The news report was brutally brief. Eleven civilians – seven men and four women – were killed when a bomb dropped by a US aircraft landed on a house by mistake. On the very day that Saddam Hussein's regime fell, this particular report went almost unnoticed. One thing, however, made it stand out. The destroyed house was not in Iraq but on the outskirts of the Afghan town of Shkin. Despite all the attempts to portray Afghanistan as a problem the West has now 'sorted out', the reality is very different. The media circus may have moved on, but outside Kabul war continues unabated. The contrasts between Afghanistan and Iraq are considerable, but this latest tragedy in what is increasingly another forgotten war should serve as a grim reminder of just what the US and UK have got themselves into in Iraq, and the perils of failing to learn the lessons of post-war reconstruction.

For more than six months prior to the outbreak of hostilities, preparations for the war in Iraq were relentless. Planning for what comes now has been a somewhat less streamlined affair. As we aim for a post-conflict political settlement in Iraq, the most obvious failure has been the absence of any recognised Iraqi government in exile, waiting in the wings and ready to assume responsibility for thecountry's governance.

One reason for this may be because Iraqi opposition leaders living abroad were too divided to agree on any common approach. Many of them were former cronies of Saddam who fell out with him for a variety of reasons – although seldom due to protests over human rights violations or corruption. But the main reason would appear to be US determination to retain the upper hand in controlling Iraq and its oil revenues for the foreseeable future. It is interesting to note here the shift in rationale offered for going to war – from the potential threat posed by weapons of mass destruction (although to date, none have been found despite strenuous efforts to do so) through to the need to end the suffering and impoverishment of a country, which prior to the imposition of UN sanctions was, for all its faults, comparatively prosperous.

A recent report published by the Washington-based Centre for Strategic and International Studies entitled 'Post-war Iraq: Are we ready?' identified serious shortcomings in a number of key areas of the US administration's post-war plans. In the aftermath of the chaotic scenes of looting that marked the overthrow of the regime, the report's section on security has an almost prophetic quality, arguing that US forces are inadequately prepared to handle the policing and post-conflict security needs of civil society in Iraq. The authors pointed out a lack of cooperation with UN weapons inspectors that could compromise the integrity and transparency of disarmament activities (there is now some suspicion that, in due course, weapons of mass destruction will be 'planted' by those desperate to find them) and the lack of longer term planning for the disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration of combatants into civilian life.

Other shortcomings include insufficient coordination with the UN and inadequate plans for fostering a participatory democratic culture in Iraq that will involve Iraqis in decision-making concerning the reconstruction and future governance of their own country. It remains to be seen whether, despite the fine-sounding rhetoric about democracy and respecting the will of the Iraqi people, the United States is willing to tolerate either an Islamic state or a socialist democratic one. What is clear is that, in the aftermath of war and the suffering that has accompanied it, many in the region will be looking both to God and to the provision of state services to meet their needs. Evidence from Palestine, Afghanistan and Somalia suggests that failures in reconstruction serve to create open spaces for 'Islamist' movements to provide a safety net for the poorest and thereby gain yet more popularity.

From the perspective of post-war reconstruction and development, then, a number of key observations need to be made:

First, the US and UK need to be clear about their objectives. Coalition rhetoric has spoken in terms of 'liberation' and the desire to build 'a strong, stable and democratic Iraq'. It is vital they demonstrate commitment and integrity in relation to those objectives, even when this is a costly course of action. With US firms jostling for reconstruction contracts the evidence thus far would seem to point more to decision-making guided by strategic and economic self-interest, masquerading as compassion, than to an in-depth understanding of the needs on the ground.

Second, there are clear dangers in directing the reconstruction process from Washington. The early departure of Jay Garner, the retired US General brought in without Iraqi consultation to oversee post-war reconstruction and humanitarian activities, has served to underscore the lack of clarity the view from afar provides.

Third, there are risks in running reconstruction activities with the same top-down, authoritarian ethos in which a military campaign is conducted. Lessons learnt from post-war reconstruction and development activities all over the world in the past 20 years suggest that such approaches, driven by an 'assumed urgency', are expensive, unsustainable and ineffective. Instead, the process should ensure local participation and harness the capacities, knowledge and expertise of the local population, utilising them wherever possible. Doing so would help to kick-start the local economy that has stalled as a result of conflict and more than a decade of international sanctions. One of the key lessons learnt from post-conflict experiences around the world is that the HOW of post-war reconstruction is as, if not more, important than the WHAT.

