05/17/2012 08:37 pm ET Updated Jul 17, 2012

Misjudged Again: A Tale of Unwanted Police Programs

The unraveling reported this week of U.S. police training programs in both Iraq and Afghanistan opens yet another window onto the strategic miscalculations that have derailed American ambitions in both protracted conflicts. And more: the failures spotlight Washington's ineptness in directing other countries' reconstruction, with scant heed for local realities and sensitivities.

Iraq was always a uniquely egregious case, where the American invasion aroused worldwide opposition and fueled Iraqi outrage. President George W. Bush seemed perplexed by ungrateful Iraqis' adamance in demanding he commit to complete military withdrawal by the end of 2011. As the deadline neared, an equally uncomprehending Pentagon pressed futilely to convince the Iraqis to keep U.S. troops for the long term. When the last troops left in December, Washington pinned its hopes to maintain a security footprint on a large-scale police training program.

It turns out Iraqis weren't much interested in Americans' police training either. The New York Times reported Sunday that the program, which has burned through half a billion dollars in just its first half year, is on the brink of abandonment, "in the face of spiraling costs and Iraqi officials who say they never wanted it in the first place."

In Afghanistan, over Afghan government objections, American officials insisted on creating a locally based Afghan local police force of 13,000 men in areas most in thrall to the Taliban insurgency. The Los Angeles Times reported Monday that a review by the Pentagon-affiliated RAND Corporation found these autonomous police ineffective against the insurgency and often deeply entangled in criminal activity, corruption, and extortion. This was hardly a surprise to Afghan president Hamid Karzai, who had predicted just such an outcome.

Still, many American opinion leaders seem locked in self-delusion. Senator John McCain denounced President Obama's decision to respect the Iraqis' insistence on full troop withdrawal as "a consequential failure," and castigated Obama's timetable for troop phase-out in Afghanistan as "an unnecessary risk to the hard-won gains" of recent combat. (A consequential thought: were it not for the financial meltdown in 2008, McCain would probably be in the White House today.) In a similar vein, McCain's successor as his party's presidential standard-bearer, Mitt Romney, warned that the Iraq pullout would "put at risk the victories that were won" there under President Bush.

The focus on war-fighters as the drivers of American engagement is a distinguishing mark of the Washington debate, and a source of unease among many international partners. The Europeans, whose participation in Afghanistan remains vitally important, have put far more emphasis on the "soft power" of social and economic reconstruction, and their representatives in Kabul admit dismay that "what dominates the agenda of Karzai and the United States is security" -- namely, boots on the ground.

Washington, by contrast, often seems ambivalent if not outright skeptical about investment in reconstruction of war-shattered societies, to say nothing of deploying troops for non-combat peacekeeping. Candidate George W. Bush in 2000, eliding the two, vowed to halt American military engagement "all around the world in nation-building missions." Such missions could only distract from the efficient, purposeful exercise of American power; the political, social, and economic accoutrements that were making their way into new multi-dimensional peacekeeping operations would be best left to the soft-hearted Europeans and Japanese.

As president, Bush launched two stunningly successful military campaigns to topple unfriendly regimes in Afghanistan and Iraq, apparently with little thought to how each country could reconstitute itself afterward. "Nation-building" then turned out to be unavoidable. In the unpromising context of foreign occupation and indigenous resistance, however, the efforts have had disappointing results.

President Obama has converted conservatives' aversion to nation-building into a critique of their supposed penchant for armed interventionism, telling his supporters that Americans should "focus on nation building here at home." More quietly, he has sharpened the State Department's own focus on securing peace in war-torn countries by organizing a new bureau of conflict and stabilization operations, dedicated to the twin mission of conflict prevention in fragile states and reconstruction of those emerging from debilitating conflicts.

In this respect, Washington is only catching up with the United Nations, which created a peace-building commission in 2005 -- with stout support from the Bush administration -- to sustain international attention to countries recovering from conflict after international peacekeeping troops have gone home. The World Bank is also increasingly engaged in assistance to fragile states under the road map of its 2011 World Development Report.

To date, the U.N. peace-building commission has taken on just a half-dozen shattered countries in Africa -- "orphan countries" in which none of the world's major powers has a strategic interest. But the U.N. is developing an expertise in mending fragile societies -- and in attending to local voices -- that contrasts starkly to a U.S. government in thrall to Washington's self-referential political priorities.

In his landmark study of international peace operations, RAND analyst James Dobbins, a veteran U.S. diplomat, concluded that "the United Nations has done a better job of learning from its mistakes than has the United States," and that U.S.-led nation-building "has espoused more ambitious objectives, and, at least among the missions studied, has fallen short of those objectives more often than has the United Nations."

With the United States fairly discredited in Iraq, as the failure of its police training mission demonstrates, it is increasingly the small U.N. political mission there that works to keep consolidation of the country's fragile political system on track. Whether U.S. influence will curdle as badly in Afghanistan remains to be seen, but America is still seen as primarily concerned about the security sector while the rest of the international community is more identified with the population's day-to-day priorities.

When our politics allow us to invest resources in building peace commensurate with those in fighting wars, Americans may find more enduring influence in the long term.