Ask the expert: Nation building and Iraq

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Mark Etherington, the former Coalition Provisional Authority’s governorate co-ordinator for the Iraqi province of Wasit in 2003-2004, answers your questions on nation-building.

Mr Etherington was brought up in Kuwait and Qatar and educated at York and Cambridge Universities and the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst. He served six years in the British Army’s Parachute Regiment, including two tours of Northern Ireland. He was seconded to the European Community’s Monitor Mission in former Yugoslavia during the 1992-1995 war and has worked in Croatia, Bosnia, Serbia, Kosovo, Iraq, and Afghanistan. He was appointed CBE in December 2004.

He is the author of Revolt on the Tigris: the al Sadr Uprising and the Governing of Iraq (Hurst/Cornell University Press 2005; Cambridge Studies in International Crisis, pdf), he was the Coalition Provisional Authority’sPA’s governorate co-ordinator in the Iraqi province of Wasit, 2003 -04

To read Mr Etherington’s opinion piece click here, ‘Coherence is the first need for state-building’.


Q: Is there any publicly-available “scorecard” for how the infrastructure rebuild is going in Iraq? Regarding your very interesting column on maintaining some collection of experienced expertise in the UK and US governments on nation (re)building: it seems this effort will be hampered by reluctance to admit that regime change/invasion, or call it what you will, is a fundamental and recurring feature of foreign policy, ie. the ability to do the job well will always be frustrated by the necessity to maintain that immediate and extraordinary circumstances have “compelled” a country to take the action of trumping another’s sovereignty. I don’t mean this to be a cynical position, just one that reflects political realities.

Myles Davis, Durlacher

Mark Etherington: There is no score-card; and the difficulty of quantifying success in nation-building, whether in reconstruction or political terms, has bedevilled us for a decade. The insurgency has inevitably affected our ability to initiate and complete the 2,300 separate infrastructure projects foreseen under the original 18 billion dollar Congressional appropriation. Soaring security costs and the resultant frictional difficulties of carrying out the simplest task have made reconstruction a deal more difficult, but substantial progress has been made.

With regard to your second point, one sees, of course, the potential political sensitivities attendant on creating a cadre of conflict experts if these are seen as fostering a new intervention capability. Yet this does little more than acknowledge, as you say, the recurrent reality, and make sensible provision for it.

The core problem, I think, is operational naivety in governments and commensurate reluctance to accept that they have a trade to re-learn. I detect also a measure of institutional arrogance, particularly when it comes to absorbing military best practice. This results in confusion, wastefulness and duplication of effort, often consigning our strategic aims to mere hazard and chance. State sovereignty, meanwhile, is not what it was, and cannot, in itself, provide sufficient excuse for liberal democracies to sit on their hands in the face of repeated violations of United Nations Security Council Resolutions or systematic and widespread abuse of human rights. I am instinctively uncomfortable with interpretations of international law that serve as no more than an elaborate and repeated excuse for inaction in the face of excesses of this kind.


Q: What you say makes sense, but couldn’t the same approach also be used to try to prevent conflicts in the first place? If an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure then we could reduce the need for reconstruction and peace-building a great deal, if we could mobilize more resources and political will for conflict prevention. Any thoughts?

Walter Kemp, Vienna, Austria

Mark Etherington: I agree with the idea but remain unconvinced that we understand the root causes of conflict well enough to manoeuvre sufficiently intelligently to pre-empt it, though this must remain our ultimate object. I also doubt that we could marshal the coherent and surgical international capability such prevention would require, given that we have often found it difficult enough during periods of open war.

There have been encouraging developments in Europe. The prospect of EU membership has proved a useful binding, device, and the EU’s intervention machinery has improved dramatically over the last decade in terms of its ability to disburse money, to carry out police assistance tasks, and to move quickly to deal with conflict and its supposed causes. One compares, for example Europe’s halting performance in Bosnia-Herzegovina both during the war and immediately after it with the speed of its diplomatic and practical efforts in Macedonia and South Serbia in 2001.

I would contend that an ounce of execution is often worth a pound of policy. Our reverses and setbacks over the last decade were frequently failures of implementation rather than strategy. Are we really to believe that the best recipe for success in a championship event is to gather a team who do not know each other, have never trained together and have often never played the sport before? There is no substitute for gathering the right people, training them for their tasks and establishing water-tight principles for coordination with prospective partners. Until this is done, I fear our progress in this important field - whether the pre-emption of conflict, containing it or its aftermath - will be limited.