In discussing post-war reconstruction, the starting question should be: To whose benefit is the reconstruction? It is perhaps not surprising that most recent comments from the US/UK in relation to Iraq have focussed on Iraq's oil infrastructure. During the recent spate of looting in which government ministries, hospitals and university buildings were stripped bare and Iraqi museums looted-to-order, only the Oil Ministry was protected by coalition troops – a clear indication of where US priorities lay. In contrast to the usual international indifference over the reconstruction of impoverished post-conflict countries, the current level of interest is indicative of the lucrative profits that many are hoping to make out of this war. One is tempted to ask whether it is Iraqi oil, rather than the Iraqi population that is being 'liberated'.

Given the likelihood that Iraqi oil money will finance the reconstruction, it is imperative that Iraqis play a central role in deciding how their country is governed and rebuilt, even if initially this entails the installation of little more than a puppet administration. The worst possible scenario would be a neo-colonial administration led by US generals.

Another key area of concern relates to the delivery of humanitarian aid and assistance to the Iraqi people. During the war a key political and military objective was to give a 'humanitarian gloss' to the campaign; military actions were portrayed as being motivated as much by a humanitarian as a military objective, accompanied by a deliberate blurring of military and humanitarian distinctions. Military personnel were involved in high profile, photo-opportunity aid-distribution as part of a 'hearts and minds' campaign designed to serve military objectives. This was particularly true of the focus on the 'strategic importance' of the port of Umm Qasr. In reality, the port had not been used for many years owing to the mines left behind following the Iran/Iraq war. Supplies could be brought in from Kuwait, utilising Iraq's well-developed road infrastructure. However, what we witnessed was part of a skilful 're-branding' exercise in which the war was depicted within a larger humanitarian framework. While it is true the port could facilitate the provision of humanitarian assistance (with the attendant maximum media coverage) little has been heard of this now that the war is over. The port's principal strategic significance will be to enable independent military re-supply if, as is possible, Kuwait's ability to continue hosting such a large US military presence becomes too politically sensitive in the future.

Other key priorities in the aftermath of conflict should include:

—Establishing peace and security, effective policing and the rule of law. This will be particularly important for preventing the reprisals and summary justice already taking place, which could form part of a slippery descent into civil war if they are not stopped.

—Lifting the sanctions embargo that has impoverished the country for twelve years.

—Rebuilding Iraqis' trust in the international community. Although Saddam Hussein was feared and mistrusted by large swathes of the population, it would be very naïve to assume the corollary of this is that the West is loved and trusted it isn't! Trust depends on actions and deeds as well as words; consequently, visible acts of confidence building (prisoner exchanges, acts of commemoration etc.) are important. Trust must be mutual. If it is not, it is merely faith and hope, which can quickly turn sour. Critical to rebuilding trust within Iraqi society will be a Forgiveness and Reconciliation Commission, referring to Iraqi and Arab-led courts, alongside a participatory democratic process, rather than a military democracy imposed from the outside.

Building trust is of importance not simply within Iraq, but in the wider Arab world, where for many, an overarching Arab identity transcends the relatively recent borders and nation-state identities of the post-colonial era. Whatever the official stance of many Arab governments, the view from the street is overwhelmingly anti-American. Their hostility was further entrenched when Colin Powell, flanked by the Israeli-flag, issues a bellicose warning to Iran and Syria recently, while addressing the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the most powerful pro-Israel lobbying group in the United States. When such speeches are accompanied by TV images of US soldiers in Iraqi towns, redolent of Israeli troops in the Occupied Territories, the impact of such a US propaganda own-goal on Arab public opinion is immense.

But peace is not simply the absence of war. Peace results from peaceful attitudes within a trustworthy rule of law. For conflict to cease, a population must acquire the habit of peacefulness through feeling secure and being justly represented. As Prince Hassan of Jordan has observed: to avoid further violence, Iraq needs to be rebuilt within a regional framework which incorporates an ongoing regime of weapons inspections across Western Asia, a clear and internationally-agreed definition of terrorism, and a Muslim benevolent fund (analogous to the Marshall Plan) in order that the region may help its own peoples, including an arrangement whereby international donations would match raised funds.