In These Times    
Independent News and Views
HomeAbout UsSubscribeArchivesProject Censored
   
Search The Site
Advanced Search

Features

War is peace. Now we know.
 
It's only going to get worse.
 
The Metaphysical Club
U.N. diplomats give Bush a blank check.
 
Next Stop, Southeast Asia?
The United States may have a new target.
 
Nation building vs. globalization.
 
Anthrax is bad, but smallpox is worse — much worse.
 

Views

At the Gates of Power.
 
I cannot find the glory in this day.
 
Patriots and scoundrels.
 
Appall-o-Meter
 

News

Israel's Labor Party is silenced as violence erupts.
 
Bush administration hawks want to deploy "mini-nukes" against Osama bin Laden.
 
Under cover of war, the Bush administration pushes for fast track.
 
Freddy Falls
Green takes the runoff amid charges of race-baiting and miscounted votes.
 
Crude Justice
Ecuadorian Indians fight Texaco with U.S. tort law.
 
Punitive Measures
Suffering in solitary confinement.
 

Culture

ART: William Kentridge's animated politics.
 
Gun Crazy
BOOKS: The story of Arming America.
 
 

 
October 26, 2001
First, Do No Harm
Nation building vs. globalization.
Tyler Hicks/Getty Images
These Northern Alliance soldiers are not a viable alternative to the Taliban.

In his campaign for president, George W. Bush scoffed at the Clinton administration’s 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 government—a diffident turn to nation building.

In the conventional wisdom, the nation-state—an idea only a little more than two centuries old—was 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 results—lives there are nasty, brutish and short.

While Afghanistan’s 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 world—with worrisome consequences not only in Afghanistan, but in its precarious, nuclear-armed neighbor, Pakistan.

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 “fool’s errand” (while other right-wingers call it “liberal imperialism”). On the left, there’s also division about whether intervention by the United Nations or the United States can promote human rights and democracy, or whether it’s inevitably tainted as self-interested imperialism.

Although Bush still insists that it’s 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 south’s 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 poppy cultivation.

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 political progress.

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 won’t 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 India—which 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.” It’s advice that the United States should have followed long ago.

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 inequality—among nations and within nations—contribute 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.


Return to top of the page.




2002 The Institute for Public Affairs | Contact webmaster.
home | about us | subscribe | archives | project censored