Features » November 26, 2001
First, Do No Harm
Nation building vs. globalization.
In his campaign for president, George W. Bush scoffed at the Clinton administrations
efforts at nation building and ostensibly bringing democracy to
such war-torn lands as Somalia and Kosovo. But in the weeks after the September
11 attacks, the Bush administration gingerly began to argue that the United
States should support efforts to replace the Taliban movement in Afghanistan
with a friendlier, more stable governmenta diffident turn to nation building.
In the conventional wisdom, the nation-statean idea only a little more
than two centuries oldwas supposed to be withering away, replaced by a
new global order of free markets and multinational corporations. But September
11 has bolstered national sentiments in the United States and may provoke a
temporary retreat from globalization, simply because of security costs and concerns.
It also has been a stark reminder that, at least for the foreseeable future,
well-functioning nation-states are still essential for the welfare of both their
own citizens and the international community. No other country has taken privatization
of government quite as far as the Afghans, with classically Hobbesian resultslives
there are nasty, brutish and short.
While Afghanistans own distinct history partly explains the chaos, U.S.
policies over the past two decades have contributed greatly to the collapse.
The pressures of globalization also have weakened nations around the worldwith
worrisome consequences not only in Afghanistan, but in its precarious, nuclear-armed
The debate over whether or how outside powers should try to build nations cuts
across political lines. Some conservatives have argued in the editorial pages
of the Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times for a revival
of colonialism, or at least the equivalent of League of Nations mandates to
govern troublesome countries. Other conservatives object to any intervention:
In a recent book, three writers from the Cato Institute, a bastion of free-market
fundamentalism, denounce nation building as a fools errand (while other right-wingers call it liberal imperialism). On the
left, theres also division about whether intervention by the United Nations
or the United States can promote human rights and democracy, or whether its
inevitably tainted as self-interested imperialism.
Although Bush still insists that its up to the Afghans to forge their
own future, and the U.N. envoy to Afghanistan denies that the United Nations
is interested in nation building there, the United States has encouraged a flurry
of meetings from Rome to Peshawar, Pakistan among former Afghan leaders who
hope to create a government to take power after the Taliban. The United Nations
is circulating a proposal for a one-year interim administration under its supervision
with rotating figurehead presidencies, according to the Financial Times.
The administration would call a council of tribal, religious and political leaders,
then possibly hold elections.
There is widespread agreement that the Northern Alliance, or United Front,
is not a viable alternative to the Taliban. It represents ethnic minorities
in the north with none of the souths Pashtun majority, and its record
of mistreating civilians during a chaotic administration of the country was
nearly as bad as that of the Taliban. While few Afghans remember exiled King
Zahir, he is presented as a useful figurehead and symbol of more peaceful times
(though both the United States and Pakistan strongly opposed his return shortly
after the Soviet invasion, according to journalist Ahmed Rashid).
Should any of the figures inside and outside the country could agree on a government,
perhaps through the traditional assembly, the loya jirga, then presumably
it might benefit from foreign financial support and business investment if,
as Brookings Institution foreign policy fellow and former Reagan State Department
official Stephen P. Cohen says, it agrees to keep out terrorist groups and restrict
But Barnett Rubin, a senior fellow of the Center on International Cooperation
at New York University, and several other experts on Afghan politics argued
in a paper last June that it would be impossible to proceed in this manner for
several reasons. First, the Afghan conflict is not just a civil war, but a transnational
one involving a multitude of outside forces supplying and manipulating various
Afghan factions. The warring factions inside have no reason to relinquish power
to the leaders outside the country or to take part in a new government, since
the state does not exist.
Drug trafficking and smuggling have destabilized Afghanistan, Pakistan and
surrounding states, but there are virtually no opportunities for most young
men other than war, which at least provides a meal a day to a continuing supply
of cheap fighters. Rubin argued that the United Nations, World Bank and other
international actors would have to begin the process of reconstructing the country,
especially providing education to what has become one of the most illiterate
populations in the world, as an incentive for different groups to come together
politically. The money for reconstruction must come first as a catalyst for
Jochen Hippler, a German political scientist at the Institute for Development
and Peace at the University of Duisberg, is skeptical. Afghanistan has
been destroyed for 20 years by meddling from the outside, he says. The
only long-term solution is cutting off outside meddling.
