From Kabul to Baghdad: Unfinished Business

Afghanistan is the skunk at the Bush Administration's Iraq party.

Afghanistan is the skunk at the Bush Administration's Iraq party.

In a major speech in Cincinnati articulating the administration's reasons for its hard line against Iraq, President Bush stressed that the lives of Iraqi citizens would improve dramatically if Saddam Hussein was no longer in power, "just as the lives of Afghanistan's citizens improved after the Taliban."

Wishful thinking, perhaps. But it also misrepresents the successes and failures of post-conflict Afghanistan, as well as ignores the lessons of Bosnia and Kosovo. These three conflicts are testimony not only to the overwhelming power of the American military, but also to the unwillingness and incapacity of the United States to rebuild shattered countries on its own.

Bosnia and Kosovo lie on Europe's doorstep and the European Union has undertaken the lion's share of reconstruction efforts. During the 2000 election campaign, the task of maintaining peace in the Balkans was held up as an example of precisely what the United States military should not be doing. "We don't need to have the 82nd Airborne escorting kids to kindergarten", as Condoleezza Rice put it at the time. The proposed withdrawal of American troops from Bosnia was slowed in response to pleas from the Europeans, but both territories will ultimately be left in European hands, with the UN exercising a supervisory role in Kosovo.

In Afghanistan, the near-unanimity of support for American operations to overthrow the Taliban in late 2001 was matched only by the comprehensiveness of its victory. When it came to rebuilding the country, however, the United States turned once again to the United Nations for legitimacy and to its European allies for capacity. Though Washington had no intention of contributing troops to the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), it actively opposed any expansion of this peacekeeping presence outside Kabul lest this complicate ongoing operations against the remnants of Al-Qaeda forces and the Taliban. Now that these operations are largely completed, the United States has changed its position on an expanded deployment of ISAF--but not on the question of contributing troops.

In debates within the UN and elsewhere, much attention has been focused on the unwillingness of the United States to engage in "nation-building." But there is also some evidence that the United States is not well suited to such activities. The importance of domestic politics in the exercise of American power means that it has an exceptionally short attention span--far shorter than is needed to complete the long and complicated task of rebuilding a country that has seen over two decades of war, sanctions, and oppression under brutal leaders. This describes both Afghanistan and Iraq.

More importantly, when the administration has engaged in nation-building, as it did in Afghanistan, it has been justified at home by linking it to the war on terror. It is true that American forces at times provided military and economic support for local governors; however, such aid has been proffered not on the basis of their relations with the embryonic regime of Hamid Karzai, but in exchange for their assistance in rooting out the remnants of Al-Qaeda and Taliban forces. At times this has actively undermined the new regime. It is for this reason that the United States is described--correctly--as having a military strategy in Afghanistan but not a political one.

Neither of these elements is likely to change by the time post-conflict operations in Iraq come around, though the lure of oil may ensure a more sustained American military presence. With this in mind, leaked statements about plans to install an American-led military government in Iraq modeled on the post-war occupation of Japan begin to make sense. The speed with which such plans were denied, however, suggests that the Bush Administration realizes that it cannot afford to be seen embarking upon an imperial quest. Kuwait, of all countries in the region, has reason to be grateful for an American military presence: the recent terrorist attack there, however, suggests that such gratitude is not universal.

If the Bush Administration is serious about rebuilding Iraq, it will have to do so together with the Europeans, probably with Russia, and certainly with partners in the region. For the Europeans at least, the legitimacy afforded by the United Nations will be a requirement for their participation. At present, focused only on the war itself and overcoming the inconvenient diplomatic barriers to military action, such post-conflict cooperation is being taken for granted.

The prospect of Iraq descending into violent civil war is viewed similarly through rose-colored glasses. Of course Kurdish leaders stress that they have no intention of seceding from Iraq--anything to ensure Washington's support against the hated Saddam Hussein. The Kosovar Albanians were also persuaded to drop their demand for independence before NATO went to war on their behalf in 1999; the main barrier to resolving Kosovo's status today is that the international community presumed that they were serious.

Seven years after the Dayton Accords, Bosnians have just elected the same politicians who led them into ethnic conflict in the first place. Kosovo remains a divided non-state, Afghanistan clings to a precarious peace, and, in each case, it appears the Americans are losing interest in staying the course of post-conflict reconstruction.

After a war against Iraq - a military adventure at best tenuously related to the broader "war on terror" - there will be no government-in-waiting as there was, of a kind, in Afghanistan. Some consideration of the broader lessons from Kabul should give the administration pause before it moves on to Baghdad.