On May 1, 2003, several hours after US President George W. Bush’s fateful appearance under the Mission Accomplished banner, then US secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld stated in Kabul: “If one looks at Afghanistan and even Iraq today, it’s very clear that we are and have been in a stabilization operation mode for some time. We clearly have moved from major combat activity to ... stabilization and reconstruction activities. The bulk of the country today is permissive, it’s secure.”
Recent reports suggest otherwise, with concern being increasingly expressed by senior US military and civilian leaders that we are on a losing path in Afghanistan, while in Iraq we have fought a war of “unintended consequences” which may only have strengthened our enemies. What successive US administrations seem to have forgotten is that peace is not just the absence of war, but also the presence of economic and social justice.
Without the comforting sense that such justice is being provided, festering hatreds and historical feuds re-emerge in the form of full-blown civil strife, or insurgent movements that target the foreign governments and their nationals seen as complicit in the failure to deliver economic and social justice and the rule of law. The US and its closest allies seem to have ignored the lessons of their own successes in state building, such as in Europe and Japan after World War II and in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Mozambique, Eritrea and Timor, to name but a few. Nowhere is this collective amnesia reflected more than in the US military’s approach to counterinsurgency and stability operations.
Though in part a product of US Vice President Dick Cheney and Rumsfeld’s aversion to “nation building,” the approach has remained narrowly focused on force-based solutions — for example using warlords and military-constituted “reconstruction teams”— to bring about economic and social development, as in Afghanistan.
There has been little meaningful effort to integrate the experience and analytical methods of civilian-based development agencies — such as the World Bank, the UN development program and even the US’ own agency for international development — with the work of the US military, as was done with success in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Indeed, some in the Pentagon are uncomfortable even with General David Petraeus’ attempts to reformulate the military’s approach to counterinsurgency and stability. Instead, they are seeking to intensify support for “asymmetrical conflicts” with major powers such as China, Russia or Iran. This is welcome, but insufficient. A much deeper rethinking of US practice is needed if failures under Bush are to be turned into success under US president-elect Barack Obama.
The US army’s manuals on counterinsurgency and stabilization should be redrafted to give priority to operations that would produce a locally conceived long-term end-state for the country; integrate security operations with reconstruction and development; forgo the temptation of easy domestic alliances with the powerful and corrupt in favor of a real attempt to establish the rule of law and positively engage non-governmental organizations and neighboring states.
Possibly most significant, however, would be US acceptance that, in some cases, leadership of the international effort may be better served by a non-American — or an individual not perceived locally as representing the broader international community.