Intervention wont work now, he argues, since the combatants are not likely
to come together during a war; there is no political base in Afghanistan for
most likely coalitions; and any outside peacekeeping force would just be a target
for every Afghan faction. In the long run a loya jirga would be one of
the key elements that would work, but in the short run it is completely hopeless, he says. You need a historic phase of reintegrating society.
On the other hand, Hippler argues, Pakistan is a desperately fragile state
that does need help before it disintegrates. It needs debt relief, which was
promised by Bush as payment for turning away from the Taliban, whom Pakistan
has long supported. But it also needs land reform, infrastructure investment,
collection of taxes from the wealthy, and resolution of the Kashmir conflict
with Indiawhich has led insecure Pakistan to waste huge sums on its military
and to seek alliances with Islamic fundamentalists in Afghanistan and elsewhere.
Making Pakistan more secure and prosperous would also help stabilize Afghanistan.
Talk of replacing the Taliban, in any case, may be premature. U.S. military
officials have been surprised at the tenacity of Taliban resistance. Wall
Street Journal reporter Steve Levine reported from Peshawar that the U.S.
bombing was backfiring and solidifying support behind the Taliban among Afghan
refugees and their leaders. Hippler argues that the bombing plays into the hands
of bin Laden, who wants the poor masses and educated but frustrated and underemployed
Muslims everywhere to see the world as bipolar, with him and his international
Islamic fundamentalist movement as the opposition to the hegemonic United States.
David Gibbs, an associate professor of political science at the University
of Arizona, agrees that outside meddling has destroyed Afghanistan and that
the best strategy now may be to follow the medical prescription, first,
do no harm. Its advice that the United States should have followed
Carter administration National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski has admitted
that the CIA began supporting Islamic fundamentalist mujahedin groups
in 1979 with the explicit intention of luring the Soviets into a Vietnam-style
debacle in Afghanistan. Throughout the 80s the United States pumped as
much as $5 billion in support to mujahedin groups. Besides laying the
groundwork for the Taliban and al-Qaeda, U.S. and Pakistani support for the
mujahedin opened up the deeply destabilizing heroin trade. And when the
Soviets pulled out in 1989, the United States did little to help with reconstruction,
humanitarian relief or education aid, all of which might have provided an alternative
to the Islamic fundamentalist madrassas in Pakistan and Afghan-istan
that provided militant young troops for the Taliban.
The United States also has helped to weaken governments for the past several
decades through its globalization policies and through institutions like the
International Monetary Fund. Governments in poor countries have been pressured
to cut budgets, increase school and health fees for the poor, privatize government
services, and act as collection agencies for international debts that they cannot
and should not have to pay.
Besides weakening the state, the globalization agenda pushed by the United
States has undermined the positive side of nationalism. Nations are a way of
integrating people, geographically and also across classes, which gives poor
people a voice and a measure of equality. But, as a new report from the Economic
Policy Institute concludes, two decades of global integration through deregulated
trade and capital flows has contributed to rising inequality and impeded
progress in poverty reduction. Continued high levels of poverty and rising
inequalityamong nations and within nationscontribute to a disintegration
of nations and destabilization of the international community.
Under those conditions, it is easier for an Osama bin Laden to flourish and harder to find any solution for countries like Afghanistan. The first step toward nation building, then, would be for the United States to stop doing all the things that undo nations, undermine governments and increase inequality.
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David Moberg, a senior editor of In These Times, has been on the staff of the magazine since it began publishing in 1976. Before joining In These Times, he completed his work for a Ph.D. in anthropology at the University of Chicago and worked for Newsweek. He has received fellowships from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Nation Institute for research on the new global economy. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.