Breaking the State

Rajan Menon
Content Type
Journal Article
The National Interest
Issue Number
Publication Date
May 2011
Center for the National Interest
One fact is certain: foreign interventions end badly. Think the Balkans, Iraq, Afghanistan. Libya will be no different.
Humanitarian Aid
Political Geography
Afghanistan, Iraq, Middle East, Libya, Balkans
THE MIDDLE East roils and one fact is certain: interventions end badly. For intervention leads to postwar reconstruction and postwar reconstruction leads to failure. In the wake of the wars in Bosnia, Kosovo, Iraq, Afghanistan, East Timor and Haiti—to take but some examples—“stabilization operations,” “state building” and their terminological kin have become watchwords. If these undertakings are not part of an American administration's opening agenda, they seem to have a way of entering it. Do not be fooled into thinking Libya is any different. So it is useful to explore how it is that states get involved in these campaigns and what happens once they do. Invariably, though hardly inevitably, they do so in the aftermath of two types of military operations, each guided by rather different motives. The first is that set of humanitarian interventions that are often prompted by calls of those who are being abused and slaughtered, whether by their own governments or by militias fighting civil wars. These interventions need not, of course, entail military force. If one visualizes humanitarian interventions as a continuum, diplomacy aimed at resolving the conflict lies at one end, military intercession at the other and various nonmilitary measures in between. Even fervent proponents of humanitarian intervention believe that it should be the last step—one taken when other feasible and reasonable responses to mass atrocities have been tried and found wanting. This said, advocates of the cause do ultimately insist that when all else fails and a government is either unable to halt internecine violence or, worse, is engaged in killing its own citizens, military action is appropriate, even essential, to save lives and end suffering. The second category of intervention is not, pace the pious pronouncements of its initiators, driven by humanitarian considerations. These military adventures are predicated on the claim that there is a serious and imminent threat to be deterred, or a necessity to react in self-defense to a hostile provocation. This justification need not be convincing and may even be concocted; what distinguishes these acts from humanitarian interventions is that the intervening state does not present ethical considerations (saving innocents from harm, etc) as its principal motivation. The 2003 American attack on Iraq, for example, cannot be portrayed convincingly as one driven by humanitarian motives. Saddam Hussein was not then engaged in perpetrating mass murder, as he was during the 1988 Anfal campaign against the Kurds (during which the Reagan administration was backing him in his war against Iran), so the moral claims, which in any event were not at the heart of the Bush administration's case, were unpersuasive. Of course the alleged threat posed by Saddam was hardly self-evident either, but the justification lay—if anywhere—in the realm of national security. The American attack that toppled the Taliban, by contrast, did have a casus belli, even though there are sound reasons for d­ebating whether unilateral military action was the wisest and sole recourse. Yet no matter the cause (or rationale) for the intervention, the resultant common denominator is clear: when a regime is displaced, the initiators are forced to create a replacement and thus to enter the treacherous terrain of postconflict operations. The alternative to building institutions that eventually enable self-governance is to rule the country in which the intervention has occurred indefinitely—to engage in imperialism, in other words. Leave aside the myriad practical problems involved in occupying and governing people who are, or will soon become, determined to regain their independence. What is more important is that the days of colonialism are over and no modern variant will be acceptable to its supposed beneficiaries or justifiable to the rest of the world, or even to one's own citizens. None of the former colonies yearn for its return, even though some well-known commentators—notably Max Boot and Niall Ferguson—have proclaimed, perhaps overcome with nostalgia for the good old days, that what failed states really require is a bracing spell of imperial tutelage, with the United States assuming Britain's erstwhile, and supposedly benevolent, role as the guardian and mentor of those who are not quite ready for self-rule. Moreover, both variants of military intervention segue into nation building because in the postimperial era, intervening states, especially if they are democracies accountable to impatient electorates, must present at the outset, or develop later, an “exit strategy.” That, in turn, requires plans for the establishment of a minimally effective local government. Otherwise, the intervention will encounter mounting costs (in dollars and dead) that will erode support for it at home and among allies, all the while generating the popular resentment toward outsiders that emerges against occupations. Now, there is an alternative: departing the scene soon after overthrowing the offending regime. But the resulting power vacuum will create new threats, if not for the interventionist state or coalition, then certainly for the people it supposedly stepped in to save and for neighboring countries. The here-today-gone-tomorrow intervention is thus indefensible, even through the unsentimental maxims of realpolitik. And avoiding protracted postconflict operations by resurrecting a sanitized version of the displaced regime will only