New Afghan strategy expected to highlight possibilities, limits of nation-building

By Keith B. Richburg
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 1, 2009

The revised strategy for Afghanistan that President Obama will announce Tuesday is expected to focus new resources on training Afghan security forces and shoring up the central government, an approach certain to revive a debate about the possibilities and the limits of nation-building.

From Somalia, Cambodia, East Timor and the Balkans in the 1990s to Iraq today, world powers have at best a mixed record when it comes to establishing functional, stable governments in countries devastated by war. The efforts have been long and costly, tangible results often hard to measure, and support for a prolonged involvement difficult to maintain.

Congressional leaders have already voiced deep skepticism about pouring billions more dollars into an American-led war that so far has shown little progress toward making Afghanistan self-sustaining.

"You can't be half in and half out," said Jonathan T. Howe, a retired Navy admiral who led an ill-fated U.N. reconstruction effort in Somalia in 1993. Howe went to Mogadishu in March of that year with an $856 million budget and a mandate to rebuild Somalia virtually from scratch. Six months later, after 18 U.S. soldiers were killed in a bloody street battle in Mogadishu, the operation was in tatters and President Bill Clinton ordered American troops to withdraw.

Howe, who now lives in Florida, remains convinced that the Somali mission might have succeeded "if we could have just gotten the right resources." He added: "It would have taken time -- and I think Afghanistan is going to take time."

Diplomats and officials involved in past nation-building efforts generally agree that the process works best when warring factions are ready to make peace. Elections, while important to lend legitimacy to a new government, should not be rushed -- creating lasting institutions is more important. The international community must have realistic, if modest, goals. Regional experts need to be consulted, and neighboring countries should be brought on board.

And nation-building should be done primarily by the people of the country involved, with the outside world there to assist, diplomats said.

Above all, there must be resources.

"More manpower and more money produces better, faster results," said former U.S. diplomat James F. Dobbins, now with the Rand Corp., who has had firsthand experience in Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, Kosovo and Afghanistan. "There is a correlation between the commitment and the achievement."

He added: "Lesson one was decisive force. Employ a force decisive enough and impressive enough to deter any violent resistance."

Ground zero

East Timor was ground zero for nation-building. And in many ways, that contributed to the relative success there.

In September 1999, Dili, East Timor's run-down seaside capital, was a charred shell. After the islanders voted in a U.N.-backed referendum for independence, Indonesian troops and their allied Timorese militiamen embarked on a scorched-earth policy, looting houses and offices, blowing up bridges, and setting fire to government buildings, communication facilities and hotels.

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