U.S. Faces Dilemma Over Rebuilding Middle East and North Africa


The “Arab Spring” that is sweeping the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) is still running its course. Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Morocco, Libya, Syria, Yemen, Bahrain and Iran have all showed signs of revolution – whether peaceful or not.

And how should the US respond? Clearly, each country is unique and America’s approach needs to be carefully considered.

We are now in a third war in the region, providing support to rebel forces trying to topple the ruthless leadership in Libya. How will this conflict end and what should the US do in the long term to promote a stable government that does not become a sanctuary for terrorism?

Some are now raising the question, “Should we rebuild the MENA countries?” Before we rush into an answer, we need to review the hard lessons learned in Iraq and Afghanistan to determine what worked well and what did not. Political stability and security are an important foundation for the success of any large scale reconstruction effort. Some of these countries are better candidates than others.

Africa Command (AFRICOM), the Defense Department’s newest Combatant Command, covers much of North Africa, including Libya. They should be reviewing the lessons learned by Central Command (CENTCOM), particularly during the early days of Iraqi insurgency.

The next question that needs to be answered is, “Who is in charge?” I am not sure if the UN or EU is up to the task.  It may default to the US. If so, many agencies can contribute to the proposed effort. However, it probably should be led by the State Department. But can they muster enough construction experts and deploy them into an austere and potentially dangerous area of the world? Likely not, that’s why the Defense Department had to carry most of the load in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Security: How will we protect American civilians if we send them to rebuild places like Libya and Yemen? There were not enough military forces in Iraq to protect the thousands of schools, hospitals, police stations and other facilities being rebuilt in Iraq. The Defense Department used armed security contractors to protect the project sites, guard equipment and transport civilian experts around the war-torn country. 

One important tactic is hiring many local workers. Providing jobs for unemployed men in this region is the best way to promote long term stability. Military–aged men are the recruitment pool for insurgents and terrorists, but many young men would rather have a respectable civilian job if it is available. Offering labor intensive construction jobs would be much cheaper in blood and treasury than fighting a war.  And repairing war-torn or neglected infrastructure, such as electricity and water, is viewed positively by the civilians we want to influence.

Intelligence: Many of the contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan did not have security clearances, so providing them with unclassified intelligence about local threats was a continuous challenge. We need to do this better in other countries. Countries with reliable commercial wireless communication networks offer some hope as these can be used for alerting construction crews about hostile personnel or dangerous roads in the area.

Human geography is critically important. Understanding what tribe or religious group is in the local area, and how we approach them, can greatly impact the success of the mission.

Transportation: Survey crews, inspectors, project managers and other experts will need to visit all the sites.  Reconstruction personnel in Iraq and Afghanistan largely traveled in SUVs, which were relatively unprotected and vulnerable to roadside bombs and “drive-by” shootings. Consequently, these SUVS often drove 80-100 mph to quickly get to the next project site. Armored SUVs were leased for a premium price, as there were not enough to meet the demand. Rebuilding the rest of the MENA countries will provide a boost to manufacturers of armored cars.

Weapons: Will American civilians in high threat countries be permitted to carry weapons for self-protection? How are they trained? What are their “rules of engagement”? Should they carry Russian weapons that are much easier to acquire in that part of the world? 

Capacity building is the key. That means we need to teach people how to fish, rather than simply giving them a fish. So training workers to operate and maintain a new water treatment plant is a critical step.  Otherwise, projects will soon fail and become a wasted investment.

How do we measure success? How do we know if our foreign policy goals are being achieved? What types of projects have the greatest return on investment? Schools and medical clinics are generally well received.  However, should we rebuild the Libyan oil infrastructure?

Who pays the bill? The World Bank is getting involved in financing some of this. To demonstrate its leadership, the US will want to kick in its share. Our nation really needs to ask, “What can we afford?” Our national economy is reeling. It will be a tough sell to ask US taxpayers to rebuild a country that 80% of Americans can’t find on a world map. The initial 2,300 reconstruction projects in Iraq cost $12.7B that was appropriated by Congress. Several thousand more projects were added over the next five years. For the MENA countries, how do we know when we are done? 

Allies: Will any of our Allies join the effort and financially contribute? North Africa is economically more aligned with Europe than with sub-Sahara Africa. Getting economically successful nations like the UAE, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar and Saudi Arabia to fund the effort will also be a good test.

If we decide to help rebuild a nation, we must keep our promises and manage expectations. Not all peoples and tribes welcome westerners. Some are suspicious of our intentions. We promised thousands of Iraqis immediate employment after the invasion. However, it took over a year for many projects to start and the Iraqis felt deceived and found jobs working for the insurgents and Al Qaeda. Our slow acquisition processes and peacetime domestic policies can be lethal in this part of the world.

And we must keep an eye out for the Chinese. They will take every step to exploit the resources of oil rich countries once the US has paid for the infrastructure. 

So before we rush off to rebuild the MENA countries, let’s think through what our objectives are and if we can realistically achieve them. We have some time for thoughtful debate.

Kerry C. Kachejian is a combat veteran of Stability and Reconstruction Operations in Iraq and Afghanistan and the author of SUVs Suck in Combat: Rebuilding Iraq during a Raging Insurgency. He was recently presented the “Literacy Hero Award” (available on Amazon).  www.kerrykachejian.com


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