Subject: NYT Editorial: East Timor: Lessons for Nation-Builders

The New York Times February 7, 2002


Lessons for Nation-Builders

Nation-building aided by outsiders is a project many believe is doomed to fail. Yet international attempts to create a society from the ground up have sometimes succeeded. A recent example is East Timor, which offers a few lessons for future efforts in places like Afghanistan.

In 1975 East Timor was forcibly annexed by Indonesia in a brutal invasion. Over the next two decades, a fifth of the population was killed. In 1999, Indonesian troops and their allied local militias went on a spree of destruction, burning much of the area's infrastructure to the ground and holding a civilian U.N. mission hostage. The carnage was stopped only by a coalition of United Nations troops led by Australia.

Remarkably, East Timor today is secure and peaceful, with much rebuilt infrastructure. It has the institutions of democracy and will hold presidential elections before it becomes an independent nation on May 20. The U.N. has been training Timorese to take over administrative posts.

One important lesson to be drawn from East Timor is the need for a strong peacekeeping force with robust rules of engagement. The U.N. forces were able to stop militia raids into East Timor from West Timor, which is part of Indonesia, by getting permission for their peacekeepers and police to aggressively protect themselves and the Timorese people. They can shoot first if threatened. After independence, 5,000 peacekeepers will stay.

Problems faced by the U.N. in East Timor are also worth noting. The process would have benefited from less rivalry between departments. All hiring was done from New York, much of it based on little information. The mission was slow to put local people in positions of authority, hiring them only as drivers, guards or interpreters. After much criticism and World Bank help, the U.N. began to hire and train more local people.

Whoever takes on the enormous task of nation-building in Afghanistan and elsewhere needs to learn from these lessons. The most important job is not to run the country, but to enable its citizens to do the job themselves.

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