force further moral and practical quandaries—particularly if the origin of the offenses (and justification for war) lies in the very nature of the leaders. Besides, thoroughly repressive governments are likely to have few people with clean hands who can be summoned to take the helm after the housecleaning. Dislodging a regime by force, killing numerous innocents in the process (no matter how inadvertently), creating anarchy and then running for the door is a wrecking operation and will be seen as such. So, intervention (whether born of humanitarian or national-security motives) ends up in the same spot: an obligation to assume the responsibilities of postwar peacemaking and state building. Former–U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell famously called this the “Pottery Barn rule”: “If you break it, you own it.” (The store, it should be said, denies having such a policy.) Intervenors who shatter a state acquire it, at least temporarily. They then enter the posteuphoria phase of making and keeping a peace, building a polity and rebuilding an economy. Innumerable nettlesome practical problems soon present themselves, and they do not admit to quick solutions, or perhaps to any at all; what is worse, given the power and wealth of intervening states, much is expected of them and disillusionment sets in quickly. Toppling a regime may be easy; creating even the semblance of a decent alternative is not. INDEED, THE very foundations upon which these states are built create the conditions that can make postwar reconstruction a predetermined failure. As a rule, peace- and institution-building enterprises unfold in some of the world's poorest places. This presents an immediate problem if the goal is to build institutions from the bottom up and to staff them with local personnel so that the postintervention phase does not seem a thinly veiled occupation or viceroyalty. Keeping the external hand light may be good for giving postconflict operations legitimacy, but, in such countries, it may not be the best way to maximize efficiency. Creating new national armies, police forces, and state and local civilian bureaucracies requires a substantial supply of literate individuals with basic skills—the very things that are often in short supply in poor, conflict-ridden nations. This talent deficit is aggravated when many of the country's most educated people flee because of the violence that triggered the intervention, or that, as in the case of Iraq, was unleashed by it. Take Afghanistan as an example. It has an average literacy rate of 28 percent, and, in rural areas, the figure plunges to 15 percent for men and 1 percent for women. Not surprisingly, about 90 percent of Afghan army recruits cannot read. Consider what this means when it comes to acquiring basic military skills: deciphering maps and manuals, using modern weaponry and carrying out elementary calculations. Imagine the difficulties that the shortage of skills poses for meeting the expectations of Afghans (and Americans and Europeans) who are eager to see self-governance and the departure of foreign troops. This same problem—the lack of qualified people—is not limited to the police and intelligence services but plagues the civilian bureaucracy as well. Gung-ho interventionists assure us that these challenges can be overcome and that they eventually are. Perhaps so. The question is how long it will take and at what price. Corruption and economic reconstruction go hand in hand in poor societies—especially when there is little by way of a professional bureaucracy. Graft reduces popular support for the government, which, in the eyes of ordinary Afghans and Iraqis, has come to embody bribery, theft, cronyism and nepotism; the resulting loss of legitimacy makes it hard to implement a timely exit strategy, which presumes that a viable local regime is in place. Corruption also reduces the funds that reach their intended destinations because officials, central and provincial, skim off a portion; that, in turn, hampers efforts to defeat insurgencies by “winning hearts and minds.” And it nourishes the insurgents, who receive payoffs from local forces hired to protect aid workers and personnel engaged in institution building. The commander of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan, General David Petraeus, among others, has emphasized that demonstrating the ability to provide the population a better economic future is as important in weakening insurgencies and forging peace as are military victories. If so, corruption is much more than dishonesty or waste; it is also a formidable barrier to nation building. Yet if we know anything about endemic corruption, it is that it is hard to root out because what is required is a cultural transformation of sorts. Worse, the money poured into postintervention programs exacerbates theft—the solution aggravating the problem. Although over $55 billion in American aid has flowed into Afghanistan since 2001, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction's annual report to the U.S. Congress, which was released in October 2010, concluded that the funds couldn't be properly accounted for. As the then–inspector general, Arnold Fields, put it, effective oversight is impossible “if we don't even know who we're giving money to”—and apparently we do not. The contrast between postwar reconstruction in Afghanistan and in Germany and Japan after World War II couldn't be starker. There, institution builders and promoters of economic reconstruction had professionals aplenty: they were dealing with highly literate, economically advanced societies. Though the war had devastated the economies of Germany and Japan, both countries were prosperous before and so possessed the prerequisites for regaining that prosperity. Germany had an added advantage: the, admittedly