In This Review

At War's End: Building Peace After Civil Conflict
At War's End: Building Peace After Civil Conflict
By Roland Paris
Cambridge University Press, 2004, 302 pp.
Enforcing the Peace: Learning From the Imperial Past
Enforcing the Peace: Learning From the Imperial Past
By Kimberly Zisk Marten
Columbia University Press, 2004, 208 pp.
The Remnants of War
The Remnants of War
By Kimberly Zisk Marten
Cornell University Press, 2004, 272 pp.

The UN has been in the business of peacekeeping since 1948. During the Cold War, UN missions were mostly restricted to placing lightly armed observers between warring states to monitor compliance with cease-fire agreements. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, however, more UN operations have been set up to implement comprehensive settlements to resolve civil wars and rebuild political systems, sometimes from scratch: from complex peace operations in Cambodia, El Salvador, Mozambique, and Namibia in the early 1990s to the even more complex administration of collapsed territories, such as Kosovo and East Timor in the late 1990s. Today, the UN manages 17 operations on four continents, with more than 70,000 military, police, and civilian personnel drawn from more than 100 countries. A new complex operation in Sudan is in the works, and the UN's role in Iraq may expand.

One of the UN's most difficult challenges has been to translate general lessons from those disparate experiences into a blueprint for rebuilding war-torn societies. Three accomplished political scientists believe they might have found a way to do so. In At War's End, a survey of how war-torn countries that have hosted UN peace operations in the 1990s have fared, Roland Paris concludes that, although most are still at peace, few are fully democratic and prosperous. He believes that more intrusive UN operations, including those that temporarily take over a state's administration, are the best way to ensure that liberal democracies will emerge from war. Kimberly Zisk Marten also endorses the values of liberal democracies, but in Enforcing the Peace: Learning From the Imperial Past, she claims it is a "pipe dream" to think that international administrators can bring them to war-torn societies. Calling for a much less ambitious type of international intervention, which she terms "security-keeping," Marten argues that international missions should confine themselves to maintaining security, allowing local actors to devise their own political and economic systems. In The Remnants of War, John Mueller presents a third model for the future of international peacekeeping: "police-keeping." What war-torn countries need the most, Mueller claims, is not to redress a democratic deficit or reconcile a "clash of civilizations," but to develop functioning state institutions that can police their territories effectively.

Each author draws attention to important lessons that deserve serious consideration from policymakers and practitioners. Paris, like a growing number of experts in the field, warns that the rush to hold elections can overshadow the need to build state institutions. Similarly, Mueller demonstrates that the way governments exercise power is as important as the way they attain it: their ability to manage "high-intensity crime" through the police and the judiciary can often mean the difference between war and peace. Finally, Marten draws a sharp distinction between when the international community should assert a heavy hand and when it should tread lightly: well-trained and nimble international security forces are often needed to buy time and space for local actors to rebuild state institutions, but the international community often invites trouble by dictating the pace of political and economic reform.

Still, these authors make too much of the similarities among the cases they study and not enough of the differences. And by using them to extrapolate bold models for state reconstruction, the authors belie the inherent complexities of the task. What worked in East Timor, a small island with a largely homogeneous population, would probably not have worked in Afghanistan, a far more vast, populated, and fractured state. The specifics of these conflicts--their scale as well as their historical, geopolitical, and socioeconomic roots--should inform how peace is brokered and maintained. Yet none of these books pays enough attention to such fundamental considerations.


Throughout much of the 1990s, the holding of elections in war-torn countries was seen as a harbinger of their recovery and democratization. Elections are clear-cut, identifiable benchmarks of progress and popular legitimacy: only the people can grant leaders their authority; the UN, or other outsiders, cannot.

Yet Paris, Marten, and Mueller sensibly warn that it is counterproductive to envision peacekeeping and peace building solely through this narrow prism. Expectations about how fast war-torn countries can be transformed into flourishing market democracies are often wildly unrealistic; Afghanistan cannot be transformed into Canada with two or three years of international peacekeeping. And the rush to hold free elections or to liberalize economies (which Paris calls economic "shock therapy") often glosses over fundamental problems that must be addressed before peace can become self-sustaining.

