John Tirman

After war: Reconstruct

By John Tirman
August 5, 2011

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THE US involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan is now winding down. Both were considered to be vital to US security, and both exacted high tolls in human and financial costs. But neither has brought a satisfying result, and the mixture of high costs and dashed hopes may result in the neglect of both countries once our troops are withdrawn.

But such an exit would be a strategic blunder and a moral travesty. Despite occasional avowals over the last several years of new Marshall Plans for Iraq and Afghanistan, it’s now clear that nothing of the sort is likely. But that does not mean we should sink into the lethargic indifference that is already gripping American politics and society.

A new kind of reconstruction aid is needed. What passes for development assistance in many conflict countries emphasizes security to the detriment of everything else, fosters or tolerates corruption and dependency, and essentially distrusts local communities, small-scale social services, entrepreneurial and collective efforts alike - all the things that optimal reconstruction entails. The merging of security and development has been roundly criticized by on-the-ground specialists for more than a decade, yet this tendency persists, wasting billions and alienating the populace.

The budget squeeze in Washington - a crisis prompted in no small part by these very wars - will make large expenditures for Iraq and Afghanistan difficult, but small investments can go far if provided directly to the people undertaking small enterprises, community clinics, sustainable agriculture, and the like. This can be accomplished, among other social innovations, through a new banking system that relies on cellphone transactions, bypassing corrupt officials. Security spending can be made (and siphoned off) separately, but mixing the two - pretending that security spending is the same as reconstruction spending - disadvantages ordinary people.

Such community investments can go part way in healing the human destruction of the wars. While it is commonplace in political and media discourse to estimate war deaths in Iraq in the “tens of thousands,’’ the actual number is well into the hundreds of thousands, according to both household surveys and other methods. The displaced from Iraq still numbers in the millions - 4 million to 5 million, by the UN’s count - and those Iraqis are returning only in a trickle because they see the troubling security and economic situation in Iraq persisting. While the mayhem in Afghanistan has been at a smaller scale, its people have also suffered enormously.

This colossal human cost of the wars has been almost totally overlooked by Americans. There is little acknowledgement of this destruction and the chronically desperate conditions it caused, making postwar neglect all the easier. To abandon these countries now would add another suffocating layer of indifference to a history of callousness.

As a moral matter, that desertion would be reprehensible. As a strategic matter, it would merely confirm many Muslims’ perception that the United States cares little for anyone but itself. And while it’s often asserted now that there is no link between poverty and political violence, the facts speak otherwise: low per-capita income is strongly correlated to high incidence of civil war. Afghanistan ranks very near the bottom of the world in this measure, and Iraq is not much better.

So we should channel meaningful, targeted aid to Iraqis and Afghans ready to rebuild their communities. But reconstruction is not just about bricks and mortar and money. It’s about healing the emotional traumas visited upon tens of millions of people. However one reckons the reasons for and outcomes of these two wars, the devastation - physical and psychological - is undeniable. We need to acknowledge, clearly and contritely, the American role in this destruction.

Reconstruction in all its forms will take a decade or more, and this abiding need must be recognized as necessary - an opportunity, in fact, rather than a burden. If we do simply leave, or remain engaged only on security, we would signal the same, vast carelessness that the wars have so forcefully conveyed. We can do better.

John Tirman is executive director of the MIT Center for International Studies. His book, “The Deaths of Others: The Fate of Civilians in America’s Wars,’’ will be published this month.