Foreign Policy Briefing No. 81

At a Crossroads in Afghanistan: Should the United States Be Engaged in Nation Building?

By Subodh Atal
September 24, 2003

Executive Summary

Despite progress in the return of refugees and the prevention of humanitarian disasters, stability in Afghanistan is threatened by ethnic tension, feuding warlords, and violence perpetrated by regrouping elements of the Taliban and their allies. The United States is being asked to increase its level of commitment to rebuilding Afghanistan as a means of stabilizing the country, even as American troops battle the resurgent Islamic extremists who operate along the Afghan-Pakistan border.

An increase in the U.S. commitment to Afghanistan’s reconstruction is unlikely to speed up that nation’s progress toward stability and peace. With fighting between rival warlords still raging, and neighboring nations vying for influence in Afghanistan, American entanglement in Afghan civil affairs will only distract from the major goal of eliminating the anti-American forces that were instrumental in the 9-11 attacks. The United States can best aid Afghanistan by accelerating the war against Islamic extremists, paving the way for Afghans to reconstruct their own political and economic systems. The alternative—a U.S.-imposed political structure—will only serve to increase anti-American sentiment.

America’s prior nation-building experiences suggest that external aid has a limited effect in the reconstruction of so-called failed states. Afghanistan provides a model for a broader policy framework wherein American intervention would be confined to eliminating national security threats rather than getting entangled in counterproductive nation-building exercises around the globe.

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Subodh Atal is an independent foreign affairs analyst based in Washington, D.C.