Escaping the unilateral rut

On 1 May 2003, several hours after George Bush's fateful appearance under the Mission Accomplished banner, Donald Rumsfeld stated in Kabul: "If one looks at Afghanistan and even Iraq today, it's very clear that we are and have been in a stabilisation operation mode for some time. We clearly have moved from major combat activity to ... stabilisation and reconstruction activities. The bulk of the country today is permissive, it's secure."

Recent reports suggest otherwise, with concern being increasingly expressed by senior US military and civilian leaders that we are on a losing path in Afghanistan, while in Iraq we have fought a war of "unintended consequences" which may only have strengthened our enemies. What successive US administrations seem to have forgotten is that peace is not just the absence of war, but also the presence of economic and social justice.

Without the comforting sense that such justice is being provided, festering hatreds and historical feuds re-emerge in the form of full-blown civil strife, or insurgent movements that target the foreign governments and their nationals seen as complicit in the failure to deliver economic and social justice and the rule of law. The US and its closest allies seem to have ignored the lessons of their own successes in state building, such as in Europe and Japan after the second world war and in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Mozambique, Eritrea and Timor, to name but a few. Nowhere is this collective amnesia reflected more than in the US military's approach to counterinsurgency and stability operations.

Though in part a product of the Cheney/Rumsfeld aversion to "nation building", the approach has remained narrowly focused on force-based solutions - for example using warlords and military-constituted "reconstruction teams" - to bring about economic and social development, as in Afghanistan.

There has been little meaningful effort to integrate the experience and analytical methods of civilian-based development agencies - such as the World Bank, the UN development programme and even the US's own agency for international development - with the work of the US military, as was done with success in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Indeed, some in the Pentagon are uncomfortable even with General Petraeus's attempts to reformulate the military's approach to counterinsurgency and stability. Instead, they are seeking to intensify support for "asymmetrical conflicts" with major powers such as China, Russia or Iran. This is welcome, but insufficient. A much deeper rethinking of US practice is needed if failures under Bush are to be turned into success under Obama.

The US army's operational manuals on counterinsurgency and stabilisation should be redrafted to give priority to operations that would produce a locally conceived long-term end-state for the country; integrate security operations with reconstruction and development; forgo the temptation of easy domestic alliances with the powerful and corrupt in favour of a real attempt to establish the rule of law; and positively engage NGOs and neighbouring states.

Possibly most significant, however, would be US acceptance that, in some cases, leadership of the international effort may be better served by a non-American - or an individual not perceived locally as representing the broader international community.

America must also recognise it needs to work within a centralised control and command structure representing all major external players, military and civil. The revelation of 9/11 was that we are all interconnected now. This means that going it alone almost always ends in failure, even for the US. Nowadays the most important part of what we can do is what we can do with others, even for the US. We need the structures to make this possible by enabling the international community to speak as one and work as one, as in Bosnia, where we worked to a commonly held set of goals, formulated and monitored by the host authorities. Only in this way can the tragic mistakes of Afghanistan and Iraq be corrected so states in post-conflict countries can be effectively rebuilt.

A new US administration committed to a more enlightened approach presents an opportune moment for such a fundamental strategic shift. Reports that Barack Obama's first act as president will be to order the shutdown of Guantánamo are an encouraging sign he will lead the US away from its unilateral rut. But the great challenge is no less than a fundamental rethink to enable the US once again to value and work with allies, old and new, within a common plan that we can pursue together - both within the regions concerned and on the wider international scene.

Paddy Ashdown, leader of Britain's Liberal Democrats and the international high representative in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Joseph Ingram, the World Bank's special representative to the UN and the WTO from 2003-2006.