A case study hashed out at West Point recently focused on a conflict 15 years past to demonstrate that a post-war transition has a better chance of success with three key elements. The formula could reframe the nation’s recurring debate over “nation-building” and point the way to approaches that might help the U.S. and its allies during the next phase of Afghanistan’s transition.

Col. Charles Hensley discusses Kosovo Rotary Club issues with newly elected officials as Lulzim Beqiri, the head of the Department for European Integration and Policy Coordination listens in. (Photo credit dvidshub.net)

This year marks the 15th anniversary of the United Nations-NATO intervention in Kosovo that began the hard work of successfully transitioning from major combat operations to peacekeeping. It’s one of the few examples of an international intervention that actually worked by responding to a complex humanitarian disaster, while also reducing the level of overt violence and building – or rebuilding governing institutions.

Several current and former American military and defense officials as well as Kosovo’s ambassador to the United States and his defense attaché discussed the ramifications of that transition during a half-day workshop we attended Sept. 25 at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point’s Center for the Study of Civil-Military Operations (CSCMO). Additionally, Kosovo President Atifete Jahjaga spoke about the importance of comprehensive and complementary efforts to address the many challenges of post-war transitions. Since the creation of the West Point center, USIP has supported its work by hosting cadets for summer studies and providing program advice.

Speakers at the Kosovo workshop concluded that a post-war transition has a better chance of success if it emphasizes three crucial points:

  • Civilian authorities have primacy in the effort, with the military serving as enablers.
  • Goals are calibrated to sustainability rather than short-term “success.”
  • Changes are managed at a careful, deliberate pace.

Post-war transitions have often been labeled “nation-building,” a term that has polarized and confused political debate in the United States, especially in light of the controversies over U.S. actions in Iraq after the 2003 invasion. The problem may be less in what the U.S. is doing – assisting a country in rebuilding literally, politically and economically – than in how the transition is implemented. “Nation-building” has become seen as the use of armed forces, assisted by various non-military officials, to help rebuild or restructure a country’s governing institutions and security forces in the aftermath of major combat operations or another kind of crisis.

Such efforts often have proven largely unsustainable, partly because the blunt instrument of military force is insufficient to create the essential elements of a functioning democracy, including a unifying spirit and purpose that determines the type of government to be established and delineates the rights and responsibilities of its people. This is simply not a role that a military should undertake, especially in the pursuit of a democratic system.

In Kosovo, the international effort was conducted differently. After major combat operations ended in 1999, the mission essentially required the foreign military forces only to ensure security so that a civilian-led effort could then establish and strengthen the central government to meet the needs of its people.

The Kosovo model suggests an illustrative pragmatic approach -- a coalition of states that uses military means to stabilize a country in crisis, whether as a result of conflict or a humanitarian intervention, and then quickly shifts to a process led by civilians to build a peace that eventually becomes self-sustaining under the leadership of the host nation. This civilian-led effort can take up to 10 or 15 years, or longer, depending on the severity of the crisis and the willingness of the international community to sustain the coalition.

Military handover in post-war Germany

The post-World War II transition in Germany is instructive. The United States, along with Great Britain and France, quickly narrowed the military effort in Germany at the end of the war to two important aims: the first was to provide stability through the post-war administrative period until a new civilian German government could assume its roles, and the second was to ensure security against the Soviet Union as it established a communist satellite state on territory it controlled – the first salvos of the Cold War.  Military force in Germany was an essential stabilizing factor, both within Germany so that rapid state-building could ensue, and against the Soviet Union for broader Western security interests. 

For the first five years after the war ended in 1945, an Allied coalition provided military administration, but then handed over to foreign civilian administrators until the end of the occupation in 1955. The interim period was seen as essential in the aftermath of widespread destruction from the conflict, to establish a new civilian government in West Germany that could begin to serve its people. With the additional economic assistance of the Marshall Plan, West Germany initiated a sustained effort to rebuild the devastated country and grow the economy.

