Overriding Legal Authority in Nation-Building Missions

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An Afghan woman passes by a sign of the New Kabul Bank in the center of Kabul, Afghanistan, Tuesday, March 5, 2013. An Afghan tribunal convicted two top executives of the Kabul Bank, renamed the New Kabul Bank after the scandal broke, and sentenced them to five-year prison terms on Tuesday for their role in a massive corruption scandal that led to the collapse of Afghanistan’s largest bank and threatened the country’s fragile economy. The bank’s former chairman Sherkhan Farnood and former chief executive officer Khalilullah Ferozi were found guilty of theft of $278 million and $530 million, respectively. Farnood and Ferozi have also been ordered to pay back these funds. (AP Photo/Anja Niedringhaus)

Journal of Political Risk, Vol. 3, No.3, March 2015.

By Thomas Buonomo

Throughout U.S. involvement in counter-insurgency (COIN) operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, rampant government corruption has driven continuing instability and hampered U.S. nation-building efforts.[1] Corruption was a major reason for the collapse of the Iraqi military in northern Iraq upon impact with the Islamic State.[2] It is also the reason why Afghans are turning to the Taliban for resolution of their legal disputes.[3]

These are profoundly tragic and frustrating outcomes that can only be precluded in the future in one of two ways: the U.S. must either obtain legal authority from the U.N. Security Councilor, in critical situations, through unilateral measuresto override a host nation’s legal system and hold corrupt actors accountable when local officials refuse. Alternatively, should this approach fail, the U.S. government should refrain from nation-building missions entirely and provide the U.S. military with a mission more closely aligned with its core competency: kinetic military operations.

Consideration must be given to contingencies in between these two ends of the spectrum that may call for foreign internal defense or limited counterinsurgency missions.  In cases where the U.S. military has overthrown an existing government or is ordered to intervene in a failed statetwo scenarios that the U.S. should engage in only with the utmost reluctance and with the maximum application of resources once decidedlong-term extra-national legal authority beyond the transition to nominal sovereignty is critical.

Host government officials and geopolitical rivals would no doubt decry such measures as a reversion to post-WWI League of Nations Mandate-era imperialism.  The irresponsible behavior of corrupt host government officials, however, has contributed to the loss or threatened loss of trillions of U.S. taxpayer dollars, thousands of American lives, and a resurgence of Islamist terrorism in Iraq and Afghanistan.  As a result, the U.S. now faces a greater counter-terrorism challenge than before 9/11.

One of course cannot analyze the causes of these problems without reviewing the disastrous policies and vacillations of Bush administration as well as Obama administration officials (categorical de-Baathification, dismissal of the Iraqi military, strategic ambiguity, insufficient troop numbers, etc.), but much of the fault certainly also lies with Iraqi and Afghan officials.

The United States’ mistakes and shortcomings in Iraq and Afghanistanthe consequences of which will likely be felt throughout the region and beyond for another decade or more to come should serve as a strong hindrance to future endeavors of a similar scale by overly ambitious and idealistic American presidents.  Yet, the future is full of uncertainties and the specter of military conflict with Iran is on the horizon.  One can only hope that the next administration will be sufficiently sobered by the United States’ hard lessons over the last 15 years to think twice before attempting to forcibly transform that country.

[1] For example: Vanda Felbab-Brown, Aspiration and Ambivalence: Strategies and Realities of Counterinsurgency and State-Building in Afghanistan (Brookings Institution Press, 2012).

[2]  Michael Knights, “Bringing Iraq’s ‘Ghost Forces Back to Life,” Aljazeera, December 10, 2014.  http://www.washingtoninstitute.org/policy-analysis/view/bringing-iraqs-ghost-forces-back-to-life

[3] Azam Ahmed, “Taliban Justice Gains Favor as Afghan Courts Fail,” The New York Times, January 31, 2015.  http://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/01/world/asia/taliban-justice-gains-favor-as-official-afghan-courts-fail.html?hp&action=click&pgtype=Homepage&module=first-column-region&region=top-news&WT.nav=top-news

Thomas Buonomo is a Geopolitical Risk Analyst and former U.S. Army Intelligence Officer with a dual degree in Political Science and Middle East Studies from the U.S. Air Force Academy and Master’s candidacy in Middle East Studies from the George Washington University.  Dr. Anders Corr and Matthew Michaelides provided editorial oversight for this article. JPR Status: Editorial, archived 3/7/2015.