In his methodical and detailed presentation of the role that elections have played in 14 transitions from conflict to peace in the 1990s, Paris convincingly argues that holding elections prematurely can do more harm than good. The "winner-take-all" elections that were conducted in Angola in 1992, before the disarmament and demobilization process had advanced, exposed the parties' unwillingness to accept any result other than total victory. Yet some were surprised that Jonas Savimbi, the late Angolan rebel leader, rejected his defeat at the polls, plunging the country back into war. Other experiences, Paris demonstrates, also show that liberalization sometimes subjects fragile, war-ravaged societies to more strain than they can handle. In Rwanda, premature liberalization prompted a return to chaos; in Cambodia, suppression of the electorate's will; in Guatemala, deeper economic inequalities; and in post-Dayton Bosnia, reinforced ethnic divisions.

All three authors rightly emphasize the importance of properly sequencing state building, starting by strengthening the institutions of security and law and order: the army (under civilian authority), the police, and the judiciary. War-torn countries frequently suffer from collapsing institutions and rampant crime, but peace agreements often fail to cover it in sufficient detail, and few UN peacekeeping operations have ever been mandated or equipped to take on these tasks fully.

Without such necessary steps, a minority of powerful actors can hijack the election process of a troubled state and thwart the will of the majority. As Mueller argues in The Remnants of War--a surprisingly accessible narrative of 1,000 years of warfare--civil wars today often resemble "high-intensity crime" more than they do "low-grade ethnic warfare." Many wars are driven not by grand religious agendas or irreconcilable ethnic differences, Mueller claims, but by small groups of individuals motivated largely by personal interest. It is rebel warlords such as Foday Sankoh in Sierra Leone--not the likes of Osama bin Laden--who most often plunge weak states into chaos. The main challenge is finding a way to bring these "thugs" to justice without employing strong-arm tactics that might kill civilians, create sympathy for the criminals, or foster an environment ripe for the manipulation of ethnic or other divisions.

Unfortunately, Mueller's central thesis glosses over the fact that many of the deadliest conflicts today do not fit his definition so neatly. Consider the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where more than three million people have died since 1998. The country's civil war was marked by "high-intensity crime" but also by ethno-linguistic differences, deep resentment toward corrupt government, the aftereffects of decolonization, and considerable interference from neighboring countries. Without genuine power-sharing compromises among the country's many regional and ethnic leaders, national security structures cannot be created to restore order. Training and equipping troops is the easy part of security reform; agreeing on their ethnic and regional composition or reducing their size to fiscally sustainable levels is much more difficult. Mueller's The Remnants of War cannot explain--much less recommend measures to stem--the chaos in the Democratic Republic of the Congo or, for that matter, a half-century of violence in South Asia or the Middle East. Without a credible peace process on track, Mueller's endorsement of "international police-keeping" goes only so far.


Given the complexity of stabilizing war-torn countries and reforming their institutions, Paris argues in At War's End that sometimes elections might best be put off for several years. In the meantime, power should be temporarily turned over to an international authority such as the UN, which can administer the territories (as in East Timor from 1999 to 2002) or oversee existing local administrations (as in Cambodia in 1992-93).

But Paris' blanket prescription for entrusting governance to international administrations is no more of a panacea than Mueller's endorsement of international policing. Once a UN or international peace operation arrives on the scene, local populations expect it to quickly help them redress the legacy of illegitimate or tyrannical rule, especially if they think elections would put them in the governing majority. Postponing elections for several years would be problematic in Iraq, for example, because the appointed interim government, as Prime Minister Ayad Allawi himself has acknowledged, lacks a genuine mandate from the people.

The real lesson of Paris' thoughtful case studies is not that elections are best delayed, but that an environment propitious to holding them must be fostered as early as possible. As Mueller points out in his book, creating such conditions requires ensuring basic security and reaching a political agreement to honor the results. But it also entails providing safeguards for minority rights. And if elections are to be delayed, the people must be assured that all parties are working in good faith toward establishing a fair, democratic system.

well-meaning peace-building exercises of the 1990s, Marten identifies a disconcerting pattern: host populations develop exceedingly high expectations of the benefits that foreign administration will bring them--only to be disappointed when their problems are not solved overnight. Disenchantment quickly ensues, followed by unrest, which sometimes prompts international administrators to respond with overly controlling, perhaps even draconian, methods. The mission's costs or casualties begin to mount, and supporting countries find it increasingly difficult to persuade their people to incur them. As a result, transitional administrations often lose local consent or foreign backing before delivering the freedom and prosperity they promised.