Germany ultimately became Western Europe’s industrial engine, a thriving nation that has been a key contributor to military and economic stability and was able to navigate the fall of the Berlin Wall, 25 years ago this month in 1990, and successfully reunify with East Germany.

Once the Cold War ended, though, the U.S. military found itself again taking on post-conflict missions that went beyond its training. Beginning with Operation RESTORE HOPE in Somalia in late 1992, the military’s mission there expanded in March 1993 to include nation-building activities, when the U.N. Security Council authorized UNOSOM II, the two-year United Nations Operation in Somalia II.

In the Balkans, Yugoslavia began to break apart in 1990 and wars broke out the following year over independence. After years of violent conflict that had killed tens of thousands, the U.S. brokered the 1995 Dayton Peace Accords for Bosnia-Herzegovina, and the U.N. and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) crafted mandates that placed the international armed forces in the lead role for implementing the military aspects of the agreement.

While numerous international and non-governmental organizations participated in the civilian effort, overseen by the Office of the High Representative, the military found itself in the lead on many fronts because of its resources and planning capabilities.  Since then, the U.S. military has taken on expanding roles not only in post-war security and training of security forces (including police in some cases), but also in establishing civilian governance, creating economic drivers and so forth, especially during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

In the case of the Kosovo campaign in 1999, by contrast, when major combat operations ended, American military leaders made clear their role should be one of enabling a response led by civilians, foreign and domestic. Military forces focused primarily on those missions that fell into their lane, such as imposing stability by forcing a cessation of large-scale violence, ensuring territorial security, securing important infrastructure and vulnerable populations, restoring public order if required, and assisting host-state authorities’ efforts to regain control over the legitimate use of violence.

Short-term goals vs. sustainability

Two other factors that seem crucial to successful post-crisis transitions, according to the model outlined in the West Point workshop, boil down to timing.

An overemphasis on the achievement of specific, short-term goals can be problematic in the contradiction that it sets up between sustainable change and accountability for results. U.S. government programs have become increasingly driven to produce measurable outcomes as quickly as possible; this risks future stability in the name of speed, especially in cultural settings that are foreign to Americans.

Another risk in the pursuit of specific goals is the potential failure to achieve them. Such failure can lead to disenchantment and regret on the part of the local population, which could lead them to seek other, less-constructive avenues for addressing their problems. External donors also might sour on the experience and decide to apply their scarce resources to other causes that at least appear to be more promising in the short term.

Kosovo also taught us that the pace of a conflict’s transition must be carefully managed. If you move too fast, you risk creating more instability; if you move too slowly, you risk creating a dependency.

Rather than defining success through metrics of goal achievement, the Kosovo experience demonstrated the value of establishing sustainability in the desired direction. Such a dynamic eventually enables the host state to assume a self-sustaining responsibility for its future.

The lessons of Kosovo – civilian leadership with military support; a focus on sustainable actions in the right direction; and proper management of the transition’s pace – should be the touchstones for all such future efforts.

It could be argued that the Afghanistan experience was on the right track in 2004 to 2005 in placing civilians in control. But the enabling role of the military coalition to provide security was weakened by its  shortage of personnel, even while it was forced to make up for a similar scarcity in civilian ranks by taking on the delivery of services such as school and clinic construction.  So while the military should cede control for certain functions to the civilians, the numbers on both sides must be robust enough to carry their respective loads.

In Afghanistan, the NATO-led coalition already has largely stepped back in the past two to three years from combat into advising and assisting Afghan security forces. With the transition now set for the American military to reduce its force in Afghanistan to less than 10,000 by the end of this year, the U.S. government has an opportunity not only to learn from its mistakes but also to build on markers of achievement.

Paul Hughes is USIP’s senior advisor for international security and peacebuilding. Linwood Ham is the institute’s director of intergovernmental affairs.

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