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James Dobbins, U.S. diplomat in global hot spots, dies at 81

James Dobbins, a U.S. diplomatic troubleshooter whose assignments included reopening the embassy in Kabul after the 2001 invasion and then returning more than a decade later as a special envoy during a grinding war and fading hopes of stabilizing Afghanistan, died July 3 at a hospital in Washington. He was 81.

The death, of complications from Parkinson’s disease, was announced by the Rand Corp., a think tank where Mr. Dobbins had previously led a center on international security and defense policy.

Mr. Dobbins’s résumé was a map of hot spots around the world over six decades, including a brief stint as acting U.S. ambassador in Afghanistan after the post-9/11 invasion and as a diplomatic liaison during military operations in Somalia, Bosnia and Haiti in the 1990s.

He had a hand in some outcomes celebrated by the United States and its allies — notably in Kosovo, which achieved independence in 2008 after NATO-aided battles in the late 1990s against Serb-led nationalist forces. But Mr. Dobbins also watched significant crises and failures play out in other former postings.

Haiti has been locked in cycles of political chaos and gang-driven violence for decades. Somalia remains carved up into warlord-style fiefdoms, including areas controlled by Islamist militants.

Afghanistan was by far the biggest meltdown — and for years was the focus of Mr. Dobbins’s assertions that the United States and allies were getting it wrong.

“The truth is that the United States’ failure in Afghanistan was not preordained,” Mr. Dobbins wrote in Foreign Policy days after the final U.S. military pullout in August 2021 and the Taliban’s return to power, “but Washington severely hobbled its own stabilization efforts early on.”

In Mr. Dobbins’s view, U.S. policymakers made strategic blunders by focusing too many resources on counterinsurgency fights against the Taliban, al-Qaeda and other militant groups. Instead, he said a better path was building local alliances and regional security networks to give Afghans a greater sense of safety and a stake in keeping the system in place.

“We don’t invade poor countries to make them rich. We don’t invade authoritarian countries to make them democratic. We invade violent countries to make them peaceful and we clearly failed in Afghanistan,” Mr. Dobbins told the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction in 2016, according to a transcript that was part of a trove of confidential U.S. documents on Afghanistan obtained by The Washington Post.

Mr. Dobbins straddled ideologies in Washington. He reflected interventionist instincts that the United States should be involved in “nation building” as “the inescapable responsibility of the world’s only superpower.” He also was a realist about America’s go-it-alone limits.

He advocated for international coalitions, local deal making and regional outreach — to friends as well as foes — as linchpins of attempts to move any country toward stability. “It is nearly impossible to put together a fragmented nation if its neighbors try to tear it apart,” Mr. Dobbins and his co-authors wrote in the 2003 book “America’s Role in Nation-Building: From Germany to Iraq.”

With Afghanistan, Mr. Dobbins increasingly questioned U.S. objectives and priorities.

It began with optimism. On Dec. 16, 2001, he was acting U.S. ambassador as the Stars and Stripes — a flag left by a Marine guard in 1989 — was raised at the reopened embassy in Kabul. “We are here to stay,” Mr. Dobbins promised.

By 2014, as the Obama administration’s special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Mr. Dobbins was warning that factional rivalries and ongoing violence in Afghanistan could force the United States to one day pull back economic and military support.

“The consequences of this would be quite grave,” he told Afghanistan’s TOLOnews.

His prediction became a reality in August 2021 with the Taliban storming back to power after two decades of a U.S.-led war that killed more than 2,400 U.S. military personnel, more than 1,000 coalition troops and tens of thousands of Afghan security forces and civilians.

Mr. Dobbins, however, insisted this was the moment for renewed engagement in Afghanistan. Isolation, he told The Post, may seem more appealing to U.S. officials because it requires “no decisions, no resources and no political exposure.”

“But it never works,” Mr. Dobbins said. “In the history of foreign affairs, as far I know, it has never produced the desired results.”

James Francis Dobbins Jr. was born in Brooklyn on May 31, 1942. His father, a lawyer with the Veterans Administration (now the Department of Veterans Affairs), took a position with the agency in the Philippines in 1953. The family returned to the States five years later, before Mr. Dobbins’s final year of high school.

He received a bachelor’s degree from Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service in 1963 and spent the next three years as a Navy lieutenant, including two tours in Vietnam on an aircraft carrier.

Mr. Dobbins joined the U.S. diplomatic corps in 1967. Among his first major assignments was as a U.S. staff delegate to the unsuccessful peace talks in Paris in 1968 seeking to end the Vietnam War.

He held various diplomatic positions in Europe and the United Nations before serving as ambassador to the European Union from 1991 to 1993. He was assistant secretary of state for European Affairs shortly before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and later led negotiations in Bonn that backed Hamid Karzai as Afghanistan’s new leader. Mr. Dobbins was acting ambassador in Kabul for about two weeks during a transition period.

During the 1990s, he was deployed as a State Department rapid-reaction diplomat in the Balkans; in Haiti during a 1994 U.S.-led military intervention to restore the coup-deposed president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide; and in Somalia during the withdrawal of U.S. forces that began in 1993. Mr. Dobbins headed Rand’s International Security and Defense Policy Center from 2002 to 2013, then served for two years as special envoy to Pakistan and Afghanistan.

His negotiations included the 2014 swap of five Taliban detainees held at the U.S. base at Guantánamo Bay in Cuba for Army soldier Bowe Bergdahl, who was taken captive by Taliban-linked militants in 2009 after he wandered away from his combat post. (In 2017, Bergdahl entered guilty pleas to charges of desertion and misbehavior before the enemy.)

Mr. Dobbins wrote or co-wrote more than a dozen books, including several on nation building and a 2017 memoir, “Foreign Service: Five Decades on the Frontlines of American Diplomacy.” His hundreds of essays and commentary pieces often argued for a greater U.S. roles in international statecraft.

Most recently, he urged U.S. policymakers to begin planning for the eventual postwar reconstruction of Ukraine, which he saw as another chapter in the West’s reshaping of Europe since the end of World War II.

“Their basic and successful formula was established early,” Mr. Dobbins and co-authors wrote in Defense News in June. “The United States provided seed money and security; the Europeans provided the bulk of the funding and advanced the historic process of European integration.”

Mr. Dobbins’s wife, Toril Kleivdal, died in 2012. Survivors include two sons; two sisters; two brothers; and two granddaughters.

Despite the deep wounds to the U.S. international image from Iraq and Afghanistan, Mr. Dobbins committed to the idea of “nation building” as a pillar of Washington’s foreign policy.

“We have to stop making nation building a political football. … We’re the world’s leading nation,” he told the PBS public-affairs program “Frontline” in 2003. “And no matter how multinational it is, ultimately, if we don’t contribute, nobody will. So, if we don’t learn to do this well, no one will learn to do it well.”


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