On War and Peace-Building: Unfinished Legacy of the 1990s

In the hours and days after September 11, academics and political commentators alike seemed agreed on one judgment: “the world will never be the same again.” U.S. President George W. Bush was reported to have experienced a religious calling in which the event would shape the rest of his presidency. And for many who were frustrated with the indecisiveness of the 1990s, a decade floundering unsuccessfully to replace the Cold War with a coherent set of principles and goals ordering the international system, the U.S.-led anti-terrorist campaign seemed to repeat the elements that had been so decisive in 1947-50 – a new global alignment of states around a singular enemy and a rhetoric promising open-ended struggle, inaugurated with a military campaign led by the world’s dominant power. The opportunities were heralded in many quarters, from the benefits of a U.S.-Russian rapprochement, a new strategic interest of the United States in multilateralism, and even possibilities for genuine “global governance.” 1

What is striking, however, in the events that have followed is the influence that experiences of the 1990s are having on actors and policies in the first two months. If a new order is being built, it is not a radical break from the past but grounded on the tough lessons of those tortured conflicts in the 1990s, such as Bosnia, Somalia, and Kosovo, that frustrated so many who wanted clarity. Decisions thus far show a remarkable continuity based on an ongoing, pre-September evolution in approaches to international conflict and intervention. Unfortunately, the dramatic shift of attention may delay or even repress needed debate over that evolution and lessons that remain contentious – leaving to future revisionist historians tasks that should be the subject of policy debate now. Issues pushed aside or under the rug will eventually surface as well. But the most important of the unfinished business of the 1990s and the order being shaped by current events are the lessons that have not been learned.

Lessons Learned

The two most obvious cases of actors whose actions cannot be understood apart from experiences of the 1990s are the United Nations and the United States military. The United Nations Special Representative to the Secretary-General for Afghanistan, named in the wake of the September 11th attacks, Lakhdar Brahimi, has more to his credit than deep involvement diplomatically with the Afghanistan conflict in the 1990s and universal respect from colleagues, in the U.N. and outside, for his engagement in a number of the hard civil conflicts of the 1990s, including Somalia. He knows the terrain. This applies equally to numerous agencies and personnel of the United Nations, including the current special envoy for Afghanistan, Fransesc Vendrell, who have remained involved in humanitarian, human rights, and peace negotiation work in Afghanistan throughout the sad decade.

But the assignment with which Brahimi’s name is most associated is the Panel on United Nations Peace Operations tasked in May 2000 “to undertake a thorough review of United Nations peace and security activities, and to present a clear set of specific, concrete and practical recommendations to assist the United Nations in conducting such activities better in the future.” 2 It is common knowledge that the stimulus for such a review and proposed reforms of U.N. peace operations was the devastating criticism of the U.N. in Somalia, Rwanda, and Bosnia-Herzegovina. Brahimi chaired the panel, and its report bears his name. There is surely no one more suited to draw on the lessons of the 1990s and to bring them to bear on the task of creating a post-Taliban government for Afghanistan and designing an internationally supported transition.

Already in 1998-99, Afghanistan was chosen by UN officials as the first test of its efforts to improve multilateral interventions in conflict situations with a “Strategic Framework,” aimed at strategic coordination of the main agencies involved on the ground. Brahimi is now actively putting into practice many of the recommendations of the Brahimi Report, such as the integrated mission task force already established. 3 His warnings, as with those of the Secretary-General, about the need for speed, 4 about matching what the U.N. can accomplish to the resources member states are willing to provide, and, above all, a willingness to “say no” to the Security Council if a mandate cannot be implemented, telling the council “what it needs to know, not what it wants to hear” and requiring “clarity,” 5 all come directly from the Report.

