The United States has spent nearly a trillion dollars over the past seven 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, our 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 But these efforts have been superseded in this century by a unilateral and, at times, questionably moral enterprise, exemplified in our actions in Iraq and repeated, mistake for mistake, in Afghanistan.

An Evolving Approach

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 our own, 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 proto-type for Iraq and Afghanistan.

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, our nation-building in Somalia failed for lack of resources. In Kosovo and Bosnia, however, we had modest successes in nation-building with better resources.

As our 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 invasion of Iraq, eventually recognized that the “[d]eep 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 our forays into nation-building in the dawn of this new century.

Lessons Learned

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. Only in the past six months, under the Obama administration, has U.S. leadership seemed to remember that counterinsurgency requires nation-building and the resources necessary to achieve such a goal.

As we look at our many difficult options in Afghanistan, we should learn our 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 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 foreign occupiers for centuries. This experience has led Iraqis to be inhospitable to foreign occupiers. The simple fact that Iraqi culture cannot thrive with foreign boots on the ground escaped many supporters of the invasion of 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 we advanced the notion of self-government, in practice the Karzai government remained a puppet to American interests. 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,” according to James Dobbins. 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, like Peter Bergen, advocate nation building at the point of a gun. Others, like Leslie Gelb, 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.

New Direction

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 least number of troops possible in Afghanistan while maintaining the right to disrupt 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.

The bulk of the aid should be used to educate thousands of Afghans at foreign educational and training institutions. Students should have the option to go to any country — United States, China, India — with a strong educational system and expertise in focus areas such as science, medicine, law, accounting, and engineering. If the United States had launched such a program during the initial phase of the nation-building effort in Afghanistan, we would currently have thousands of educated and trained Afghans capable of helping to rebuild their nation. To prevent a brain drain of educated Afghans, the program would require participants to return to Afghanistan after the completion of their studies.

As greater numbers of Afghans return to their country, they will interact with and mobilize their fellow citizens to build a functioning democracy and economy. If they bomb schools and hospitals built by Afghans rather than foreign forces, the Taliban’s isolation would increase even further. To achieve success in Afghanistan, nation-building has to occur with minimal foreign presence and maximum local engagement.

Nation-building in Afghanistan must look very different than that in Iraq. The U.S. short-term interest of degrading and/or eliminating al-Qaeda in Afghanistan has to be achieved with external pressure and the support of the local population. Further, we must adapt to current realities, including the fact that many al-Qaeda bases are actually in Pakistan.

Because of America’s dysfunctional politics, politicians rarely support long-term collaborative efforts. As a result, current counterinsurgency doctrine promotes nation-building under the aegis of the military. But dressing all of our foreign activities in military uniform will not help us achieve the long-term goal of a more tight-knit, more cooperative international community.

Nation-building must be conducted by the people of nations concerned. This process will take decades, but that is no different than the current manner of military-led nation-building. The education of future generations will provide the nourishment for prosperous and democratic systems of government in Afghanistan. There are no shortcuts to modernity, as the case of Iraq demonstrates. To help Afghanistan, we must paradoxically engage over the long term and yet also engage from a distance so that the Afghan people are the creators of their new nation.

Adil E. Shamoo is a senior analyst at Foreign Policy In Focus and a professor at the University of Maryland School of Medicine. He writes on ethics and public policy. He can be reached at ashamoo [at] umaryland [dot] edu or on his website .

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