If an overly ambitious liberalization agenda often leads to failure and frustration, Marten argues, then why not set out with more limited goals? Marten lauds the architects of the UN mission in Afghanistan, for example, for their pragmatism, common sense, and acute awareness of Afghanistan's history and unique challenges. Rather than taking on more than it could handle, the UN focused attention where it was most needed and could be delivered best: on getting faction leaders to agree to interim power-sharing agreements. Indeed, when the Northern Alliance last came to power after the end of the Soviet occupation in 1989, its rival factions ended up fighting one another, creating the conditions for the Taliban's rise. On September 10, 2001, the Northern Alliance was still in disarray: it controlled less than ten percent of the country's territory and its revered military commander, Ahmed Shah Masoud, had just been assassinated. Two months later, with the Taliban defeated, the factional leaders' only point of unity had vanished too. And when old rivalries among them resurfaced, so did concerns that history might repeat itself.

There was no question at the time that the UN was needed to help prevent another breakdown, but it was unclear in what capacity. Buoyed by its success in East Timor, some thought the UN could take over the transitional administration of Afghanistan; others believed that Cambodia offered a better model.

But Afghanistan resembled neither Cambodia nor East Timor. The United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (untac) was not hatched overnight, nor was it deployed in the midst of a conflict. The October 1991 Paris agreements that brought peace to Cambodia were a comprehensive political settlement reached after several years of negotiations and decades of fighting. All four Cambodian factions signed the peace accord, as did Cambodia's key neighbors and the five permanent members of the Security Council, which also committed military personnel to help implement peace. Untac had the narrow task of ensuring that the existing Hun Sen government would not prejudice the holding of free and fair elections. It also had six months to plan and mobilize more than 20,000 international troops and civilians in fairly secure conditions.

Likewise, the UN Transitional Administration in East Timor (UNTAET) was deployed in a relatively safe environment. To be sure, pro-Indonesian factions had unleashed colossal devastation after losing the referendum on independence in August 1999. But they retreated soon after, under international pressure, leaving both the capable Australian-led INTERFET peacekeeping force to fill the military vacuum and the East Timorese pro-independence movement, which had a relatively unified political platform, to fill the political vacuum. Xanana Gusmao, the movement's leader and the island's undisputed symbol of liberation, welcomed the UN's help in midwifing East Timor's long-awaited independence. This unequivocal show of local support, as well as a fully united Security Council and Australia's willingness to provide internal security for its neighbor, created conditions for UNTAET's success as favorable as could have been imagined.

Still, the mission faced an enormous political challenge. How would it prepare the East Timorese for independence while averting a humanitarian crisis, restoring law and order, developing state institutions, and overseeing the election of a government under the new constitutional order? UNTAET had a mandate, indeed, but it had no blueprint for seeing it through. And sure enough, it soon found itself rankling local leaders who wanted more influence. Following delicate and difficult negotiations, the UN mission gave the East Timorese greater control over day-to-day government, first through a mixed cabinet and later through an entirely indigenous cabinet and an elected assembly. By the end of the UN mission, Timorese ministers were evaluating the international staff working under them. Throughout, Sergio Vieira de Mello, the head of UNTAET, worked hard to maintain local consent for the UN's presence.

There was no such local support for a UN administration in Afghanistan in the fall of 2001--nor was there much security or homogeneity among local interests. The UN secretary-general, Kofi Annan, and his special representative, Lakhdar Brahimi, knew that remaining al Qaeda and Taliban forces were trying to tap into the Afghans' historical resistance to foreign rule and rouse them to jihad by claiming that foreign troops were bent on ridding Afghanistan of its religion and culture.

Annan thus rejected the creation of an UNTAET-like transitional international administration for Afghanistan. He proposed instead that an Afghan government be set up promptly, with UN assistance, and that it then be helped by a small UN staff of international civilians, who would provide behind-the-scenes support for keeping the peace process on track, staging elections, drafting a constitution, promoting human rights, and distributing humanitarian relief. Rather than have the UN take on peacekeeping duties--which the UN mission was not equipped to perform--the secretary-general suggested that individual states volunteer to provide security; reform the army, the police, and the judiciary; and stem drug trafficking. The Security Council, Afghanistan's neighbors, and scores of European and Muslim countries committed to the UN plan. It was that genuine global solidarity that enabled Afghan factions to reach the UN-brokered agreement in Bonn, Germany, on December 5, 2001, and create an interim government with Hamid Karzai as its interim president.

