If Afghanistan’s failing does that mean nation building is impossible? No.

If Afghanistan’s failing does that mean nation building is impossible? No.

In response to my last post about why realists should support nation building, some readers responded with a curious argument: Afghanistan (they believe) is failing, therefore nation building is impossible. Set aside the fact that this is does not respond to my argument — which was not about Afghanistan and did not argue that nation building is easy, only that it can serve our interests when done right — it strikes me as a lazy argument to condemn nation building on the basis of a single example. I call this the Somalia Fallacy.

According to the Somalia Fallacy, the failure of the U.N.’s effort to rebuild Somalia in the 1990s proves that all nation building interventions are doomed to fail. It is the favored argument of pundits who want to argue against overseas interventions. Fareed Zakaria gave perfect expression to the Somalia Fallacy in a Washington Post column in July. "The trouble with trying to fix failed states is that it implicates the United States in a vast nation building effort in countries where the odds of success are low and the risk of unintended consequences is very high. Consider Somalia…" Zakaria then retells the recent history of that unfortunate state, and concludes "Somalia highlights the complexity of almost every approach to failed states."

Well, no, it doesn’t. Somalia is not a useful historical analogy from which to generalize about failed states (and neither is Afghanistan). To make a useful generalization, you’d want to start with a typical failed state, or, better yet, several of them. Somalia is not a typical failed state: it is an extreme outlier. It has been the most completely failed state on earth for almost two decades. On top of that, the U.N. mission in Somalia in the early 1990s was not a typical U.N. intervention: it was a singularly, uniquely inept one. Deploy an inept U.N. mission to the most failed state and you have the recipe for a famous catastrophe, not have a blueprint for how all interventions are doomed to play out.

Most armed interventions deployed to improve a failed state’s government capabilities — whether you call it nation building or something else — do not have to contend with Somalian levels of anarchy. The United States and the United Nations have learned by watching the big failures (in Angola and Liberia as much as Somalia), and operate with a measure of greater sophistication. The track record has actually improved since the early 1990s. The failures have been big, public, and humiliating, but the United States and the United Nations have also racked up better outcomes in Namibia, Mozambique, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Guatemala, Bosnia, Croatia, Kosovo, East Timor, Liberia (the second time around), Sierra Leone (which came back from the brink of failure), and possibly Burundi.

Few of those countries are fully rebuilt, modern, stable, liberal democracies. Most are not particularly nice places to live. But the international interventions changed their trajectories. They are better off now than they were at the nadir of their respective wars and failures. That makes a real difference in human lives and is usually good enough to secure whatever interests led us to intervene in the first place.

There is still the obvious question: how do you do nation building in a country, like Afghanistan, that looks a lot more like Somalia, Liberia, and Angola than Bosnia, Nicaragua, or Mozambique? The Somalia analogy doesn’t work as a parable for nation building generally, but does it apply to Afghanistan? That is an excellent question for a future post — but let me start by noting that poverty and violence are only half of the equation. The size, strategy, and mandate of the intervention are the other half. While the circumstances of state failure in Afghanistan look like Somalia, the design of the intervention (130,000 troops, more than $50 billion in aid, a decade of effort) looks more like Bosnia, on steroids. That’s an interesting and largely unprecedented mix. More on that later.

The broader point, Afghanistan aside, is that liberals, paleoconservatives, and others are writing a version of history that says failed states cannot be fixed; nation building always fails; and we should reduce our ambitions. Somalia, Vietnam, and a handful of other cases are duly trotted out to serve as talking points. The argument provides convenient cover for our desire to see an end to the wars and to avoid shouldering uncomfortable responsibilities. But it does not have the virtue of being true.