Rebuilding nations....

By Richard Holbrooke
Monday, April 1, 2002

In Afghanistan, American strength and skill will win every military engagement. But those victories will be worth little in the long run if they are not followed up by a successful nation-building effort. This will undoubtedly be lengthy, costly and difficult, but given the stakes in Afghanistan, we must succeed in this larger mission or face what could ultimately be a failure, no matter how well the military campaign goes.

It's not surprising that the Pentagon is wary of supporting such an effort. Peacekeeping -- a necessity for successful nation building -- is not a traditional military assignment. When peacekeeping begins to look like police work, it is especially distasteful. But police work is not what American troops have been doing in Kosovo and Bosnia. The role of NATO has been to provide a stabilizing security presence so that these war-ravaged areas can be nursed back to political stability and economic health -- and our forces withdrawn or reduced in numbers.

This is precisely what happened in Bosnia. After bombing the Bosnian Serbs and forcing the parties to agree to a peace settlement at Dayton, Ohio, in November 1995, the Clinton administration sent 20,000 American troops to Bosnia as part of a 60,000-soldier, NATO-led force. This force changed the facts on the ground instantly. While more than a thousand U.N. peacekeepers were killed or wounded in the four bloody years of war before Dayton, there have been, in the six years since, no -- repeat, no -- U.S. or NATO casualties from hostile action. This is because NATO went in "heavy": The Dayton peace agreement gave it the authority to shoot first and ask questions later. The war ended and will not resume.

With a security blanket in place, a separate international civilian structure -- not the military -- was given the responsibility for nation building. Many problems were encountered, and in my view, the international community has often been too passive in imposing its will on the die-hard rejectionists in all three ethnic communities who have sought to thwart a single, multiethnic state. But although progress has been too slow, it has been steady, allowing for the withdrawal of three-fourths of the original outside forces and an even higher percentage of the Americans, who now constitute only about 15 percent of the residual force of just more than 15,000 troops.

Despite this clear progress, there are, within the current administration, senior officials who refer to Bosnia and Kosovo as failures. If this is failure -- two wars ended, the majority of the peacekeepers already withdrawn without casualties and inexorable (if painful) progress toward stability -- then we can only wish for such a "failure" in Afghanistan. In fact, my greatest regret is not that we have done too much but that we have done too little.

So as Washington confronts the challenge in Afghanistan, the question must be asked: What's wrong with nation building anyway? Somewhere along the road from Vietnam -- where it was once the proudly proclaimed mission of the United States, including its military -- to Somalia, this once important part of our national security policy became a dirty word. By the mid-1990s everyone in Washington was proclaiming that we were not nation building, and this trend only accelerated after the argument about it during the second presidential debate in 2000.

Euphemisms were substituted; I'm on a nongovernmental task force studying "post-conflict reconstruction." But whatever we call it, nation building is an essential part of our policies in the Balkans and Afghanistan -- and when we move against Saddam Hussein, it will be essential in Iraq as well.

Despite Vietnam and Somalia, there are important examples of success at nation building, most notably during the Cold War in countries from Greece and Japan to Korea. No country seemed more hopeless than South Korea after the end of the war in 1953: Annual per capita income was less than $100; there were millions of refugees and no industry; the South faced a heavily armed and dangerous Communist foe. But because the United States accepted the long-term obligation of providing security and also offered a huge aid program, South Korea rose from the ashes to the front ranks of stable, economically viable democracies. Nonetheless, we still have 40,000 troops protecting Korea 49 years after the war ended. No one objects to this very expensive deployment.

If it is in our vital national security interests to remain in Korea, why are much smaller deployments in the heart of Europe so controversial? Why is the Pentagon's leadership so opposed to expanding and contributing to the international peacekeeping force in Afghanistan, something that Afghanistan's interim leader, Hamid Karzai, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, Pakistan's beleaguered President Pervez Musharraf and top State Department officials are all urgently requesting?

When the United States turned its back on Afghanistan after Soviet forces were driven out in 1989, it proved to be a grievous, costly mistake that led to Sept. 11. But no one could show a strategic stake there in 1989. Today there can be no such miscalculation: Afghanistan may be as important now as Korea was a half-century ago. If we restrict ourselves to a military campaign, it will, no matter how successful, be insufficient. After we have finished scouring the caves, the terrorists will return to them to plot against the West and the indispensable Musharraf. Meanwhile, if the present trend continues, the rest of Afghanistan will fall back into the hands of warlords and drug lords (often the same people). Iran, part of the "axis of evil," will dominate western Afghanistan.

Having worked on both successful and unsuccessful nation-building efforts over 40 years on three continents, I'm under no illusion as to the immense difficulty of such a task in a country as remote, ethnically diverse and historically xenophobic as Afghanistan. I am not speaking of creating a modern free market democracy in Afghanistan, but of putting the country on a path toward stability and reconstruction. Nor am I remotely suggesting that the United States bear the burden alone. But it must take the lead. If it doesn't, others will not follow.

Let us therefore talk no longer of exit strategies or firm timetables (a mistake we made in Bosnia). As a retired four-star general replied recently when asked in a private meeting how long we should stay in Afghanistan: "As long as necessary, until we have finished the job."

It may be long and costly, but if Afghanistan is important enough to wage war over -- and it is -- it is equally important to stabilize and rebuild, not only as a humanitarian goal but in our own vital national interest, as an integral part of the war on terror.

The writer was U.S. ambassador to the United Nations in the Clinton administration.

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