Q: Your article about the coherence is the first need for state building is very interesting. China has been trapped in the cyclical history for more than 2000 years in which we were ruled by different dynasties. It took a long time for us to finally get out of this and entered a brand new era where we enjoy more democracy and freedom. I don’t want to deny it happened because of a combination of coincidences. However I believe men’s initiative do play a big role I am confident that Iraq will make it someday. We have to be patient and we should help instead of condemn. Don’t you agree?

Haining Yu, China

Mark Etherington: Our goals in Iraq were very ambitious: the uprooting of the Ba’athist regime; the creation of a nascent parliamentary democracy; and the abolition of a central economy for one based on market principles.

The fact that clear progress has been made along each of these avenues in the 28 months since the war ended is testament both to the enduring vigour of international efforts and mainstream Iraqi support. I do not for a moment ignore the tragedy and carnage that has stalked this process, nor attempt to excuse our failure to render our efforts more coherent. Yet I cannot but think that political impatience with what I have heard described as our ‘slow progress’ in Iraq, or irritation with the delays attendant on constitutional negotiation is anything but the most eloquent monument to our insularity. Did anyone genuinely believe this could be done in 2 and a half years, either in Iraq or anywhere else?

I agree with you that we must be patient and stay the course, and I believe, like you, that Iraq will become the country we hope for. The ‘human initiative’ you speak of remains the primary locomotive for change. We could not have made it even this far in Iraq unless that vision was shared by the overwhelming majority of the population.


Q: I think your idea of the creation of a “standing cadre” of deployable experts to aid the nation building process in Iraq is a good one, but what is missing in the Middle East, whether Iraq or Palestine, is the prerequisite of a population that actually wants the advice of western officials. Perhaps there was a more receptive population in the Balkans? The reason nation building in Iraq is doomed to fail, it seems to me, is that most Iraqis do not trust the west or its motives and have no desire for western officials to interfere in the conduct of their affairs.

FS, London

Mark Etherington: I think this perfectly arguable. Few of us who have worked in areas such as these, whether in the Middle East or anywhere else, will not at some stage have gained the same impression. Special envoys of every hue, together with streams of well-meaning experts eager to replicate their national values abroad are a common sight in such places. But I do not agree with you.

The Iraqis - and anyone else - are perfectly capable of deciding what they want and insisting on it - witness the wrangle over the constitution despite fearsome foreign political pressure. The Iraqis I knew were perfectly pragmatic about Western assistance, and if they endured such processions, my feeling was that they also knew how best to use them. An old man once said to me on the street in al-Kut ‘Only Allah or the Americans could have removed Saddam Hussein, and we are grateful to the Americans - but we don’t like them because of Israel’.

We believed that the credit accrued from Saddam Hussein’s removal would last indefinitely, and that is our error - but Iraqis like anyone else desire jobs and stability, and if we can yet provide their families with these opportunities, within a market economy run by an elected government, we will have succeeded in transforming the country and maintaining mainstream support to do so.


Q: It looks as though the the Americans have gone from feeling very strongly about having the Sunnis onboard in the drafting of the constitution, to feeling very strongly that the task should be done in specific timeframe regardless of whether the Sunnis are on board or not. The most self-evident explanation is that American domestic priorities have changed in recent weeks, and the need to show quick progress trumps the medium-term strategy of encouraging consenus. Do you think there has been a noticeable a shift in priorities, and is this attributable to polling numbers?

Steve, Baghdad

Mark Etherington:The Sunnis, who have ruled Iraq since the creation of the modern state, are now a minority and a vulnerable one, and cannot afford to overplay their hand. Much has been made of their links to the insurgency, and, by implication, their ability to halt or diminish the violence.

We will see how realistic those expectations are: while it is perfectly arguable that any constitutional solution that lacks Sunni endorsement will be flawed, it is clear that there is no American appetite to become hostage to them or for further protracted delay.

I do not see this as a shift - though clearly the steady procession of casualties has to some extent extinguished the idealism prevalent in the U.S soldiers I met in 2003 - but perhaps that ‘push-on’ mentality that I remember so well in them is merely more obvious. Whether this is attributable to polling numbers I do not have the expertise to say.


Mark Etherington: Coherence is the first need for state-building

The English Romantic poet Percy Shelley was allegedly haunted by a recurrent nightmare: that history was cyclical rather than linear and that Man was hence incapable of self-betterment. What would he have made of 10 years of interventionist state-building in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo, East Timor, Macedonia, Sierra Leone, Afghanistan and Iraq? He might have applauded the apparent appetite for what may contentiously be termed “moral interventionism” by liberal democracies, but it is less certain that he – or anyone else – could look upon the ad hoc procedures and unpreparedness that has characterised the civil response of the UK and its allies to each of these crises with any satisfaction.

