The Folly of Nation Building

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.

Nation-building was initially viewed throughout the 1960s and 1970s as a requisite for "economic development" within newly independent "underdeveloped" countries. From that perspective, a shared sense of nationality provides a basis for regime legitimacy that, in turn, fosters voluntary compliance with government decisions. Because voluntary compliance is more efficient than coerced compliance, legitimacy is important for the effective functioning of sovereign states. Based on that logic, economic "developers" have been attempting to improve the capacity of states with the hope that "nations" will ultimately coalesce around them. Stripped to its foundations, that is the model reflected in McChrystal's approach to nation-building in Afghanistan.

But what has been the broader result of that approach to date? Ninety-three nation-building states still receive concessional Country Programmable Aid (CPA)-$52.5 billion during 2005 and 2006 alone. And for at least 79 percent of those states, nation-building efforts have been ongoing for at least four decades. Yet, a third of those 101 states are included on the Fund for Peace's current failing-states "alert" list-with "warning" status for another fifty-eight.

Whether or not Afghanistan has been the "graveyard of empires" is a matter for poets. But Afghanistan's avoidance of full colonization was due primarily to strategic considerations by the British and Russians rather than the strength of any centralized Afghan government. Nonetheless, the British fought three wars with Afghan rulers in Kabul between 1840 and 1920; were responsible for the state's foreign affairs for the final forty-one years of that period; and launched at least sixty-two military expeditions to quell uprisings in the border region during the four decades between 1849 and 1889 alone.

In the meantime, Afghan rulers in Kabul had their own problems exercising centralized authority. Although recurrent uprisings from one tribe or another were directed against Kabul less often than toward the British, no centralized Afghan government successfully exercised effective authority throughout the entire country. At its most simplistic, opposition to successive Afghan rulers tended to be about tribal autonomy; opposition to the British combined tribal defense of their autonomy with rejection of the non-Muslim colonial government. But it is also true that many tribal leaders and ordinary Muslims cooperated with the British and Afghan emirs-moving in and out of alliances or their employ as local circumstances and interests suggested. Shifting loyalties often led to attacks and counterattacks between those who supported and those who opposed the rulers in Kabul or British Indian government at any given time.

Afghanistan's successive rulers have been attempting to build an effective centralized nation-state for more than 129 years. The first attempt to "modernize" the country followed more than eighty years ago with the introduction of secular education for both girls and boys; discouragement of veils for, and seclusion of, women; and preparation of the first official budget-all of which failed. By the 1930s, a few German technicians and businessmen and Soviet military advisors were residing in Kabul, displaced largely by American financial and technical support for the "modernization" of Afghanistan soon after the end of WWII-including financing irrigation in the Helmand Valley and substantial expansion of Kabul University twenty years later. Indeed, Kabul University played a pivotal role in educating a generation of Afghan Marxist, secular democratic and Muslim "nationalist" leaders. The World Bank followed with its first loan to Afghanistan-for a classic education-modernization project-in 1964; ultimately providing $1.7 billion for fifty-one separate operations. Thus, Afghanistan has been engaged in nation-building for a longer period than all but seven of one hundred other nation-building states. That is the reality in the face of which McChrystal asserts a reasonable chance to "gain the initiative" by securing the "support [of the] people in local communities" within the next critical twelve to twenty-four months.

Turning to that immediate task, we reference the program of the Fund for Peace to define, identify, and assess "failing" states. According to their most recent assessment of Afghanistan covering the year 2008: "all of [its] social indicators either worsened or stayed the same. . . . [Its] uneven development indicator worsened. . . . [and] all of [its] political and military indicators worsened." Importantly, "the indicator for the legitimacy of the state worsened . . . as a result of the government's inability to combat corruption, militant violence, and drug trafficking"-all issues mentioned in the assessment. From a comparative perspective, Afghanistan continues to score very near the bottom on almost any scale established to measure national cohesion or regime effectiveness.