commentary

(Financial Times)

August 11, 2004

Nation-Building Returns to Favour

by James Dobbins

Serious and still mounting losses in Iraq and Afghanistan have led official Washington to recognise, if not acknowledge, serious shortfalls in America's recent nation-building efforts. A decade ago, far more modest setbacks in Somalia triggered calls for America not just to withdraw but also to abandon the whole concept of nation-building. The current reaction is quite the opposite. Both Republicans and Democrats have come to recognise the inevitability of nation-building missions and are pressing for improvements in the way the US conducts such operations. In response, the Defence and State departments, the White House, Congress and the US Army have all launched initiatives to strengthen America's performance in the field.

These missions are no longer formally labelled “nation-building”, long a term of opprobrium, or “peacekeeping”, widely seen as a lower form of military activity best left to lesser nations. In a bow to political correctness, the latest term for these activities is “stabilisation and reconstruction”, S&R for short.

Donald Rumsfeld, US defence secretary, has asked his staff to propose possible improvements in S&R capabilities, both his department's and the broader government's. Colin Powell, secretary of state, has already created a new unit in his department, the Office of Stabilization and Reconstruction Operations, to give greater focus to this field. Several bipartisan bills have been introduced in Congress to strengthen America's nation-building performance. Richard Lugar, chairman of the Senate foreign relations committee, and Joseph Biden, the committee's most senior Democrat, have introduced legislation to provide the State Department with up to 250 additional people and $100m extra funding for this purpose.

But the most far-reaching changes so far have been introduced by the Army, which carries the main weight of nation-building in Iraq and Afghanistan. The army is shifting up to 100,000 positions, one-tenth of its total active duty and reserve strength, into specialities such as military police, special forces and engineering, while eliminating a corresponding number of slots in artillery and other specialities. The army is also reducing staffing in higher-level headquarters and making other personnel savings to create up to 15 additional active duty brigades, increasing the number of such deployable units by more than a third. As a result, the army's overall size will be determined not simply by the requirements for big combat operations but by the more manpower-intensive needs of the “post combat” stability operations.

These changes reflect the US Army's recognition that stability operations must become a core competency, no longer to be treated simply as a slighter component of combat operations. This recognition has come none too soon. Iraq is the sixth nation-building exercise on which the US has embarked in little more than a decade. Major combat, in each case, lasted a few weeks at most. The stability operations that followed have lasted for years. It is not hard to calculate that if one begins a nation-building operation every two years, as the US has, and if each operation lasts for five years or more, as most have, the cumulative burden of these activities rapidly grows.

The good news is that the Washington establishment has finally recognised that the main limit on the effective use of US military power is not how many regimes the US can knock over, but how many better ones it can build up. The bad news is that the changes under way will not fully meet the current demands on US forces.

Assuming that a professional military can spend no more than a third of its time on operational deployments if its readiness is not to suffer unacceptably, even a 48-brigade US Army, reorganised to conduct stability operations, will have great difficulty sustaining the US commitment to Iraq and Afghanistan at current levels. Nor will greater expertise across the administration in stability operations suffice to turn round those two troubled operations.

In both cases the original US failure to establish a secure environment at the conclusion of combat has allowed a substantial insurgency to develop. The Iraqi and Afghan resistance movements both have links to foreign terrorists, but both also have a considerable degree of public support, as polling data show. In both cases the US must now help local leaders fight and win a counterinsurgency campaign before nation-building reforms can take root. In developing strategies for such counterinsurgency campaigns, British experience in places such as Malaya and Northern Ireland and US experience in Vietnam are likely to be even more relevant than peace enforcement operations in Bosnia and Kosovo.

The writer, director of the International Security and Defense Policy Center at the Rand Corporation, was the US special envoy for Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia and Kosovo and the Bush administration's first envoy for Afghanistan.

This commentary originally appeared in Financial Times on August 11, 2004.