Applying Lessons Learned from Afghanistan Around the World

by Ambassador Rick Barton

It’s easy to find fault with the war in Afghanistan. The United States made huge investments of people and money, and many of our efforts did not yield the full impact we envisioned. Even so, there were real accomplishments. Besides achieving significant national security gains, U.S. efforts strengthened the Afghan economy, encouraged a robust civil society and media, and generated tremendous advances in health and education, especially for girls and women. As evidence, the UN Development Program recently identified Afghanistan as the most improved country in the world. We in the State Department’s Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations (CSO) feel this was due, in part, to civilian stabilization efforts. These work best when they are realistic in scope, locally supported, and integrated.

This is what we’ve concluded after sending more than 100 personnel to Afghanistan over the past five years. By realistic, we mean that strategies must be concrete, featuring prioritized goals and exit plans. By locally supported, we mean that the local government and civil society must be empowered to lead. And by integrated, we mean that efforts must be coordinated across a broad range of partners including military, NGO, and governmental actors.

CSO has been applying these lessons in Syria. After the Syrian revolution began, CSO was asked to help the opposition become more capable. We concluded that the most realistic plan was to concentrate on training and equipping selected Syrians in communications, planning, and administration. We deployed a team of about a dozen to establish relationships with ethnically and religiously diverse opposition activists via a series of training workshops and diplomatic engagements in the region. Our goal is to build a nation-wide network of emerging leaders who can promote unity among the Syrian people and accelerate the country’s democratic transition.

Our work there has been intensively local. We worked closely with Syrians in shaping the aforementioned strategy, making sure that the results would serve their needs and that they would want to carry on the initiative once CSO departs. To give them tools for the post-Assad era, we have run nine Planning for Civil Administration and Transition (P-CAT) programs, whichincluded representatives from more than 100 opposition local councils in ten different governorates. Through these initiatives, we have trained and equipped 1,500 local leaders and activists.

Our efforts have been fully integrated with Syrians and other partners, including Canada, the UK, Turkey, and NGOs. Effective communication promotes close coordination of each partner’s contribution. One sign that the work may be paying off came from the March 2013 Aleppo Local Coordination Committee elections. A P-CAT trainee served on the election’s preparatory committee and reached out to the 240 delegates across the liberated areas in and around Aleppo.

CSO applied these lessons in Kenya as well. Violence triggered by the national elections in 2007 left more than 1,300 Kenyans dead and 660,000 displaced in the year that followed. During the recent elections in March of this year, the United States worked with other nations to prevent a recurrence of these atrocities by ensuring the process was free, fair, and peaceful. CSO concluded that it was realistic to concentrate on potential trouble spots such as the Coast and Rift provinces. In these places, we focused on a limited set of activities that we believed would have the greatest impact. These activities included the establishment of volunteer-staffed call-in centers tasked with passing reports of potential violence to local leaders or police. Also, CSO worked to improve the relationship between the police and Kenyan citizens to facilitate trust and cooperation, and urged respected leaders to serve as radio talk show guests to generate and broadcast messages of peace.

Rather than recruit and hire foreign experts, CSO turned to local talent. Not only did they start work more quickly and at less expense, but these Kenyans brought an understanding of community and tribal dynamics that international professionals might not have possessed. Working with a variety of Kenyan nonprofits and Pact and Mercy Corps—U.S.-based organizations that share our belief in local empowerment—we hired more than one hundred Kenyan citizens to carry out the projects we helped design.

With so many governments and organizations engaged in facilitating a peaceful election, it was critically important that their roles were integrated. Working from the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi and selected potential hotspots, CSO was in constant contact with its partners.

Did this coordinated approach succeed? No one can say for sure which factors were most significant, but the collective impact was striking: officials and candidates from across the political spectrum felt compelled to urge their supporters not to resort to violence. This time around, authorities believe that twenty people died from election-related incidents—a dramatic reduction from the violence seen in 2007.

CSO is also responding in Burma, Honduras, and other hot spots around the world. Remaining realistic, local, and integrated in our approach has enabled us to best accomplish our goals. These watchwords will serve the United States well as it initiates a responsible transition in Afghanistan, and responds wherever else conflict and instability threaten peace and freedom.

About the Author

Ambassador Rick Barton is the Assistant Secretary of State for Conflict and Stabilization Operations and the Coordinator for Reconstruction and Stabilization. The Bureau is responsible for driving the State Department’s efforts to improve U.S. government effectiveness in preventing conflict and addressing crises.

Realizing Women’s Human Rights in South Africa

Darfur Ten Years After War: Paradigms of Justice and the Search for Peace in Sudan