The Folly of Nation Building

The United States doesn’t really know how to build nations anywhere, even when security conditions are relatively good. How can we expect to succeed in Afghanistan?

Whatever other assertions might be made, the official mission statement of NATO's International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan is: "to provide a secure environment for sustainable stability . . . observable to the population" by "conduct[ing] operations . . . to reduce the capability of and will of the insurgency, support the growth in capacity and capability of the Afghan National Security Forces . . . and facilitate improvements in governance and socio-economic development. . . ." The most popular label for that broader objective is "nation-building." The recently leaked version of General Stanley McChrystal's assessment of the situation in Afghanistan-and the current debate that has ensued-clearly assumes that the technology for "building nations" is known and the primary role of military forces is to provide sufficient security to enable our nation-builders to accomplish that task. But what if we don't really know how to build nations-even when security conditions are relatively good?

As a political scientist directly engaged for almost half a century in operational efforts to "build nations" in more than forty countries-including about five years in Vietnam and much more briefly in Iraq-it seems to me that there is an awful lot of wish fulfillment going on. To be fair, the quality of McChrystal's assessment of current "insurgent enablers and vulnerabilities" is professional and accurate. By contrast however, the solutions offered are woefully inadequate-consisting of several assertions about political causes and effects derived from a counter-insurgency doctrine (COIN) that is long on logic and short on experience. Thus, the general's assessment is remarkable for the complete absence of references to lessons learned from other conflicts that might be applicable to this one. Granted, that should be read in the broader context of the military's current COIN doctrine, a central tenet of which is echoed by McChrystal's argument that "the greatest risk we can accept is to lose the support of the people. . . . If the people are against us, we cannot be successful. If the people view us as occupiers and the enemy, we can't be successful. . . ." But whether harking back to T. E. Lawrence's Seven Pillars of Wisdom, Sir Robert Thompson's Defeating Communist Insurgency, or the proliferating literature on "nation-building" during the 1950s and 1960s as applied in Vietnam, the strategic success of current counterinsurgency doctrine remains almost entirely theoretical.

Reducing civilian casualties, having officers foreswear side arms and body armor when visiting Afghani district or provincial governors, providing basic services, and sharing information more widely among tactical allies are all laudable. But it also reflects a view of Afghanis as politically infantile without fundamental political passions of their own. More realistically, such tactical measures have impact at the political margins and are unlikely to generate the critical mass of active support-or calculated cooperation-required to turn the war around. As McChrystal himself instructed subordinates during a recent 60 Minutes broadcast: "the question is not whether we're making progress [but] . . . whether we're making enough progress fast enough." And key to measuring progress is identification of valid indicators-preferably based on relevant comparative benchmarks.

The struggle in Afghanistan is most often compared-when it is compared at all-to previous forays into Vietnam, Bosnia Herzagovina, and/or Iraq. But experiences in those states have little relevance if, as recently posed by Senator Evan Bayh, the fundametnal question is whether or not Afghanistan can become a "coherent nation-state" within any reasonable period of time. The answer to that question should be based on comparisons to the achievements of as many other "nation-building" states as possible. So how does Afghanistan's record and prospects compare to 101 other countries that have been "nation built" over the past few decades?

The term "nation-building" is increasingly thrown around and debated, but is never much defined. For many social scientists, "nation-building" means something along the lines of "a process whereby a sense of common identity emerges among a people who, whether based on ethnic, cultural or other considerations, desire to govern themselves." However, in the common parlance of today's talking heads, it seems to imply an externally induced process directed toward the development of a national identity coincident with a people's citizenship in a particular-already legally recognized-sovereign state. In those terms, nation building is all about establishing the foundations of a nation-state where those conditions have not emerged naturally during the last three hundred and fifty years.

The objective of transforming Afghanistan into a state that reflects both a legally recognized status and a socio-political reality is the most ambitious exercise in social engineering imaginable. Notwithstanding attempts by local demagogues to invent wholly or largely fictitious "nationalities" around the world, a sense of common nationality is seldom the result of a process designed and implemented by outsiders and, therefore, it is entirely unrealistic to view that process as a tactic to be employed to achieve other economic or political objectives. But that has essentially been the view of nation-building held by economic development and global-strategy decision makers since the 1960s.