Home News James F. Dobbins, Leading Authority on Nation Building, Dies at 81

James F. Dobbins, Leading Authority on Nation Building, Dies at 81

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James F. Dobbins, Leading Authority on Nation Building, Dies at 81


He counseled pragmatism, warning that there was no single solution for every country’s problems. Still, he repeatedly emphasized the need to establish security first, after which, he said, political and economic redevelopment could flow safely.

When the United States invaded Afghanistan after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Mr. Dobbins was selected as envoy to the anti-Taliban opposition, and then to the new government. On a rainy day in Kabul, in December 2001, he proudly presided over the reopening of the U.S. Embassy, which had been closed in 1989.

“We are here, and we are here to stay,” he said.

Despite playing that central role, he was later critical of the government’s efforts in Afghanistan, and later in Iraq — especially after he retired in 2002, when he became the director of the International Security and Defense Policy Center at the RAND Corporation, a nonpartisan think tank.

“His quality of analysis was not compromised by his personal involvement,” said Meghan O’Sullivan, the director of the Belfer Center of Science and International Affairs at Harvard. “He was able to distinguish his hopes from his analysis, which is something that many people in the arena struggle to do.”

A prolific author, Mr. Dobbins wrote a series of practical guides for nation building, then drew on those insights in speeches, opinion pieces and long essays to make the case that the efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq were coming up short.

“In a country like Iraq where the governmental structure has collapsed, the first priority is to establish public security,” he wrote in The New York Times in 2004. “The Pentagon focused more on hardware than software, on improving infrastructure rather than social structures.”

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