brief, democratic experience of the Weimar Republic; and even Japan had its turbulent democratic decade in the 1920s. POSTCONFLICT INSTITUTION building encounters added difficulty—even in relatively developed societies—when deep communal divisions have emerged. Think of Bosnia, where ethnic animosities produced the bloodshed that led to the intervention, or Iraq, where sectarian violence was, in fact, both unleashed and enabled by the military occupation. Institution building in both locales was made difficult not so much by a dearth of educated people (Bosnia and Iraq were advanced societies in this respect) as it was by the hardening of group loyalties produced by the massive ethno-religious violence. Trust became scarce; politics, a Manichaean contest between “us” and “them.” Worst-case thinking was pervasive, even instinctive. So was the fear that the new institutions, especially those charged with maintaining law and order (the military and the police forces and the courts), would be captured by a particular group and used to weaken, oppress or even kill its enemies. These suspicions remain. In Iraq, the once-dominant Sunnis saw the post-Saddam armed forces and police that were created with American assistance as Shia bastions, and their resulting fear and resentment fueled the insurgency and led to the Sunnis' boycott of the 2005 parliamentary elections. The continual suicide bombings in Iraq today show that these sectarian animosities persist even though there has been a steep decline in violence since 2007. True, the Sunni Iraqiya coalition led by the secular Shiite Ayad Allawi and the State of Law bloc led by the Shiite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki (who has now won the support of the Shia followers of Moktada al-Sadr) have bridged their differences and formed a national unity government following the March 2010 parliamentary elections (though it took them eight months, post–the March 2010 vote). But Sunni resentment at having been sidelined, even though their alliance won the most votes, has not abated, and sectarian killings are on the upswing once more. Iraq's trajectory remains uncertain: communal bloodletting has begun to increase just as American combat troops are departing; the government's failure to deliver basic services and Prime Minister al-Maliki's authoritarian proclivities have chipped away at public goodwill. In 2006, the Sunni Awakening (also known as the Sons of Iraq) broke with al-Qaeda, abandoned the insurgency and, in return for American economic and military support, agreed to join Iraqi institutions. That defection was critical in damping down the insurgency. Yet nearly five years later, only 41,000 of the 94,000 former fighters have received jobs in the civilian or military bureaucracy. Indeed, the continuing communal antagonisms have given al-Maliki reason to drag his feet in finding these Sunnis jobs. There are reports that some combatants have begun to rejoin the insurgency out of frustration—or after being fired—and that al-Qaeda in Iraq has been able to entice disillusioned ex-insurgents back into its ranks by offering paid employment. If this proves a trend, violence, particularly of the sectarian variety, could threaten the stability that was achieved by the surge. The effort to bring Allawi into the tent by having him chair a National Council for Strategic Policy (a body with ill-defined powers that Sunni leaders suspect is window dressing) failed when he eventually rejected the post, placing the council's future in doubt. A similar pattern is still present in Bosnia. The 1995 Dayton accords certainly did stop the carnage that consumed 100,000 lives. That, in turn, allowed the building of institutions and the holding of elections. There is no gainsaying these achievements, which extricated Bosnia from hell. But both the country's elections and its institutions mirror, and in fact have deepened, the ethno-religious divide. For example, in February 2010 the Bosnian-Serb parliament approved a measure that would enable a referendum on independence, a choice openly championed by the prime minister of Republika Srpska, Milorad Dodik. Bosnians and Croats similarly view politics through the lens of communalism, not least because their political leaders (such as Haris Silajdzic, who served from 2006 to 2010 as the Bosniac member of the tripartite presidency of Bosnia and Herzegovina) present it that way. The result is that Bosnia is now a delicate assemblage of ethnic statelets disguised as a state—one that could yet collapse and reignite war. This precarious equilibrium hardly reflects a lack of postconflict nation-building efforts by outside parties. An Implementation Force of 60,000 troops was deployed in Bosnia in December 1995 to prevent a reversion to war. A smaller NATO-led Stabilization Force replaced it in 1996 and stayed until 2004, when EU troops took over, some 1,600 of which remain. There have also been equally substantial (and even more expensive) attempts to promote Bosnia's economic reconstruction and development. As Patrice McMahon and Jon Western have noted: By the end of 1996, 17 different foreign governments, 18 UN agencies, 27 intergovernmental organizations, and about 200 nongovernmental organizations (NGOs)—not to mention tens of thousands of troops from across the globe—were involved in reconstruction efforts. On a per capita basis, the reconstruction of Bosnia—with less than four million citizens—made the post-World War II rebuilding of Germany and Japan look modest.1 Since the Dayton accords, Bosnia has received some $15 billion in economic assistance. Yet, its official unemployment rate is 40 percent (and even when jobs provided by the informal and underground economy are taken into account, the number hovers between 25 and 30 percent). It could be said, I suppose, that