George Will has called for the withdrawal from Afghanistan. He very simply points to the problem that Bush never did, and Obama has apparently yet to realize:
The U.S. strategy is "clear, hold and build." Clear? Taliban forces can evaporate and then return, confident that U.S. forces will forever be too few to hold gains. Hence nation-building would be impossible even if we knew how, and even if Afghanistan were not the second-worst place to try: The Brookings Institution ranks Somalia as the only nation with a weaker state.
I doubt that many of the reporters covering the Afghanistan occupation could explain the difference between a nation and a state. We have, for so many generations, lived in a nation-state that we've largely forgotten the difference between the two.
The state is the government. It is the police and army who keep order, the civil engineers and legislature who create highway systems, the administrators and teachers who provide education, etc.
The nation is a people who share an identity. In the 1860s, Abraham Lincoln and Otto von Bismarck became legends because they built nations out of a collection of states (Germany was formed out of various states in 1871 and the United States was confirmed in 1865 at the close of the Civil War). It is a slow process to create a sense of national identity. The British resorted to (among other things) King Arthur legends. The Germans had the Brothers Grimm. The Hungarians had Bartok. The stories and shared identity of a nation, a group of people who will willingly submit to a central government, take decades to form in even the best of times. Nation building - creating a US out of states as different as Georgia and Connecticut, or a Germany out of states as different as Bavaria and Prussia - is not obviously the work of armies. It is as much the work of poets and story tellers as it is generals. (And this was a large part of Lincoln's genius - he was able to tell the stories and give the speeches that reassured "Americans" that there was, indeed, such a thing as Americans.)
A nation-state is a people (a nation) who share a government (or state). It is possible for one nation to share many states or for one state to share many nations (an empire, for instance).
Afghanistan is not a nation. It is a collection of tribes. The next line in George Will's column is
Military historian Max Hastings says Kabul controls only about a third of the country -- "control" is an elastic concept -- and " 'our' Afghans may prove no more viable than were 'our' Vietnamese, the Saigon regime."
There was a time in American history when people saw themselves as Virginians but not as Americans. This is true today for the tribal people in Afghanistan. It's not obvious that there is an actual nation in Afghanistan and as a result they have what can only be called a failed state.
I would disagree with George Will's conclusion that we ought to just sit outside the borders and disrupt their military activity with drones and missiles. I still think that there is a role for us - but in very limited ways.
If there is a trick, it would be to find the "people," the tribes or self identified groups, who are ready for help and want to develop. Afghanistan is an idea that British bureaucrats had generations ago (it is the same story in Iraq), and not an idea that has ever seemed to emerge from the people inside its borders.
This will be slow work and will be better done by Peace Corps volunteers than soldiers, I would guess. If Afghanistan were already a nation, our troops would likely do a great job helping to build a state. This is the kind of thing we did well in Germany and Japan after WWII. But given there is no nation there, our troops have almost no chance of building a state.
Last month, American troops suffered their worst level of casualties since the occupation began about 6 or 7 years ago. The reason we have made no progress on the ground is that we have made no progress in defining the mission. The real question is not what is state building. The real question for Afghanistan is what is nation-building and how do we do that. Failing to realize the difference between building a state and building a nation, it is no wonder we have failed to even begin the project.
I am not defeatist about nation building. I think it is a fascinating problem and one that we'll need to address in places like Afghanistan. We don't want another 9-11 and it is cruel to ignore the plight of people who live such nasty and brutish lives. I am not defeatist about nation-building but I'm not at all convinced that it has much to do with state building - or, rather, can depend on just the efforts of troops to build states. We have to stop treating state building and nation building as if they were the same thing and begin the really fascinating conversation about what it would take to engage in nation-building.