The chaos and violence of postwar Iraq has bathed the void between our aspirations and abilities in a steady and uncompromising light; and one instinctively wonders, as domestic appetite mounts in America and elsewhere for troop withdrawal from Iraq, whether the US-led coalition will retain the reserves of moral courage required to finish the job.

In the 1991-1995 Yugoslav war, Britain and others faced what Warren Christopher, the Clinton administration’s first secretary of state, later called “ . . . an intractable problem from Hell”. Britain had no template for military action for humanitarian ends, save the Navy’s 19th-century blockade of slaving vessels and a 1991 foray into Kurdistan. Douglas Hurd, then British foreign Minister secretary, described the Bosnian war to me in 2003 as “a thoroughly messy business – messy operationally, messy intellectually, messy ethically”. Government uncertainty obscured the clear moral and strategic imperative to intervene and permeated Britain’s early responses, one of which was to support the European Community’s attempts to “monitor” the war.

But that was 10many years ago. A wearying succession of crises has since eroded the inviolability of states and furnished us with a great deal of experience; and if the word “monitor” betrays still the poignant naivety with which the EC and later, the European Union, among others, began this intellectual journey in 1991, there is little sign of the substantive operational review that should have accompanied it. We have re-learned Hobbes’ warning about “covenants without swords”, and the fact that civil-military interventions are always “messy”; but it remains the case that Britain, among others, relies almost entirely on jerry-built civil structures to meet the largely predictable challenges of post-conflict reconstruction.

One senses a damaging government perception that state-building is not a science, but rather a form of absorbing hobby. How else explain our enduring lack of intellectual rigour in tackling this most brutal and expensive of practical problems? British civil servants in departmental crisis units in Whitehall, though able, must come and go as their careers dictate. Hard-won knowledge is routinely dissipated. Civilian experts, whose mobility and niche skills make them an indispensable adjunct to state-building, are listed on a plethora of disparate departmental databases that underscore the fragmentary approach.

Of the many hundreds of British civilians who learned their trade in south-eastern Europe in the 1990s – whether in governance, police training, elections or human rights – only a very few were ever used in Iraq; and, overwhelmingly, the “governance teams” deployed to run that country were composed of people who had never done it before. Interventions of any kind are a formidably difficult business and impose the most ruthless of audits upon those people and plans assembled to prosecute them. War is often simpler than the political and physical reconstruction that must follow it, and failure hre may risk the very strategic goals for which the conflict was launched. While it is idle to imagine that our difficulties in Iraq are due entirely to our demonstrated deficiencies, it is certain that our failure to anticipate the challenges implicit in regime change – and our resultant inability to marshal our energies and resources from the outset – has cost us dear: Iraq’s insurgency has been made more deadly by an embedded shadow government composed of the Ba’athist and military structures we dismantled, and the support of the thousands of the angry poor whom we could neither employ nor reassure. These and other voices are now discernible in the stubborn wrangle over Iraq’s constitution, as the United StatesUS and its allies attempt to inculcate a binding national vision based on inclusive rather than cantonal precepts in political leaders who have never seen it demonstrated.

In this impassioned and occasionally intemperate debate, one sees the stirrings of the democracy we have sought so assiduously to create; and, if there are risks implicit in further slippage of the drafting process, those attendant on the risks of a still-born constitution are graver still.

The British government formed last year the inter-departmental Post-Conflict Reconstruction Unit (PCRU). Its task it is to create the very over-arching coherence that the country so evidently lacks in responding to the challenges posed by conflict and nation-building. that the country lacks. A similar effort is taking place in the US, with the creation of the post of Co-ordinator for Reconstruction and Stabilisation (OCRS) in the State department. These are bold and praiseworthy initiatives, but they must now be driven home; for there are signs that the friction that units such as the PCRU were was implicitly created to overcome – territorialism and departmentalism among them – now risk impeding progress.

The treatment of conflict, its causes and its effects, is presently allocated piecemeal across Whitehall, an error that daily highlights the futility of attempting to divide the inherently indivisible to match departmental mandates. Conflict should be dealt with in a unitary fashion, and it is essential it is done so that this is done in close concert with a range of international partners at working level.

We need this new approach to succeed because the old one has failed us repeatedly; and this must include the formation of a standing cadre of deployable experts, carefully selected and vetted to handle classified information, acquainted with military and governmental procedures and capable of moving at the speed of the armed forces – if not with the tanks, then with their fuel bowsers. If liberal democracies are to tackle tyranny and do so more effectively – as I believe they must – there can no longer be any excuse for the British predilection for “muddling through”.

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