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How to Win Afghanistan? Nation Building.

How to Win Afghanistan? Nation Building.


General David Petraeus, Commander of the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan, told Congress this week "I am concerned that funding for our State Department and USAID partners will not sufficiently enable them to build on the hard-fought security achievements of our men and women in uniform.  Inadequate resourcing of our civilian partners could, in fact, jeopardize accomplishment of the overall mission."

Congressional testimony is usually bland and does not often contain any real news.  Petraeus’ remarks mostly wrote themselves:  he started by announcing that the Taliban’s momentum "has been arrested," but progress is "fragile and reversible."  You might as well say "Progress Made, Challenges Remain."  Nothing new here.

But then Petraeus came out with that bombshell about funding for civilians near the end of his testimony.  He could not have been more stark.  We will lose the war in Afghanistan unless we pony up more money for our civilian efforts-which is to say, for nation building.

Nation building, as I’ve argued earlier, is not international charity.  It is not a superfluous and dispensable exercise in appeasing western guilt, an expensive tribute to humanitarianism, or an act of unvarnished selflessness and goodwill.  Nation building is a response to the threat of failed states that threaten regional stability.  It is a pragmatic exercise of hard power to protect vital national interests.  In the context of Afghanistan, nation building is the civilian side of counterinsurgency, the primary objective of which is to "foster the development of effective governance by a legitimate government," according to the Counterinsurgency Field Manual Petraeus wrote.

Afghanistan’s weakness threatens America’s security.  State failure, chaos, or Taliban rule in Afghanistan will provide a safe haven for al-Qaida, destabilize western Pakistan and endanger its nuclear weapons, become a worldwide headquarters for narcotics traffickers, discredit NATO, invite Iranian and Russian adventurism, and sully self-government and civil liberties in the Muslim world.  We must rebuild Afghanistan to prevent these catastrophic outcomes.

There are no practical alternatives.  Vice President Biden and a growing chorus of others believe we should give up rebuilding Afghanistan and, instead, sustain an indefinite worldwide assassination campaign against al Qaida’s senior leaders.  His view of the war is myopic, narrow, and troubling.  Such a campaign would do nothing to address Pakistan, the drug trade, NATO, the other great powers, or any of our other interests across South Asia.  It is also morally troubling — it amounts to a declaration that we reserve the right to kill anyone we deem to be a terrorist, anywhere in the world, forever.  Call it the Biden Doctrine of the Forever War.  States should not maintain a state of war indefinitely just because it is too inconvenient to settle the political conditions that led to the war in the first place.  War should be the last resort, not the first.

Nation building in Afghanistan is the only pragmatic policy option that will secure the full range of our interests in South Asia and yield an actual end-point to the war, which is why Petraeus is right to be alarmed about the funding levels for our civilians.  They are the ones who are acting as embedded advisors to Afghan ministers; helping set up local dispute-resolution councils in provinces and districts; dispensing funds for Afghans to build roads, schools, and hospitals; training Afghans on electric power plant maintenance; and helping cut deals between rival Afghan politicians in Kabul.  These things are, in fact, vital war aims because they help create stability in Afghanistan and, thus, South Asia.  Under-funding these efforts amounts to trying to kill our way out of the insurgency, which we all know is impossible. 

Plenty of critics challenge this assessment on the grounds that it can’t be done-because nation building is impossible, because Afghanistan is ungovernable, because we’ve already lost, because Karzai is corrupt and illegitimate, because the Afghans are invincible warriors who will inevitably defeat any foreigners, etc.  I’ve responded to most of these objections elsewhere (see here, here, and here for starters).  I might also invoke the ethos of the Seabees in World War II:  "the difficult we do immediately.  The impossible takes a little longer."  No one said rebuilding Afghanistan would be easy; but foreign policy isn’t supposed to be easy.  If it were, we’d have world peace by now.

Finally, there is another reason to stick it out in Afghanistan, a reason that is often overlooked or simply discounted by critics.  Helping the Afghans is the right thing to do.  Afghanistan was the worst country on earth in 2001.  We dithered about for the better part of a decade before coming to our senses around 2007-8 and started putting out even a half-hearted effort.  If today we can do no better than to walk away and leave the place a shambles, it will be a national disgrace.  The Afghans deserve better.