Commentary

The Folly of Nation-Building in Afghanistan

By Gary Dempsey
October 17, 2001
The chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Sen. Joseph Biden (D-Del.), recently claimed that an American-led nation-building effort in Central and South Asia is the long-term solution to the terrorism problem. For Biden, this nation-building effort should focus on changing the economic and social climate of Afghanistan and its neighbors, and include something akin to the Marshall Plan’s reconstruction of Europe after World War II. Besides setting an awkward precedent — that harboring terrorists will eventually bring new roads and heaps of foreign aid — Biden’s nation-building recommendation overlooks the obvious: Postwar Afghanistan will look nothing like postwar Germany, or for that matter, postwar Japan.

For starters, the high level of education and industrial know-how in postwar Germany and Japan helped launch an economic recovery in both countries that is inconceivable almost anywhere else. Germany also had a strong tradition of the rule of law, property rights, and free trade before the Nazi era. Japan’s elite embraced an honorific culture that respected and obeyed the wishes of the victor in battle. Afghanistan and its neighbors, in contrast, have little in the way of either liberal traditions or cultural attitudes that are agreeable to massive foreign interference.

What’s more, the leaders of Germany and Japan were not just utterly defeated in war. Their ideology was totally discredited in the eyes of their own people by war’s end. This made both countries prime candidates for nation building. It’s premature to assume the same pattern will hold for the leaders of the Taliban. Radical Islam could remain dominant, and its defenders could be seen as national heroes or martyrs.

Another probable difference: Even before World War II ended, the Germans and Japanese had become amenable to Washington’s policy prescriptions. In fact, according to University of Illinois political scientist Richard Merritt, by the time the war ended, substantial numbers of Germans “were disgusted by what the Nazis had done and increasingly realized that Nazi actions were not accidental but were consistent with and even prefigured by Nazi ideology… . To some measure, then, the American Military Government enjoyed a ready market for its product.” By the end of the war the Japanese, too, had become receptive to profound political change in ways not replicated since.

There’s little evidence the United States will enjoy a “ready market” for its product in Afghanistan. History, in fact, points in the opposite direction. The Afghans did not attack Moscow’s puppet regime in Kabul and fight a war with Soviet invaders in the 1980s because they wanted democracy, liberalism, and free markets. They did it because they opposed forces trying to secularize and modernize their country; i.e., nation build. This presents a major problem for those who would equate nation building in Afghanistan with nation building in postwar Germany or Japan.

Or take Biden’s idea of a Marshall Plan. It is telling that one has to go back more than 50 years to find an example of such a scheme that worked. Similar plans since then have routinely failed. Indeed, since World War II the United States alone has provided $1 trillion in foreign aid to countries around the world. The result? According to the United Nations, 70 of the countries that received aid are poorer today than they were in 1980, and an incredible 43 are worse off than in 1970. Good intentions must be matched by an effective, non-corrupt administration on the receiving end.

The failures are not so surprising if one studies the Marshall Plan experience in detail. If massive government spending could work anywhere, it was in 1948 Europe: Skilled labor was largely available, the rule of law and property rights had a long history, and the customs of a commercial society were recoverable. All it needed was physical capital. But even under those circumstances, there is no real evidence that the Marshall Plan alone was responsible for Europe’s regeneration. U.S. assistance never exceeded 5 percent of the GDP of any recipient nation, and there seemed to be an inverse relationship between economic aid and economic recovery. In fact, France, Germany, and Italy all began to grow before the onset of the Marshall Plan, and Great Britain, the largest recipient of aid, performed the most poorly.

The real lesson of the Marshall Plan is that the rule of law, property rights, free markets, and an entrepreneurial culture are what are necessary for economic success. Afghanistan has none of these things. And well-meaning senators in Washington can’t make it otherwise.