with a meager private sector, it makes sense for the government to create jobs in administration and infrastructure development. Sadly, in East Timor, many unemployed youths have now turned to violence, roaming the streets as part of armed gangs.

Bolstering the civil service also increases the number of people with a vested interest in the stability of the government. For a country to succeed in recovering from conflict, it needs strong public institutions. This was a key factor in the success of the U.N.-administered transition in Namibia, which inherited its institutions from South Africa and remains relatively stable 15 years later.

East Timor was progressing well, but it was not ready to be cast adrift. The United Nations pared down its mission to fewer than 150 people (all advisers) even before a fully functioning judicial system was in place. Handicapped by a lack of local judges proficient in the required Portuguese legal language, the judiciary consisted of a skeleton staff of international judges.

The highly unpopular prime minister whose actions caused the military to fracture now refuses to give up his authority, and yet the East Timorese aren't scheduled to go to the polls again until next year. Elections are popularly perceived as a post-conflict exit strategy, but strong, effective peace-and-stability operations should remain in place at least through two consecutive parliamentary elections. Staying close helps ensure a peaceful first transition between native governments.

Unfortunately, nations are often all too eager to withdraw their military personnel, risking flare-ups that may lead to costlier interventions in the future. The current mission to East Timor contains no security component whatsoever -- not a single U.N. peacekeeper or police officer beyond advisers was present when the latest round of violence erupted. Ultimately, all arguments about nation-building are irrelevant if there is inadequate security for it even to be attempted.

Not long ago, East Timor was a model of how to get things right. Now, it should serve as a lesson in how not to get things wrong.

J.J. Messner is the director of programs at the International Peace Operations Association. Emily Messner writes The Debate, an opinion blog at washingtonpost.com.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company