01 September 2009

Failed State or Failed Nation? Out of Afghanistan

Next time you are at a dinner party, or in a group of people talking politics, try this question: "What do you mean by nation building?" It is, presumably, our mission in Afghanistan and Iraq. And it is a term we barely understand as a concept, much less as a project. The failure in Afghanistan is a failure to distinguish between a nation and a state. We are seemingly trying to build a state atop a set of tribes rather than an actual nation. It is little wonder that the state is unstable.

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.

6 comments:

Big Al said...

As usual, extremely well-crafted blog entry, Ron. Here's my question: what is our goal, or set of goals, for our having a military presence in Afghanistan? What problem are we solving by being there?

In my work I attend numerous internal meetings where folks make a presentation about work they're doing. If there's a Table of Contents at the beginning of the presentation, I expect to see the 1st Agenda item to be a 'Problem Statement'. If no Agenda slide, then right after the Title slide I expect to see the 'Problem Statement'. If no Problem Statement, I immediately ask the purpose of the presentation: addressing an issue? pitching a new product? what? Same question for our presence in Afghanistan. If the answer is "to fight terrorism", my response would be, "there's terrorism in Afghanistan? What are the terrorist acts there? Thought all the terrorism was happening in the States?"

To me, our presence is Afghanistan needs to be qualified by having Goals w/success metrics on constitutes DONE.

David said...

Big Al needs to travel to Afghanistan to witness terrorism up close and personal. Here is is Al: the Taliban are terrorists.

However, he has a real point about addressing the problem statement. Here's a problem statement: "there's no problem statement."

I'm with you (and George Will) on this one Ron. It amazed me that for years people have wanted more troops in Afghanistan and fewer in Iraq.

In Japan and Germany we destroyed their countries and killed their leaders or they surrendered. So then we helped re-build their countries call it what you will, set up new governments, etc. We occupied them and kept order and kept them on track toward agreed upon goals. We hung around.

I can't see the parallels. We're not doing anything close to that in Afghanistan nor do we intend to.

I think there's another reason for our being in that country and for calling for additional troops.

I know. Oooooh. A conspiracy theorist.

Lifehiker said...

I've thought about this a lot, too, and the idea that we can build a nation or a state is ridiculous. However, that place could be very dangerous for us if left under Taliban control.

I've heard enough non-government people talk about the Taliban and their not-so-loose alliance with Al Queda to know that we can't afford to leave a sanctuary there.

I'm hoping all this military stuff is being conducted to get the Taliban's undivided attention. If some kind of deal can be done where the Taliban agrees to keep foreign terrorists out of Afganistan, I'd be fine with our guys coming home.

How likely is that? I wouldn't put my money on it, but there really is no good solution for that sorry place.

Big Al said...

David, thank you for the lesson. I did some reading and now understand.

I have a nephew in the Army. He had a short stint in Afghanistan 3 years ago where his role was as the liaison between the Army and the local government leaders. Brian wrote once that he didn't really know what the heck we were doing over there . . . the elders he interfaced with stoned most of the time, and part of the Army's supposed "job" was to round up and dispose of (read: burn) all the hashish grown in those parts. My sister reminded him to always stand upwind. But Brian stated the locals he knew were very simple, kind folk. I understand not all of Afghanistan is that way, but if enough of the peoples there are, I now see how easy it is for the Taliban to run the country.

Again, what are we hoping to accomplish by having troops in Afghanistan? Fight the Taliban on their home turf? The fighting will only incite more fighting and help to increase Taliban recruiting. And by some miracle what if we do oust the Taliban . . . where do they go? Same with Al Queda. As long as we keep troops in the Mideast, we'll help both the Taliban and Al Queda in their recruiting. Wouldn't we be better served to maybe quarantine and blockade those countries until either the Taliban & Al Queda destroy every one and then each other or until the locals rise up and kill the terrorists themselves? I hate that innocent people are being victimized but it seems that our military presence in these countries only makes things worse, not better. I wish there were some way we could simply shut them off from the rest of the world, like shutting off water and food to a plant, leaving it to shrivel up and die. Not a pretty picture but it's incredibly frustrating not just to witness the natives die but also watch our own men and women in the military suffer and die in a country where terrorists feed off our mere presence there.

Gypsy at Heart said...

There is a basic difference between Iraq and Afghanistan, Iraq was a war of choice, Afghanistan is a war of need. Why is there a need for US troops to war in Afghanistan, particularly, to war against the Taliban/Al-Quaeda in Afghanistan? First and foremost, they restrain the Taliban/Al-Quaeda from taking over Pakistan. Think of the consequences of that not being the case. Pakistan falls to the Taliban and you have them be the masters of a nuclear-armed state. Let's say that this consideration alone where not a concern, what IF just Afghanistan falls to the Taliban? So what right?

Well, if Afghanistan falls then quite likely Saudi Arabia falls to Al-Qaeda/Taliban too. The largest reserves of oil in the world now in Al-Qaeda's hands. Nuclear weapons and the foremost supply of fossil fuel now belongs to them. Nightmare scenario no?

It is a simplistic and very narrow view to think that this war is only of the Middle East or that to pull out magically erases a support upon which the Taliban/Al-Qaeda relies to continue indoctrinating and converting its Wahabi-minded militants.

Wahabists (the most radical of Islamists) think their way of practicing Islam as the only true way. They are fanatics who oppose anything Western, any interpretation of Islam other than their own.

British author Thomas Hope, who has written at length about the spread of Wahabism throughout the Middle East says that Wahabists are basically extremist puritans aiming to take over the Muslim world. Think of that. Al-Qaeda mastering the Muslim world.

The problem of course is that containing the spread of the Taliban/Al-Qaeda/Wahabists is like tackling the Hydra. All the US can do is keep on cutting as many heads as fast as it can before time runs out and it has to pull its troops out of Afghanistan. Which eventually it will have to do because US presence in that part of the world is unsustainable.

The question is, will they have decimated the movement enough to check their terrorist endeavors so that another Madrid bombing or London Tube explosions OR another 9/11 never take place again... your guess on that, is as good as mine.

Big Al said...

Gypsy, very confusing. On the one hand we should stay in Afghanistan to prevent the Taliban & Al Queda from taking over the nation and then possibly moving into Pakistan to do the same. On the other hand we can't stay in Afghanistan because our presence there is unsustainable. So we hope to cut enough heads off the Hydra so they won't grow back? Tough position, for sure.

What about the old adage of if they bring a knife to a fight we bring a gun, if they plan to injure, we plan to kill? In other words, we (U.S.) should hit them harder than they hit us. But do we have the fortitude to do that? Can our nation, can our people support being "one up" on these terrorists, in other words brutally murdering them before they can launch further terrorist attacks? If I'm correct, I believe the last time we "one-upped" a country was when we dropped the nuclear bombs on Japan. But even then I believe only the scientists had an inkling of what we were unleashing while the government and of course the rest of our nation probably thought the nuclear bomb was merely a very powerful explosive.

But still, are we brave & ruthless enough as a nation to put into action brutality so fierce that we possibly strike fear in the hearts of Taliban / Al Queda troops? I don't know that we are.