Commentary

Flirting With Nation-Building in Afghanistan

The introduction of commando forces in Afghanistan marks the second phase of U.S. military operations there. Washington’s short-term objective appears to be the same as during the air-strike phase: the destruction of Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda terrorist network and the destabilization of Afghanistan’s extremist Taliban regime. Those should remain America’s war aims, and they will be difficult enough to achieve. Recently, though, Secretary of State Colin Powell and other officials in the Bush administration have begun to hint at another objective.

Behind the scenes, U.S. diplomatic efforts are underway to influence the composition of a post-Taliban government. There are reports that U.S. leaders have slowed the pace of the U.S. military campaign lest the Taliban collapse before an alternative regime is ready to take power. Such a flirtation with nation-building is both unwise and unnecessary. One might hope that U.S. officials had learned from the disastrous experiments in nation-building in Somalia, Haiti, and Bosnia. In all three cases, the United States led international campaigns to foster national unity and help create stable, functioning governments.

Despite years of work and billions of dollars, the efforts failed big-time in all three cases. Somalia is as politically fractured and chaotic today as when the first U.S. troops went ashore in December 1992. The U.S. intervention in Haiti ousted a corrupt, violent military dictatorship. But today Haiti is ruled by an equally corrupt, violent dictatorship run by the dominant Lavalas Party. Despite an ongoing occupation by thousands of NATO troops to implement the Dayton peace agreement, Bosnia is still divided among three ethnic factions. It is no closer to being a viable country today than it was when Dayton was signed in November 1995. Somalia, Haiti, and Bosnia all have woeful economies that barely function.

Afghanistan is no more promising as a candidate for nation-building than those other three countries. For more than 20 years it has been plagued by civil war. The fighting has created millions of refugees and destroyed what modest economy the country had before. Afghanistan can hardly be called a “nation” at all. The three most prominent ethnic factions—the Pashtuns in the south and the Tajiks and Uzbeks in the north— barely tolerated each other during the best of times. Not surprisingly, they are on opposite sides in the current civil war. The Taliban draws the bulk of its support from the Pashtuns (the largest bloc) while the rival Northern Alliance gets most of its strength from the Tajiks and Uzbeks.

Washington apparently hopes for an effort under the auspices of the United Nations to form a broad coalition government to replace the Taliban. Reports have surfaced of negotiations to broaden the Northern Alliance by bringing in non-Taliban Pashtun political leaders. Some U.S. officials have dropped hints about enticing “moderate” Taliban factions to join such a coalition. The capstone to such a scheme is the proposal to invite Mohamed Zahir, the Afghan king who was ousted in the mid-1970s, to return to the throne.

Such a plan is ill conceived. First of all, the notion of “moderates” in the ranks of the Taliban is absurd. The Taliban is the most bizarre, extreme movement in Islam. Even the most moderate members would be considered wild extremists in any other setting.

Secondly, although the proposal to bring back the king has some superficial appeal, it must be remembered that he was often an erratic and difficult figure when he occupied the throne. Now that he is well into his 80s, he is not likely to be any easier to work with. Finally, and most important, the ingredients for national unity are not present. The long-standing antipathy of the Pashtuns, Tajiks, and Uzbeks (and assorted other tribes) is not going to end because of a U.S. or U.N. nation-building presence.

Although the United States should not stand in the way if Afghanistan’s neighbors and the U.N. want to conduct an experiment in nation-building, America should not be part of such a venture. Indeed, U.S. participation might heighten fears about “American imperialism” among populations in the Islamic world. Moreover, it is not necessary for the United States to step into the quicksand of nation-building in Afghanistan.

America’s security interests do not require the existence of a stable, democratic government in Kabul, and such a regime is not likely to emerge in any case. America’s security interests require only that whatever government controls any portion of Afghanistan not harbor and assist terrorists the way the Taliban has. That is the ultimatum that Washington should give to any post-Taliban rulers.

Refrain from supporting anti-American terrorists and the United States will not interfere in the country’s internal politics. But harbor terrorists and the United States will mete out the same treatment to the new regime that it is now giving to the Taliban.

It is a deal that any rational Afghan government would likely accept. And from the standpoint of America’s best interests, it makes more sense than to become mired in yet another futile nation-building mission.

Ted Galen Carpenter is Vice President for Defense and Foreign Policy Studies.