The United States has spent nearly a trillion dollars over the past ten years, fighting two wars in vastly different places. A small portion of this effort has been dedicated to what has commonly been called nation-building. In fact, U.S. mission has been a mixture of both state-building, which further develops the institutions of government, and nation-building, which constructs roads, schools and other projects. This approach is not entirely new, but these initiatives have become an important and accepted paradigm for the conduct of war in this century.
Generally, in Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States has engaged in limited state-building rather than nation-building. U.S. efforts, so far, have concentrated on building the security infrastructure. This infrastructure of military and police serves to provide security and prop up U.S.-friendly governments rather than build the political and economic infrastructure for sustainable economic reconstruction and democratic institutions.
In the 20th century, the United States made a name for itself in the nation-building business in Europe and Asia. But these efforts have been superseded in this century by a unilateral and, at times, questionably moral enterprise, exemplified in U.S. actions in Iraq and repeated, mistake for mistake, in Afghanistan.
U.S. involvement in nation-building endeavors began after the Second World War. Early efforts in Germany and Japan were largely successful and morally justified. The actions were based on the need to protect many countries, including U.S., from the domination of an ideology that lacked respect for the moral value of individuals and the collective value of states.
The successful nation-building experiments in Germany and Japan, however, did not serve as a prototype for Afghanistan and Iraq. The modern concept of humanitarian intervention to be used along with military force began during Bill Clinton's presidency when he sent troops to Somalia.
The presumption was that the United States had no vital interest in Somalia but felt compelled to help on moral grounds. However, nation-building in Somalia failed for lack of resources. In Kosovo and Bosnia, however, U.S. had modest successes in nation-building with better resources.
As U.S. endeavors into nation- and state-building gained acceptance, scholars and practitioners have advanced a number of theories about the conduct of nation-building and the importance of specific factors for success.
James Dobbins, for instance, considers nation-building to be "the use of armed force in the aftermath of conflict to underpin a transition to democracy." Francis Fukuyama outlines the consensus on the practical steps for nation-building: re-establishing security, reconstruction of political authority, and economic and political development.
While these goals are reasonable, they are difficult to achieve. Each component in nation-building depends on several factors, with the most important being the moral component for why nation-building is being conducted in that country.
Stabilization and economic reconstruction are essential but even more so is legitimacy. Acceptance of occupation by the local population figures in many theories of nation-building. This is as much a moral principle as a pragmatic consideration. And yet the moral legitimacy of the enterprise, reflected in local acceptance and participation, has often been an afterthought, as was the case in Iraq.
Larry Diamond, who first supported and then became disenchanted with the war in Iraq, eventually recognized that the "deep Iraqi suspicions of American motives combined with the memory of Arabs' historical confrontation with Western colonialism and their resentment of the U.S. stance in the Israeli-Palestinian struggle to generate a massive legitimacy gap for the occupation."
Complicating matters further, it took the United States nearly two years to bring indigenous Iraqis into the structure of their newly formed government. Questionable intentions, combined with faulty execution, made a mess of U.S. forays into nation-building in the dawn of this new century.
Nation-building in Afghanistan has barely materialized, despite the toppling of the Taliban in 2001. The United States neglected nation-building in Afghanistan and provided little, if any, resources for it at the beginning of the war. In contrast, the United States committed 25 times more money and 50 times more troops per capita in Kosovo than in Afghanistan.
As America looks at many difficult options in Afghanistan, Americans should learn lessons from mistakes made in Iraq, while also attending to the vast differences between the two countries. One key mistake was to ignore the rebuilding of the destroyed social fabric and economic infrastructure of Iraq and focus almost exclusively on security forces. Today, Iraq is no more stable — or economically prosperous — than it was in the first months after the war in 2003.
This failure in nation-building occurred even though Iraq had several advantages that made success more likely, including a large, educated professional class and a civil administration. In contrast, Afghanistan has neither a large educated professional class nor basic modern infrastructure. Iraq can rely on large oil revenues, while Afghanistan does not produce much for export except for opium.
In Iraq, the Bush administration under-resourced the reconstruction and denied both the U.S. State Department and the United Nations much of a role in this process. Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as other Muslim nations, have had a brutal experience with foreigners for centuries.
This experience has led Iraqis to be inhospitable to foreign troops. The simple fact that Iraqi culture cannot thrive with foreign boots on the ground escaped many supporters of the war in Iraq. The result has been continued resistance, even up to the spate of recent bombings.
Currently in Afghanistan, partially because of the brutality of the Taliban, its population is not as virulently opposed to the U.S. presence as the Iraqis. However, the lack of a full understanding of the cultural context may still lead to fatal mistakes. The fatal mistake in Afghanistan was the Bush administration's lack of understanding of the sovereign nature of Afghan's government.
Although early on U.S. advanced the notion of self-government, in practice the Karzai government remained a "puppet to American interests", some analysts say. This arrangement robbed the new Afghan government of its legitimacy. The presence of resources is absolutely essential in a place like Afghanistan.
Unfortunately, despite the rhetoric of the Bush administration about a Marshall plan for Afghanistan, this was the most poorly resourced American venture into nation-building in more than sixty years. Can nation-building, as it is currently conceived, convert a tribal nation into a modern state? Does the United States have the resources, manpower and will to sustain such an effort? Nation-building efforts in Afghanistan seem to fall into two equally ill-advised categories.
Some advocate nation building at the point of a gun. Others suggest the best way to build a state is to abandon the country, and leave it to the citizens to build their own state. But for nation-building to succeed in Afghanistan, the United States must find a third way between force and indifference.
Nation-building in Afghanistan should have three pillars. First, the nation-building effort should have an international face, with participation by the UN and other countries in the region, rather than the United States and NATO alone.
Second, the United States should maintain the maximum number of troops possible in Afghanistan while maintaining the right to disrupt Taliban and Al-Qaeda bases. Third, the effort should concentrate on training the local population for self-sufficiency, so that Afghans are able to manage their country and develop institutional infrastructure.
The Afghan people must have a large stake in shaping and running their country. An annual $10 billion dollar fund for nation-building efforts in Afghanistan would be a more productive way to provide for Afghanistan's development than spending five times that amount on waging war in the country each year.
Assistance programs paid for by the fund would operate outside of these host nations. A minimal number of technical trainers and advisors, accompanied by security forces, would be sufficient for internal operations. Efforts should focus on building schools, roads, hospitals, and other primary components of infrastructure.