The Cost of Winning Peace in Iraq

By Lee Feinstein

Published April 25, 2003, issue of April 25, 2003.

For all the talk about whether the United States should cede some control of rebuilding Iraq to the United Nations — which, out of self-interest, it probably should — peace will be extremely difficult to win without a serious economic commitment by the Bush administration.

The recent experience in Afghanistan is a good reference point for the role that the U.N. — and money — can be expected to play in post-war Iraq. In Afghanistan, the U.N. has a wide-ranging role, even as the United States and coalition forces operate militarily with a relatively free hand.

Following the defeat of the Taliban, for example, the U.N. sponsored a traditional loya jirga conference bringing together leading Afghan voices to determine the future of the country. The U.N.’s blessing promoted acceptance of the interim government by diverse Afghan factions and countries in the region, while the United States played the major role behind the scenes.

Today in Afghanistan some 9,000 American and coalition combat troops, under the operational command of the United States, keep up the hunt for Al Qaeda holdouts. Meanwhile, the U.N. has given its blessing to a peacekeeping force in and around the Afghan capital that is commanded by rotating coalition forces — not by the U.N. The civilian administration in Afghanistan is also headed, tenuously, by Afghan authorities, who receive support and assistance from a myriad of U.N. agencies.

But the uneven progress in Afghanistan also teaches another lesson: A lack of money will wreak havoc with even the best laid of reconstruction plans. The United States is the largest provider of assistance to Afghanistan, but President Bush’s talk of a “new Marshall Plan” never materialized. Meanwhile, international assistance has fallen off, and a lack of political will confines the peacekeeping mission to Kabul, even as the central government loses control over the Afghan countryside.

A U.N. blessing will be even more critical for post-conflict reconstruction in Iraq because of the split last fall in the Security Council over going to war. Americans might not see it this way, but like it or not, the reality is that a U.N. blessing will determine whether much of the world views the war as one of liberation or occupation.

A significant international role in rebuilding Iraq will make it more likely that nations that did not support the United States before the war will now come around to contributing to the reconstruction. Bringing in U.N. arms inspectors to witness and document the destruction of weapons of weapons of mass destruction once they are found by coalition forces will be especially critical to the legitimacy of the American effort in the eyes of much of the world.

But as in Afghanistan, winning the peace in Iraq will depend at least as much on whether the Bush administration is prepared to stay the course — and to foot the bill. Depending on who is doing the planning, maintaining stability in postwar Iraq will require between 75,000 and 200,000 troops.

A blue-ribbon commission sponsored by the Council on Foreign Relations recently calculated the costs of reconstruction, humanitarian assistance and security, based on the 75,000-troop estimate, at $20 billion a year. Only a portion of these costs could be recouped by sales of Iraqi oil in the near term.

Finding the right role for the U.N. in postwar Iraq will be critical to meeting American humanitarian responsibilities and diplomatic goals. In Afghanistan, the model is right, but the mission is jeopardized by a lack of money and muscle. The same will hold true for Iraq. Even the best of plans will not stand a chance without a multiyear, multibillion-dollar commitment.

Lee Feinstein, deputy director of studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, was deputy head of the Clinton administration’s Policy Planning Staff at the State Department.



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