Afghanistan has come a long way in the last three years. Most remarkable is that civil war has been averted, even though many old-time Afghan leaders, power brokers, and ideologues have remained. More than three million Afghan refugees have returned home from Pakistan and Iran in the past two years. More than 80 percent of the ten million Afghans registered to vote--including millions of women who were long barred from political participation--braved security threats to cast their ballots in the October 2004 presidential election, validating Karzai's presidency with a clear mandate. Other critical milestones continue to be met, including the adoption of a new, progressive constitution through popular participation.


Despite these remarkable achievements, it would be premature to tout Afghanistan as a model for future state-reconstruction and misguided to assume that it resembles any situation that came before or will follow it, including Iraq. As Marten and Paris point out, the situation in Afghanistan remains precarious. Relations between Afghanistan and nations throughout the region remain fragile. Remnants of al Qaeda and the Taliban in eastern and southern Afghanistan threaten the country's internal security, as do powerful regional warlords who resist Kabul's authority. General lawlessness has boosted poppy production, exacerbating the stark contrast between the drug lords' riches and the abject poverty in which most Afghans live. And there is still no national army, police, or judicial system to counter these threats effectively, even with outside assistance. The international community has done too little to extend the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force beyond Kabul, despite the Afghans' repeated pleas for more aggressive deployment. (This timidity, in Marten's view, is the key shortcoming of the "Afghan model.") As Paris, Martin, and Mueller argue, based on the lessons of the 1990s, the job will not be finished in Afghanistan until these challenges are properly addressed, as they must be in the lead-up to parliamentary elections scheduled for the spring of 2005.

Even if the mission in Afghanistan could eventually be declared a success, it still might not make an apt template for Iraq. The invasion of Iraq was far more controversial than that of Afghanistan, and the two countries are very different. Their histories, economies, ethnic dynamics, and relations with their neighbors, the UN, and the international community differ considerably. Afghanistan could afford to wait almost three years to hold presidential elections largely because, in the eyes of the Afghan population, the Loya Jirga (grand council) of June 2002 had conferred some legitimacy on Karzai's interim rule. The use of the Loya Jirga to that end was the result of long peace talks between the UN and Afghan factions throughout the tumultuous 1990s; by the time the Bonn Conference was convened in November 2001, the Afghan people regarded the council as a viable means of conferring legitimacy, albeit temporarily, on an unelected government. But no such body exists in Iraq.

It is possible, of course, that had the UN been asked to do so in April 2003, it could have helped the Iraqis devise an alternate method for producing an interim government. But the possibility of convening a broadly based peace conference was nonexistent in early 2004, when the UN sent Brahimi to Baghdad. By then, the country had been occupied and extremist groups had rebelled against both U.S. troops and even the UN mission, killing the mission head, Vieira de Mello, and 21 of his colleagues. Members of the Iraqi Governing Council (IGC) were already expecting to play a role in any future government; meanwhile, other key constituencies were growing restless for elections. Brahimi had to craft a process for establishing an interim government for Iraq according to an entirely different plan than that employed in Afghanistan, working with representatives of the IGC and the Coalition Provisional Authority.

That the Afghan model for selecting and legitimizing an interim government could not apply to Iraq in 2004 does not make it irrelevant to future peacekeeping and peace-building efforts. But rather than tout it as a model, it should be understood as an attempt to apply the general lessons of the 1990s to a unique and trying set of circumstances. Reconstruction is most likely to succeed when all key local constituencies have agreed on how to share power, when and how to move toward full democracy, and what role the international community should play in the effort--decisions requiring painful compromises to be made in the interest of peace. Elections, security-sector reform, institution-building, and the deployment of foreign forces are not ends in themselves, but elements of an overall political strategy to enable war-ravaged states to live in peace with themselves and their neighbors. And for that peace to be self-sustaining, the reconstruction process cannot be predetermined by generic templates and arbitrary time-frames; it must be shaped by the aspirations and deliberations of the men and women who will live with the results.

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  • Salman Ahmed is Senior Political Officer in the Office of the UnderSecretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations at the United Nations. He served the UN in Cambodia, South Africa, and Bosnia and Herzegovina, and as Special Assistant to Lakhdar Brahimi, the UN secretary-general's special adviser, in Afghanistan and Iraq.
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