The insistence by Brahimi and other U.N. officials that they would not begin a U.N. peace-building operation until a sustainable cease-fire had been obtained and that security would have to be provided by others, moreover, was a lesson drawn directly from the perceived failure in Bosnia. Similarly, Brahimi’s firm declaration that the U.N. will not make Afghanistan a protectorate, filling the vacuum of state institutions that currently prevails there, and that it will limit its mission to two years, reflects the lessons of U.N. missions in Kosovo and East Timor.

The other obvious example is the United States military. Institutionally best organized to search for lessons through its “after-action” analyses, the U.S. armed forces have, in fact, been adapting both doctrine and operations in response to the non-conventional wars of the 1990s – not only the legacy of Viet Nam but more recently the experiences of the Gulf War, Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Kosovo can be read clearly in current policy. Many interpret the post-Vietnam fear of “quagmire” as a reluctance to become engaged in “somebody else’s war in a far away place,” including the apocryphal defense against engagement in Bosnia attributed to then Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Colin Powell, that “we don’t do mountains.” In fact, “quagmire” for Vietnam-era officers like Secretary of State Powell has a different meaning: sending the military to a job where the political goal and direction were not clear and, above all, without the necessary political support at home. Although the Powell Doctrine on the need for “overwhelming force” is said to have been the reason for success in the Gulf War as well as the criterion used in U.S. operations in Bosnia and Yugoslavia, far more important in all three cases was the effort spent on creating and maintaining the international coalition behind the operation and the political support of the American public. The same priority governed, and still governs, the actions of Secretary Powell and President Bush beginning on September 12th.

While many commentators assert the newness of the war against the Taliban, the signs of U.S. military interventions in Bosnia in 1995 and Yugoslavia (Serbia, Montenegro, and Kosovo) in 1999 are in full view. Despite continuing skepticism of military experts, the Pentagon insisted then that a war can be won from the air, without risking the lives of American soldiers – as long as it was accompanied by a serious component of psychological warfare and by a ground component of local troops (American-trained and equipped, of course, as Croatian soldiers in Bosnia and Kosovo Liberation Army soldiers in Kosovo). Bombing a country from the air also now includes a public relations strategy, including simultaneous air drops of food packs and a repetitive “line” aiming to distinguish between victims and enemy. While that strategy also insists on minimizing “collateral damage,” it still includes wide use of cluster bombs.

While military strategy makes Kosovo look like a test case, the political component of this war suggests lessons learned from Somalia, Bosnia, and Kosovo. There would be no more delays and complications (as in the Kosovo case) due to quarrels over a legal basis for the intervention. Immediate and persistent came the declaration: this was a case of self-defense – governed by Article 51 of the United Nations Charter. Even with the unanimous support of the U.N. Security Council, the American military would also not be constrained by a U.N. resolution, nor under any circumstances would it allow even core allies in the coalition to influence military operations. The American military will continue to insist on separation of the military and civilian aspects of peace-building, as it did in Bosnia and Kosovo and as it now insists on taking all military decisions (such as what targets to bomb and what pace to follow) solo. They also appear to have won the battle of the peace operations in Bosnia, Kosovo, and perhaps Haiti, in what the Brahimi Report calls the need for a “doctrinal shift” in peace operations: that post-war security is a matter for policing far more than the military. 6 The security presence in Afghanistan will be heavy on paramilitary police forces (gendarmerie, carabinieri, civil guard) trained for this purpose, saving soldiers to secure strategic objects such as airports for humanitarian deliveries. Multilateralism, in sum, is both essential to such operations and has very clearly defined limits for the U.S.

