Better reconstruction capacity, but to what end?

Pro Publica and the New York Times have gotten hold of an unpublished federal history chronicling the problems plaguing the U.S. reconstruction effort in Iraq. I haven’t yet plowed through the entire 513-page report (available here in draft form on the Times’ Web site), but while the concluding “Lessons Learned” section reads like a greatest hits compilation of Bush-era wrong-headedness, it leaves out perhaps the most important lesson of all: Don’t try to reconstruct a nation whose people don’t want you there.

The history’s authors catalogue the many errors made by the U.S.: de-Ba’athification and the disbanding of the Iraqi military, commitment of too few American troops, non-existent coordination between military and civilian agencies, haphazard careering between wildly different strategies, an ideological commitment to “private-sector” solutions, and a complete lack of understanding of Iraqi political realities. The report also emphasizes just how hard reconstruction (read: nation-building) really is even when done right, and it offers recommendations for improving administrative structures and shifting the balance from military to civilian power. But it somehow creates the impression that the key obstacle in Iraq – terrifyingly high levels of violence, or, in the report’s terms, the lack of a “permissive” environment – was somehow unrelated to the fact of the reconstruction effort itself.

Of course, the reconstruction only occurred because of the invasion – and the invasion created circumstances that made the reconstruction almost impossible. As Matt Yglesias and Sam Rosenfeld put it three years ago, “to initiate a war in order to begin the occupation is daft.” Especially when you simply don’t have enough people to do the war, or the reconstruction, properly.

With the U.S. presence in Iraq about to begin winding down, the history’s immediate purpose seems to be to shape policy in Afghanistan. There, its call “for the US government to reform its approach to contingency relief and reconstruction operations and to develop greater capacity to carry them out” actually makes some sense, though recent events show we are very much not in the “post-conflict” stage in Afghanistan, either. And there will be other instances when the U.S. – in concert with the international community – can take on reconstruction efforts that do some good. But it would be nice, while we’re setting out to develop greater capacity, to do some more thinking about when to use it and why we want it.

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