Terms of Engagement

Nation-Building in the Classroom

Has President Obama given up too soon on hopes for fixing Afghanistan?

Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images
Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images

I have spent the last two weeks teaching a class — along with Bruce Jones, director of the Center on International Cooperation — on the increasingly unfashionable topic of nation-building. Bruce and I did what we could to convey the difficulty, not to say the implausibility, of this endeavor by asking the students, from New York University’s Abu Dhabi campus, to focus on ether Afghanistan or Haiti — pathological patients which have resisted virtually every form of treatment available to the nation-building professional. But we never fully dented the kids’ optimism, as they marshaled an impressive series of arguments for more international engagement, be it a second, third, or fourth try.

Experience has certainly dented Barack Obama’s optimism: A president who came to office arguing that failing states constituted a threat to U.S. national security now asserts that the time has come to do nation-building at home rather than abroad. Indeed, the biggest problem with nation-building is that the practice keeps making the theory look bad. Experts like James Dobbins at Rand emphasize that nation-building can work when outside forces put sufficient money and troops into the effort. But then the world pours money into places like Haiti or Afghanistan, or the Congo, and it disappears into quicksand, or people’s pockets. These efforts seem to vindicate critics like William Easterly who insist that development assistance doesn’t work, or scholars like Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson, who argue in Why Nations Fail that dysfunctional political institutions cause states to fail, and outsiders can do very little to help.

But the record is not quite so dreadful as we think, at least if we take in the long view. The last Australian peacekeeping troops recently left Timor Leste — still a desperately poor and miserable place more than 12 years after foreign troops waded ashore — but it’s now standing on its own shaky legs. Both Liberia and Sierra Leone were killing fields not long ago, and now, after major international interventions, they are democratic and ever so slightly hopeful. Nation-building cannot spark prosperity, or infuse legitimacy into a corrupt political order; but it can build the capacity of feeble states, and give them the breathing room to establish their own bona fides.

And this brings me to Afghanistan. As I wrote recently, the stated willingness of White House officials to remove all U.S. troops from Afghanistan, and to do so rapidly, implies that the administration has already achieved its goal of degrading al Qaeda — Obama said as much while standing with Afghan president Hamid Karzai earlier this month — and is now prepared to let Afghanistan sink or swim on its own. Yet Obama has also committed the United States to spending about $6 billion a year in Afghanistan for training and aid even after the troops go home in 2014. I wonder, given all the talk about nation-building at home, how the president will justify the need for all that money sent overseas.

It’s important to understand that what Obama has been doing in Afghanistan is not exactly nation-building; it’s "stabilization." The counterinsurgency strategy he authorized in late 2009 envisioned an influx of civilian officials and funds into the most contested parts of the country in order to improve local governance and increase prosperity — so as to win the loyalty of the Afghan people and marginalize the Taliban. This was nation-building-in-a-box; and it failed. One study after another has found that the civilian effort has not produced a change in the mindset of ordinary Afghans, save perhaps to make them more hostile to the foreign presence or the Afghan government. What’s more, aid that could have been spent effectively in more peaceful areas has been lavished on the most dangerous provinces, Kandahar, Helmand, and Uruzgun, where gains are most at risk of evaporating when international troops leave.

Aid-as-stabilization was bound to fail, since the kind of behavioral changes aid seeks to promote happen far too slowly to suit U.S. military objectives. And yet aid-as-nation-building has not altogether failed. In 2002, 900,000 children, all boys, were enrolled in school in Afghanistan; now the figure is 8 million, 40 percent of them girls. Access to basic health services has gone from 9 percent of the population to 60 percent. Life expectancy is reported to have increased 15 years over the last decade (though public health scholars have disputed the reliability of the figures.) Of course, the cataract of money that the United States has poured into Afghanistan over the last decade was bound to do some good, but we should bear in mind that only $16 billion of the over $500 billion which we’ve spent there has been channeled through the U.S. Agency for International Development.

Afghanistan doesn’t discredit the case for aid; it discredits the case for conscripting aid into short-term military goals. The COIN imperative has not only directed money away from the regions where it could have the best effect, it has also dictated that much of it is devoted to ambitious development or public-works projects carried out by American non-profits and private companies outside the control of the Afghan government. Such "off-budget" spending is immensely wasteful; a recent World Bank report concluded that only 10-20 percent of such funds actually reach Afghanistan, as opposed to 70-80 percent of money given to the Afghan government. And of course it does nothing to strengthen the government, allegedly the ultimate goal of the program.

This is not as illogical as it sounds. Because, as Acemoglu and Robinson convincingly argue, poor institutions play a central role in state failure, host governments are often too weak, or too corrupt, to entrust with large-scale projects. And Afghanistan is Exhibit A for weak-state syndrome. Nevertheless, my students, bless their idealistic hearts, organized their presentation on Afghanistan around the theme of empowering Afghans in their own development — for example, by increasing Afghan entrepreneurs’ access to financing and Western expertise. Self-sufficiency is, after all, the best exit strategy; it just requires a great deal of patience, the one commodity the Pentagon isn’t blessed with.

Now the military is leaving. With the COIN phase coming to an end, the United States can afford to focus on the slow work of enhancing local capacity which is the sine qua non of nation-building. Alex Thier, the USAID official responsible for Afghanistan and Pakistan, says that the administration is well aware of the need to encourage Afghan self-sufficiency, and has been channeling increasing sums through the more capable ministries, like the Ministry of Public Health. Thier also says that USAID has begun to spend far more of its funds outside the conflict zones.

Thier argues that the advances in Afghan well-being enabled by U.S. and international aid have already helped stabilize the country. We’ll see what happens when U.S. forces withdraw from Helmand and Kandahar; news accounts have emphasized the enduring popular, and ubiquity, of the Taliban in the disputed south. The irony is that the new strategy of directly funding the Afghan government may do more to stabilize the country than have the off-budget projects dictated by the COIN strategy. The $16 billion which the United States and other donors have pledged to give Afghanistan over the next four years represents a big drop in total aid; but because donors promised that half the funds would be sent through Kabul, the government should be more able to pay for its commitments than it has in the past. And 80 percent of the funds will be aligned with Kabul’s own priorities. That is an important vote of confidence — deserved or not — for a government desperately seeking legitimacy with its own people.

With the threat of terrorism receding along Afghanistan’s border with Pakistan but growing in North Africa and elsewhere, I’m not sure that Obama can come up with a compelling national-security rationale for the long-term commitment to Afghanistan he’s undertaken. In any case, his heart is plainly no longer in it. But I would offer something simpler: We got Afghanistan into this mess, and we should do what we can to help get it out.

James Traub is a regular contributor to Foreign Policy, a fellow at the Center on International Cooperation, and author of the book "John Quincy Adams: Militant Spirit."

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