despite all this, Bosnia is a success—given where it was before 1995; that nation building takes a long time. Fair enough. But the problem with this response is that it begs the question of whether Bosnia-like endeavors offer a practical model to be applied in other instances given the scale of time and resources that are required, particularly since the country, for all its problems, has social and economic conditions more conducive to institution building and economic reconstruction than other shattered societies. Yes, communal divisions need not always be insurmountable barriers. They were overcome, for example, in Macedonia, where a NATO, and later EU, peacekeeping contingent was deployed to good effect after the 2001 Ohrid peace accord that defused the crisis between Macedonians and Albanians. But this felicitous outcome was enabled by the remarkable flexibility shown by the Macedonians, the country's majority nationality, whose leaders made the concessions necessary to provide the degree of political representation, empowerment and devolution of authority needed to allay the Albanian minority's fears of disenfranchisement. The Albanians, in turn, were prepared to accept compromises (which included the surrender of weapons by the rebels of the National Liberation Army) and to work within the new, more inclusive political structure. Yet in societies marked by ethnic divisions it is precisely such pragmatism that is scarce. ANOTHER CHALLENGE in postconflict countries is promoting economic reconstruction when violence remains routine. This was evident in Iraq from 2003 to 2007, when sectarian bloodletting was at its height. Clearly, violence continues to be an obstacle today. But Afghanistan offers an even starker example of the problem. In much of that country, it is hazardous to start or sustain development projects, especially those involving non-Afghan—particularly Western—experts. The Taliban's reach has expanded well beyond its southern and eastern Pashtun bastions, and it has shown itself able to regenerate despite suffering big losses on the battlefield. Under these conditions, to create the safety needed for development projects, local security forces bribe the very same insurgents who produce the insecurity. Moreover, “the balance of costs” favors the insurgents, who have multiple, and relatively cheap, methods of (and few scruples about) intimidating or killing those who collaborate with foreign forces, terrorizing civilians who participate in reconstruction efforts, and destroying projects, whether finished or in progress. Deploying a modern army to provide comprehensive protection is, by comparison, an expensive enterprise. It costs $1 million to station a single soldier in Afghanistan for one year, and the price tag is even bigger once the numerous other monetary outlays of waging war are added. The Congressional Research Service reports that military and civilian operations in Iraq and Afghanistan have cost the United States $1.1 trillion as of July 2010.2 And then there is the human toll. As of January 2011, 2,309 soldiers from NATO and others attached to ISAF have died in Afghanistan, 1,467 of them Americans. In Iraq, the corresponding numbers were 4,754 and 4,436. Many more Iraqi and Afghan civilians have lost their lives—100,000 of the former and more than 9,000 of the latter. Even if Iraq and Afghanistan, where President Obama's surge has knocked the Taliban back on its heels, at least for now, produce a stability that enables foreign forces to completely withdraw, these two campaigns hardly offer a sustainable model: each has run on for over eight years—at enormous cost. As such, they are examples to avoid, not emulate. EVEN AT their best, then, the peace- and institution-building efforts that follow military interventions are slow, uncertain and expensive. This makes it hard to maintain public support for them, and it will become even harder given the grim economic situation in America and Europe. Citizens will certainly insist on nation building—at home. Perhaps this means the most consequential impediment to postconflict institution-building missions in the future will be their loss of support among the citizens of those countries that are best able to undertake them. Yet, for all the speculation about a post-Iraq syndrome, the latest operation in Libya demonstrates that policy makers still have not gotten the memo. This is remarkable, given that the Obama administration has scarcely made a compelling case that what happens in Libya matters to the United States in tangible ways. And of course the Libyan campaign shows, again, that intervention cannot be had on the cheap. Its architects will soon face the typical postbellum challenges: reconstruction, resettling refugees and forging a government from warring parties who will hate each other even more given the blood that has been shed. We continue to inhabit a world that conforms to the ideas of Thucydides and Hobbes; Kant's humane and pacific vision is remote. Lamentable though that may be, nothing on the horizon suggests that a change is in the making. This is the context in which twenty-first-century counterinsurgency and nation-building campaigns must unfold. Should we choose to engage in them despite the hazards involved, we ought to do so only when there is a demonstrable connection to our national security and with the knowledge that the price will be high, the duration long and the outcome iffy. Let there also be no doubt that, for all the talk of allies and coalitions, most of the burden will fall on the United States. 1 Patrice C. McMahon and Jon Western, “The Death of Dayton,” Foreign Affairs 88, no. 5 (2009). 2 Amy Belasco, The Cost of Iraq, Afghanistan, and Other Global War on Terror Operations Since 9/11 (Congressional Research Service, September 2, 2010).