Drawing Lessons from Afghanistan: Long-term Statebuilding and Civilian-Military Collaborations

By Alicia van der Veen
Staff Editor
November 1, 2009

As the U.S. government assesses its involvement in Afghanistan eight years after launching Operation Enduring Freedom, it can take away several valuable lessons for future state-building operations. United States involvement in Afghanistan starkly demonstrates both the need for long-term engagement in the aftermath of war, and for an equal emphasis to be placed on the civilian aspects of reconstruction after the initial military intervention in future conflicts.

Following the attacks of September 11, 2001, the U.S. government faced an internal divide over how to take out the Taliban and Al Qaeda in Afghanistan. The Department of State promoted an approach which addressed the longer-term political and economic consequences of the operation; the Department of Defense, however, preferred a quick offensive to topple the regime with little regard to the aftermath. The Defense approach prevailed, and U.S. forces successfully overthrew the Taliban government. Yet Al Qaeda networks remained, and warring internal factions with past grievances jostled to fill the power vacuum left behind. Afghanistan was thrown into chaos and the peacekeeping forces deployed were not enough in number or resources to establish a secure environment.

According to conventional political theory, the political and economic reconstruction necessary for peaceful, democratic and self-governed states to develop cannot take place without basic security. Without effective government trusted by and accountable to its citizens, the potential for conflict remains. As U.S. forces have still been unable to achieve security in Afghanistan, a legitimate government has not formed - as evidenced in the recent fraudulent elections. In this case, the Taliban very well may be welcomed back to power as a viable alternative to instability, as they were in the past. Long-term outcomes were sidelined for short-term goals in the U.S. invasion, and ironically, this oversight may have put the United States right back where it began.

In the future, the United States needs to plan both for winning a war and for helping a society recover from war. It needs a workable exit strategy from the moment it enters war, and this strategy needs to include both civilian and military components. After the military secures the area, civilian collaboration with and training of the local population is essential to implement the instruments of democratic societies: free and fair elections, an independent media, a legitimate police force, economic opportunities, and the rule of law. These commitments require long-term attention and investment.

The Obama administration is now implementing some of these measures in Afghanistan. It plans to increase the number of U.S. civilian officers in the country from its current level of 300 to 1000 by the end of the year. Both the State Department and Defense Department are now working side-by-side, in a whole government approach, and Secretary Gates has said that the tool box of American foreign policy “should be filled with more than just hammers.” Smart power – which combines elements of the hard power of military action and the soft power of public diplomacy – is the philosophy of the day.

It is unclear if these improvements will bring about effective change in Afghanistan coming so late in the game. What is clear is what the United States can learn for the future state-building operations in which it will no doubt be involved again; Afghanistan shows the world that it is essential to plan for long-term reconstruction of a failing or fragile state and not simply the short-term military intervention. War, when necessary, should not be the ends, but the means to achieving a lasting and sustainable peace.

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