Friday, March 24, 2006

The Good, Ugly, and Not So Good

Yesterday (March 23) seemed a bit brighter than normal. Not sun-shiny but hopeful.

For once, there was good news that everyone could agree was good: British and U.S. troops found and freed the three remaining members of a four-person Christian Peace Team kidnapped last November 26. (Unfortunately, the fourth member, U.S citizen Tom Fox, was killed by his captors about a week ago.)

The second piece of good news involved the Pentagon’s National Defense University, which held a day-long symposium on “Resourcing Stability Operations and Reconstruction – Past, Present, and Future.” Part of the proceedings was a historical review of the number of instances the federal government – which is to say the military – has been involved in stability and reconstruction before the 1990s and early 2000s. Most people, if asked, might recall the Union Army’s presence in the former Confederate States in the period called Reconstruction (1865-1878). Few would cite the Mexican-American War as the first time U.S. field commanders were confronted with the necessity to perform aspects of what today is known as “nation building.”

This historical review also served to highlight one ugly truth that surfaced virtually every time the U.S. tried fighting and nation building at the same time: a foreign force cannot fight an insurgency and build a nation simultaneously.

Other salient points that emerged from the historical record or that one or more current practitioners of stability and reconstruction (or construction) operations stressed during a discussion panel included:

– there is no template for building peace; it cannot be done “by the numbers,” which is a fundamental reason why the military is not the agency to be in overall control of these efforts.

– a safe and secure environment is essential.

– empower people by (re)establishing rule of law and reforming the economic sector. After these areas are addressed, hold elections.

– reconstruction plans must be acceptable to local populations, local leaders, and the international community (including donor countries and financial institutions.)

– before starting work on the plan, think through to the objectives. One cannot just accept the “mission” and start planning.

– coordination is very important, but more important is the requirement to have someone in charge.

– individuals who are likely to be administrators of the post-conflict peace should be embedded in the war-fighting phase.

– less government does not automatically mean more effective government.

Trying to salvage a bad plan is an ugly undertaking compared to crafting a good plan in the beginning. Getting the good plan involves three “types” of people.

First are the geographic experts, what the military calls “foreign area officers.” These are individuals who live and immerse themselves in a society, who understand the peoples, languages, internal (country) and regional histories, cultures, interactions (usually war and trade) with other cultures, and sensitivities. Obviously, much time is needed to attain this expertise, and for years there may well be zero return on investing in developing and maintaining a “stable” of experts. But when they are needed, they can be priceless.

Unfortunately, at least in the military, these often are the ones the military doesn’t promote, thereby forcing them out of service.

Second are the process experts, those who understand how institutions of government (e.g., rule of law/juridical sector) ought to function, the structural impediments, and the infrastructure needs and vulnerabilities. A key attribute for process experts is flexibility; they should not be so wedded to “the” way to be unable to modify process to conform to local conditions.

Third is the group in charge – usually politicians who make and implement policies and programs that shape the nation’s course.

“Ugly” arises when the third type has an agenda that they are determined to implement and, to preclude dissenting voices or other opposition, exclude the area and process experts.

A final point.

While the venue was a military post, none of the speakers and panelists in the two sessions was on active duty. But all either had been in the military or participated in post-Cold War stability and reconstruction efforts as process or area experts. The audience consisted of a mix of active duty officers, government civilians, retirees from military and civilian agencies, academics, and contractors.

Based on the comments, questions and answers, my clear impression is that no one in that auditorium was willing to support the administration’s “stay the course” line.

It does give pause to consider what some believe to be the ugly fact about Iraq, the generals didn’t want war but the civilians did. If true, “that ain’t good.”

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