A third, less public but no less important an actor in this evolving drama is the World Bank. Discovering in the course of the 1990s that a majority of countries in arrears to the Bank were countries in conflict, and under mounting external criticism for what appeared to be a connection between state failure and violent conflict, on the one hand, and development assistance and economic reform packages from the international financial institutions, on the other, the Bank began its own adjustments. In the mid-1990s it created a Post-Conflict Unit, became active in peace negotiations to coordinate post-war reconstruction with peace processes better, and insisted on greater lead time (preferably two years) to prepare reconstruction plans. By 2000, Watching Briefs were required for countries in conflict or in danger of conflict, including Afghanistan, and the classic infrastructure-based approach to reconstruction was beginning to yield to the lessons of the 1990s – the neglect of human and social capital, gender relations, and institutions. In the case of Afghanistan, moreover, U.N. special envoy Francesc Vendrell had already requested in 2000 that the Bank begin planning for reconstruction, resulting in an initial plan by early 2001. At the same time, the well-known problem of donor competition is already apparent in multiple conferences to plan Afghan reconstruction. Experts on post-conflict reconstruction operations, from Mozambique and Kosovo, are rushing to influence the planning at the U.N., in bilateral development agencies, and in the European Union in hopes that the Afghan case will provide the opportunity to learn from past mistakes.

Lessons Not Learned

For all the lessons that have been learned, there are as many or more, however, that have not. This can be seen particularly by comparison with the interventions in former Yugoslavia – above all Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo, and Macedonia – which have had such great influence over the thinking, habits, instincts, and actions of key actors now engaged on Afghanistan. The similarities between the Balkans and Afghanistan, despite the fundamentally different policy objective, make the unfinished business of these unlearned lessons even more significant. 7

The first lesson is widely recognized, and widely ignored. Indeed, a prominent place is given in the Brahimi Report, as in the Secretary-General’s report to the Millenium Summit, to conflict prevention. The wars in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo, and Macedonia, like the disintegration of former Yugoslavia itself and the wars that resulted, were not inevitable; they could have been prevented. This lesson is so universally accepted from all wars of the 1990s that the Carnegie Foundation under its then President, David Hamburg, created a special commission, the Carnegie Commission for the Prevention of Deadly Conflict, to put prevention on the international agenda. Yet the chain of events from the U.S. arming and training of Afghan and Pakistani mujahideen to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan, to the Taliban and Al-Qaeda and its international network, including fighters sent to Bosnia-Herzegovina, Chechnya, and Central Asia, is direct. The “lift and strike” policy that used covert operations to arm the Bosnians and then the Kosovo Albanians was an intentional copy of the original Afghan policy, with the consequence in both instances of spreading the instruments of war (arms, trained soldiers, military equipment) far beyond their initial geographical focus and undermining a Western policy of containment. The intelligence failure of September 11th reveals a comprehensible, rational pattern of attacks beginning in 1993 and periodic warnings from the director of the Central Intelligence Agency and other U.S. officials that terrorism against the United States was its primary security threat. Yet millions have been spent by the US government for research on “early warning.” Those who argue on the basis of actual outcomes that the problem is not early warning, but early action, have had little effect.

A second lesson from those earlier cases is that the logic of war wins out every time over other concurrent policies, particularly diplomatic negotiations and humanitarian goals. The evolution from a military strike of revenge, demanded by an outraged public opinion in the United States, to a war against Osama bin Laden, then to a war against the Taliban, and therefore eventually to create an entirely new state and the security and economic bases of its survival is also a pattern we have seen before. Familiar also is the underestimation by the U.S. military of the enemy’s will and ability to resist such that tactics, timing, and even goals have to be rapidly adjusted once the air war has begun. In the Balkans, the effort to combine three objectives simultaneously – a humanitarian operation, a war (dominated by air power and intelligence, in particular), and political negotiations – proved time and again that the logic of war comes to dominate all the other objectives. The war creates more refugees and internally displaced persons, makes aid workers hostages or forces them to flee the country entirely, and creates conflicts over communication and transportation routes between the military and humanitarian operations, which hinder both.

Similarly, the American strategy of relying on air power and using local factions and warlords to provide the ground component of the military campaign can only undermine the political goals of diplomatic negotiations for a post-war state. Those troops gain overwhelming advantage in any post-war settlement, from the terms of negotiations, their timing, and even the extent to which any diplomatic agreement can prevail over reality on the ground. Part of the military campaign itself becomes driven by the locals’ fight for such advantage and bargaining leverage. Efforts to negotiate a political agreement for a post-war reality while the war is being waged become progressively undermined – the pace of negotiations is inevitably slower than that of war, and no warlord with any real possibility on the ground will negotiate sincerely while it is in play. Control over territory trumps all normative theories about the best political arrangements to achieve post-war reconciliation and stable government.

