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December 07, 2009

If It Quacks Like A Duck . . . It's Nation Building: UPDATED
Posted by Michael Cohen

Spencer has confused me. Reflecting on the new US mission in Afghanistan he argues that it's not fair to define it as a nation-building strategy. And he makes that comment after writing this about what he heard from Michele Flournoy at an AEI pow-wow:

[She] described restricting U.S. support to key ministries focused on security and (mostly agricultural) development; immediate-impact short-term development projects like irrigation; efforts out in the provinces and districts to expand the relevance of those ministries to local communities;

No mention, in other words, of the structure of the Afghan government; no normative judgments about the structure of the Afghan economy; nothing at all about culture or religion. It’s sure not like the U.S. is backing away from Hamid Karzai. But I think we can fairly infer that the strategy aims at mitigating Karzai’s deleterious effects and enhancing both capacity and, crucially, constituency among Afghans for better governance. It isn’t “necessary, nor is it feasible,” Flournoy said, to make Afghanistan a western-modeled nation state. Indeed, I would say if that was the aim of this strategy, it would be incoherent. This looks more like meeting Afghan society where it is, not where we’d like it to be.

Um, how is this NOT nation-building? Sure it might look different from traditional nation-building efforts that we've seen in the past - and thankfully the US is not trying to turn Afghanistan into a western-modeled nation state - but this is still pretty clearly an effort by the US government to deeply embed itself in the country's economic development, governance, infrastructure and security efforts. And if building capacity in government ministries isn't nation building then clearly we have very different definitions of what nation building represents.

NOT nation-building would mean NOT doing counter-insurgency and NOT expanding the influence of the Afghan government to Helmand and Kandahar. NOT nation building would mean NOT building up an Afghan security and police force to protect said nation. 

NOT nation building might look something like a narrowly-focused counter-terrorism operation in Afghanistan. But as we all know that is NOT happening.

UPDATED: Spencer responds here:

We used to have a grandiose and ill-defined commitment to shaping Afghan society that George Bush analogized to the Marshall Plan. Now we have the sponsorship of the security and agricultural sectors, and all of that geared toward the delivery of short-term results.

Ok, so maybe we're doing nation-building-lite. But it's still nation-building. I mean seriously, which government is that Afghan Army we're creating going to be protecting - the one in Kabul. And if you're expanding the relevance of Afghan ministries to communities across the country, for which government precisely are you doing that for?  When you are basically building up state capacity it might be geared toward a short-term goal (getting out of Dodge) but clearly it has a long-term trajectory. The notion that the US is going to strengthen government ministries that serve the needs of the Afghan people and build a national army that serves at the behest of the Kabul government - but you're not doing nation building. Give me a break.

As for Spencer's final notion that "there’s something between nation-building and counterterrorism. And whether Michael recognizes it or not, it’s called counterinsurgency."  This is an apples and oranges comparison that represents a political/military spectrum to which I'm really not familiar. Obviously, there are many different kinds of counter-insurgencies. So while the US war in the Philippines should be considered a nation-building exercise as well as a counter-insurgency fight, clearly that label does not apply to Algeria or Sri Lanka - where it was more nation suppressing!

But as Spencer knows all too well we don't fight enemy centric counter-insurgencies; we fight population centric counter-insurgencies that are described by four-star generals like this:

The ongoing insurgency must be met with a counterinsurgency campaign adapted to the unique conditions in each area that: Protects the Afghan people, allowing them to choose a future they can be proud of; Provides a secure environment allowing good government and economic development to undercut the causes and advocates of insurgency.

. . . Insurgencies fail when root causes disappear. Security is essential; but I believe our ultimate success lies in partnering with the Afghan Government, partner nations, NGO's, and other to build the foundations of good government and economic development.

And as we were told today in the Washington Post, the President's new strategy "does not order McChrystal to wage the war in a fundamentally different way from what he outlined in an assessment he sent the White House in late August."

So this might be some bastardized version of nation building; or some new-fangled 21st century way of doing nation-building, and maybe it's as Spencer suggests "less nation building" then that preached (and not realized) by the Bush Administration, but crikey . . . it's still nation building.

And to a large extent, the success of the President's plans to achieve stability in Afghanistan will rely on the success of these initiatives. And look, even if we took my suggestions and did a more narrowly focused CT operation in Afghanistan there would still be a nation-building component, although not as robust as what the current plan calls for. 


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It is all about the semantics here.

See, we're not "nation-building," it is just that, you know, we need to build Afghan institutions in order to promote development. So the goal is not nation building, that is just a necessary precondition for the development assistance we are providing.

Similarly, we are no longer focused on counter-insurgency. No, no, no. All we're doing is disrupting and dismantling AQ and its allies. So we're doing CT, but it is just that in order to do CT, we need to, you know, counter the insurgency.

According to Richrd Holbrooke, this is not about nation building but about nation re-building!!!

Whatever. It is what it is. We need to do it.

Nation-building is a normative concept that means different things to different people.Mexico is being plagued by prohibition-of-drugs-fueled war and is struggling to defeat the profit-seeking drug-lords, despite being far along in development again Mexico is a more developed country than Afghanistan.

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