A test for the blocks needed to rebuild a nation

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.

"Eighty percent of the buildings were burned. Not a teacher. Not a policeman. A third of the population were refugees out of the country," said Peter W. Galbraith, a former U.S. and U.N. diplomat who worked in East Timor, as well as the Balkans, Iraq and most recently Afghanistan.

Rebuilding East Timor, he said, "was the most ambitious effort undertaken." But the $500 million in foreign aid initially pledged, he said, "was sufficient."

Timor was so devastated that the world community was truly starting from scratch; Timorese had to decide not only what form of government they wanted but what language would be spoken and what currency to use. Timor's advantage was its small population. And virtually all the Timorese wanted an independent state.

With the conflict over, East Timorese could get on with building their new nation. The United Nations was put in charge of administering the country until it was ready for full sovereignty, in May 2002.

"Why was it successful? Everybody agreed on the end-state," Galbraith said. "The main reason that these post-conflict situations don't work is that there's still conflict."

The Timorese also wrote their own constitution, with guidance from foreign experts, and they created it specifically around the personalities who would occupy key posts. The presidency, for example, was designed to suit independence leader Xanana Gusmao, who preferred to stay above the political fray.

Many of the officials involved in past nation-building missions called it a critical yet common mistake for outsiders to impose their views on a country, without regard for the country's unique circumstances, and before all the internal factions have reached agreement.

'Look at our failures'

That is the main problem in Afghanistan, said many with familiarity there.

Lakhdar Brahimi, a longtime U.N. diplomat from Algeria, served as the world body's special envoy in Afghanistan and later Iraq. He led the 2001 conference in Bonn that created the current Afghan government, putting him close enough to the process to see its flaws.

What was lacking, he said, was the agreement of all the Afghan factions, including the Taliban.

"In Bonn, we had an agreement between 35 Afghans," he said. "We knew very well it was a tentative agreement. We should have immediately started to reach out to those who were not at Bonn, particularly the Taliban."

Prior agreement of all the factions, he said, "is really indispensable. . . . If we just look at our failures, we will see."

Brahimi, like others, said he disliked the term "nation-building." "If we promise less and produce more, it's better in my book than the opposite," he said.

Howe, from the Somalia operation, still believes the United Nations' lofty ambitions for that country were attainable.

The plan was to rebuild the education system, train a police force, create a functioning civil service, repair the shattered infrastructure, and lay the seeds for a democracy through district-level elections. All in a country with no government, no electricity, no communications, no industry, and still emerging from a devastating famine.

Howe conducted what he called a "world talent search," looking for the best minds to come in and build water systems and bridges and run schools. The U.N. mandate called for establishing 2,800 civilian administrators, including 500 to 600 foreign experts.

But Howe never did get the agreement of the most powerful warlord in Mogadishu, Mohamed Farah Aideed, whose militia waged a bloody insurgency against the U.N. forces. The civilian experts were largely confined to the U.N. compound in Mogadishu as the security deteriorated, and eventually they evacuated to the safety of neighboring Kenya.

But mostly what was missing were the resources to back up the ambition, and a sustained commitment and political will from the countries that had donated troops and money but ended up withdrawing.

"What have we got today? Al-Qaeda running around, and piracy -- a broken nation," Howe said, describing what he called the unintended consequences of the American pullout. He added:

"In Afghanistan I think the consequences would be much more severe."

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company