A third lesson regards economic strategy. A fatal flaw in all “post-conflict” economic policy is the prior need of a functioning government and functioning proper financial and legal institutions – to absorb the aid delivered, adopt the necessary policies, and implement those decisions. 8 Such governments and administrations do not exist under conditions of war and severe war damage – human capital is the scarcest commodity after wartime, but the Afghan case may well be the worst – and the intense political conflicts and maneuvering that characterize the first post-war years leads necessarily to extensive delays in their creation. Recent revisions in economic strategy aimed at improving the record of post-conflict assistance give far more recognition than in the past to the importance of institutions to economic development. Nonetheless, experience thus far has not succeeded in creating the necessary employment, agricultural revival, and basic social services (education, health care, safe water and sewers, food distribution, roads, public safety) that are essential to sustaining the peace, rebuilding the state, protecting human rights, and returning refugees and the internally displaced population. That almost all economic activity in Afghanistan is done illegally – surreptitious, smuggled, or criminal – as a result of a decade of war will force this need of donors for sovereign counterparts and functioning (if devastated) economies into harsh focus very soon. Reconstruction programs assume, moreover, that a political agreement, which they insist must come first, will produce such a government. They can then proceed. In fact, the reverse, were it possible, is more likely to succeed – using a reconstruction program to generate incentives for political agreement and cooperation and thus for peace. 9

World Bank planning during 2000-2001 will not, moreover, have taken into account the consequences of the current war such as its population displacement, destruction of roads and other infrastructure, and additional layers of mines and unexploded munitions on the ground. In addition, no economic strategy yet exists for the specific stage of peacebuilding between relief and development. Bosnia-Herzegovina provides a clear object lesson because there is unlikely ever to be such a high level of donor financing. A fully successful five-year World Bank-led program of recovery and reconstruction has not yet, six years after the peace agreement, generated economic development.

A fourth lesson concerns the assumptions behind power-sharing as the basis for creating a post-war government. Although power-sharing is now the dominant method favored by diplomats and many scholars for war termination, its success in generating a functioning government and sustainable peace is thin indeed. Failures tend to be blamed on “spoilers” – politicians (and warlords) who are identified as having not been sincere in the political negotiations and who choose for reasons of self-interest to undermine their implementation. But the concept of power-sharing is based on a concept in the literature of political science called consociationalism to explain the stability of democracy in ethnically or religiously divided societies – the original case being the Netherlands, a stable, wealthy country for centuries. 10 Application of the concept to Lebanon was quietly removed when the country disintegrated into war. Another contribution to the belief in the principle of power-sharing is a political science literature on elite “pacts” as successful mechanisms for transition from authoritarian to democratic rule, as in Latin America and Iberia, but where governmental structures function throughout the transition and there is no war. Where the choice is to give up control over armed groups and materiel to a government ministry, when it is unclear that others will also disarm or that a cease-fire will be obtained and last and under circumstances that no government exists, power sharing is unlikely to take. Where such agreements are made, power sharing becomes a method of sharing the spoils and gaining monopoly over one’s own community to the exclusion of rivals and therefore institutionalized competition (that is, democracy) within the group. Even the premise that the problem to be solved by power sharing is ethnic conflict is wrong in most cases. As Rubin and his colleagues wrote about Afghanistan in June 2001, “The origin of the war is not ethnic, and the solution will not be ethnic, but the conduct of the war is ethnic, which has had corrosive effects on the potential for national reconstruction.” 11 The effort to create a power-sharing agreement on which government can be built is another example of the ultimate victory of the logic of war over other processes.

