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September 2008

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After the Taliban: Nation-Building in Afghanistan

Dobbins, After the TalibanReviewed by Ambassador (ret.) Michael W. Cotter

James F. Dobbins, After the Taliban: Nation-Building in Afghanistan, Dulles, VA, Potomac Books, 2008. Pp. viii, 168. $24.95

This slim, very well-written volume will be of great interest to two distinct groups.  In it Ambassador Dobbins first describes the process of creating a new government in Afghanistan in 2001, soon after the defeat of the Taliban regime.  In the final chapters he describes the difficulty of engaging the United States in nation-building during the administration of President George W. Bush, contrasts Afghanistan to the conflict in Iraq, and summarizes changes in the Afghan situation in recent years.

The first eight chapters will be of particular relevance to diplomatic historians interested in the nuts and bolts of the complicated negotiations – both within the U.S. government and between that government and key allies and neighbors of Afghanistan – that led to the selection of Hamid Karzai as president of a new Afghan government. Ambassador Dobbins is uniquely qualified to tell that story.  About to retire from his career with the State Department in the fall of 2001, he was asked to serve as Secretary of State Colin Powell’s envoy to the Afghan opposition. With the rapid success of the military opposition against the Taliban his mission soon changed to coordinating post-conflict relationships, the selection of a new Afghan government, and the re-opening of the U.S. embassy.

Dobbins is highly critical of the Defense Department’s mindset regarding peacekeeping and nation-building prior to 9/11, which resulted in unwillingness to contribute troops to the post-conflict phase or to adequately support the new Afghan government. Of particular interest among Dobbins’ descriptions of the interplay of individuals and governments during this period is the description of his many contacts with Iranian government officials and the signals passed to him of Iranian interest in opening discussion of outstanding issues with the United States, signals intentionally ignored by the U.S. administration. In one instance he describes how one such overture was received only weeks before President Bush’s 2002 State of the Union message in which he identified Iran as a member of the “Axis of Evil.”

The final three chapters will appeal to those interested in the practice of international relations during the current U.S. administration. Ambassador Dobbins, whose experience with nation-building began in the Clinton Administration and included a key role in the Bosnia and Kosovo crises, reinforces his criticism of the Bush Administration’s unwillingness to commit sufficient human and financial resources to ensuring the success of the quick victory in Afghanistan, particularly the role played by then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. He describes how the rush to war in Iraq diverted American attention from the critical situation in Afghanistan, noting that while the Afghan campaign demonstrated the benefits of both interagency and inter-government cooperation, that lesson was lost on the American administration, public, media, and congress, all of which drew the erroneous conclusion that success there was due solely to American military omnipotence, thus paving the way for the early problems in Iraq.

After his retirement Ambassador Dobbins was called back on several occasions to consult with the State Department and White House on the post-combat phase of the Iraqi conflict.  He highlights repeatedly the problems that lack of inter-agency cooperation and White House inability to manage those disagreements created in planning for stabilization and reconstruction in that country.  In one of his particularly insightful analyses, Dobbins notes that both the Afghanistan and Iraq cases point out the risks in what he calls “frugal nation-building” – low input in military and assistance resources which results in low output in security and economic development.  The lesson he offers is that while smaller, more advanced military forces can prevail over larger, less advanced militaries, post conflict stabilization and reconstruction require much larger inputs of both people and money.

The book is replete with interesting details, indicating either that Dobbins has taken detailed notes during his career or has a prodigious memory. During his long career with the State Department he became one of the government’s foremost expert in the fields of which he speaks – conflict resolution and nation-building.  In addition to his involvement in Afghanistan and Bosnia, he led crisis management efforts in Somalia and Haiti. Not surprisingly, his book includes assessments of many of the U.S. government and international figures with whom he interacted on these assignments.

If the book can be faulted, it is for some little details thrown in apparently to make the book more accessible to the general reader, such as his description of the U.N. General Assembly building or his description of a long flight home from Kabul, or his explanation that the Tiber River runs through Rome. And Dobbins has forgotten the old adage that “there’s no ‘i’ in team.”  While he gives great credit to interlocutors in other agencies and governments, the impression the reader is left with is that he accomplished most of this by himself.  But these are no more than nit-picks about a book that makes fascinating reading about the great issues of our time.


CotterAmbassador (ret.) Michael W. Cotter is president and publisher of American Diplomacy. Amb. Cotter was posted to South Vietnam, Bolivia, Ecuador, Zaire, Turkey, Chile, and Turkmenistan, where he served as ambassador. Living in the Chapel Hill area, Amb. Cotter writes and lectures on international topics and volunteers with a number of community organizations. 

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