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We Are Not Good at Nation Building Lesson #6 (of 7) from the Aftermath of 9/11

The United States has had mixed success with nation building over the last 120 years. Our best successes in this area followed WWII. However, it is becoming clear by our performance in recent decades we have largely lost the lessons learned from those experiences. The aftermath of 9/11/2001 has presented us with new and substantive challenges in this area, and it seems clear that we are still struggling.

In a recent interview with former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, the matter of nation-building was raised. In an episode of “Uncommon Knowledge”, Mr. Rumsfeld stated plainly that the United States military is not good at nation-building, and is not intended to perform that mission. However, the US military is often and increasingly drawn into that activity. Especially in cases where a lingering insurgency follows substantive military conflict, the people with “boots on the ground” in the areas where rebuilding is needed are military personnel. In addition, programs such as the Commanders Emergency Response Program (CERP) provide recovery oriented funding to the military to perform at least some of these activities. In Afghanistan, CERP projects run the gamut from digging wells to building multimillion dollar roads. Military contracting officers and staff on the ground in the regional commands have managed hundreds of these projects at a time, and I know from personal experience that they do a tremendous job with extremely limited experience and training. But the cost is high, and as is so often the case with government activities on this scale, it is often unwieldy and difficult to coordinate.

The objectives of nation building, when conducted by the United States of America, are generally expressed as:

  1. Rebuilding a nation’s economy to pre-conflict levels or higher.
  2. Transforming a nation’s political structure to one form or another of democracy

In a recent study published by the RAND Corporation, four outcomes were described as relevant measures of effectiveness in nation-building:

  • Post-conflict combat fatalities among US forces,
  • Time until elections following cessation of the conflict,
  • The timing and percentage of return by refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs), and
  • Growth in per capita gross domestic product (GDP)


A number of factors impact each of these outcomes. For example, post-conflict fatalities are lower when there are more US troops on the ground for a longer period of time after the major conflict has ended. It’s usually at least 2 years to rebuild civil police forces in these situations, and so the remaining US military forces are generally required to fill what would otherwise be a vacuum of law and order until that happens. To quote the RAND study: “While staying longer does not guarantee success, leaving early ensures failure.” Election timing is counter-intuitive; local elections need to occur first, and national elections cannot occur too quickly, or they will not be widely accepted. Yet we all have a desire in these situations to get elections held, a new government in place, and an exit made from the theater of previous conflict. External and internal financial assistance is directly related to elements such as how quickly refugees can return to their former homes, and how quickly the country can regain its former GDP performance levels. In fact, according to RAND research, external assistance in these cases often requires a contribution of 20% to 45% of the conflict nation’s annual GDP each year for the first two years following the conflict.

Other factors are also important. For example, more economically developed and technologically advanced countries are more easily and quickly restored in nation-building than less advanced countries (Germany and Japan vs. Somalia, Haiti, and Afghanistan). Homogeneity is another important element; countries that speak a single language and are more homogeneous in other respects are more readily rebuilt since they tend to move in a single progressive direction more readily. More tribal populations that are less prone to be loyal to a single centralized governmental authority are more challenging. Finally, the centralization of command (or lack thereof) in the victorious military force is a factor. When the burden of the cost in lives and treasure is spread over multiple allied nations, that fractious structure is usually carried forward and reflected in the organization of resources devoted to nation-building. This usually results in a less well coordinated and less effectively planned nation-building process that requires longer to achieve success. In it’s conclusion, the Rand report notes that “There is no quick route to nation building. Five years seems the minimum required to enforce an enduring transition to democracy.”

So when considering the lessons that America should learn from our tragedy on 9/11/2001 and the events flowing from that terrible day, we need to think about our successes and failures with nation building. Our most successful efforts in this arena were Germany and Japan, where a uniformed military was completely defeated and forced to surrender; where there was a mature economy and technology based with skilled and educated citizenry; where America has a commanding presence of military on the ground allowing little continuing resistance, and where we poured a great deal of external investment into helping that nation’s economy recover. When the United States counts the cost of entering a conflict, we should decide at the outset whether we intend to rebuild the nation when the conflict is behind us with a realistic view of the time and treasure that will be required. At that point, the United States should already have determined that all other courses have failed, and the conflict is unavoidable. But what we can do differently as a nation is modify our capabilities (such as post-conflict election support, etc.) and financial structure (reducing spending in other areas to redirect funding in preparation for covering up to 45% of the opposing country’s GDP for multiple years, etc.) to enable us to absorb the incredible financial and mental impact. We should also strategize immediately about how we will manage our relationships with both allies and the countries adjacent to the enemy’s country during and after the conflict. It seems, based on recent history, that some of these lessons were lost entirely, and others were not fully learned.

What do you think?

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