The focus on a power sharing agreement, in fact, is most likely to occur when a country is enmeshed in a regional dynamic in which neighbors have strong and assertive interests. Weak buffer states, either in the interstices of imperial and major power alliances or in a regional security complex, such as Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia, Somalia, and Afghanistan, are most likely to have power sharing agreements imposed as a way of satisfying the interests of neighbors. Their outcome is more often, as currently seen in Bosnia and Somalia, a de facto partitioning of the country’s territory among regional spheres of influence and a resulting partitioning of the state itself. In the case of Bosnia-Herzegovina, the result has been political stalemate since its peace agreement of November 1995 and a continuation of local conditions that are favorable to illegal trafficking, organized crime, and terrorist networks.

This last lesson, the fifth, is the most significant of the unfinished legacy of the 1990s. Most internal conflicts of the kind that bred the Taliban are not internal – as the Brahimi Report emphasizes, they are “transnational,” or as Rubin and his colleagues elaborate for Afghanistan, its “conflict forms the core of a regional conflict formation.” 12 Military campaigns, political negotiations, and economic reconstruction that ignore the regional embeddedness of such cases cannot succeed. Cease-fires may even be locally stable, as long as international military and police forces remain, but their most common outcome is spill-over into some other part of its region, such as, in the case of Bosnia-Herzegovina, to Kosovo and Macedonia. Surely this should be a concern in the case of Afghanistan. As Rubin and his colleagues write even before September 11th, “The war is not a civil war but a transnational one. The transnational links are too deep to be untangled and will have to be transformed. … A more desirable policy goal [than 'peace'] would be reconstructing the country as part of the interstate and economic structure of an entire region.” 13

  1. This latter was the optimism of Greek foreign minister George Pappandreou, in conversation with the U.S. talk show host, Charlie Rose.
  2. Letter of the Secretary-General to the President of the General Assembly and the President of the Security Council, dated 21 August 2000 (announcing the receipt of the report on 17 August of the panel convened on 7 March 2000), A/55/305-S/2000/809, United Nations.
  3. On the recommendation, see Part IV, Section B, paragraphs 198-217, of the Report of the Panel on United Nations Peace Operations.
  4. On the importance of “rapid and effective deployment,” see Part III, especially Section A, paragraphs 86-91, of the Report.
  5. Executive Summary for paragraphs 48-64 of the Report of the Panel on United Nations Peace Operations.
  6. This lesson received serious attention as well from the Brahimi Report, which recommends a doctrinal shift in regard to civilian policing and rule-of-law issues in peace-building.
  7. UN officials in Somalia as well as experts on both Somalia and Afghanistan see even greater parallels, and need to learn lessons, from that case. See Mark Turner, “Somalia provides lesson in non-interference,” Financial Times, November 19, 2001, p. 3.
  8. For more elaboration of the issues of economic strategy, see Susan L. Woodward, “Economic Priorities for Successful Implementation,” chapter 7 in a forthcoming volume edited by Stephen Stedman on implementing peace agreements to end civil wars (Lynne Rienner: 2002) and, separately, as a policy paper to be published by the International Peace Academy.
  9. This proposal was made in the excellent paper of June 2001 by Barnett R. Rubin, Ashraf Ghani, William Maley, Ahmed Rashid, and Olivier Roy, Afghanistan: Reconstruction and Peace-building in a Regional Framework (KOFF Peacebuilding Reports, No. 1, 2001, Center for Peacebuilding of the Swiss Peace Foundation), see especially page 40.
  10. Arendt Lijpart, Democracy in Plural Societies (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1977) and Timothy Sisk, Power Sharing and International Mediation in Ethnic Conflicts (Washington, DC: United States Institute of Peace Press, 1996).
  11. Rubin, et al. Afghanistan, pp. 8-9.
  12. Rubin, et al., Afghanistan, p. 5.
  13. Rubin, et al., Afghanistan, p. 5 (and see also pp. 44-46).