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Afghanistan: 'Armed Nation Building'?

The generally sane and realistic military analyst Tony Cordesman published a 28-page paper (PDF) last on the US war in Afghanistan, which to me merely underlined how deeply un-winnable this US war has become.

Here's his lead sentence:

There are no certainties in war, and the tasks that NATO/ISAF and the US must perform in Afghanistan go far beyond the normal limits of counterinsurgency. They are the equivalent of armed nation building at a time when Afghanistan faces major challenges from both its own insurgents and international movements like Al Qa'ida, and must restructure its government and economy after 30 years of nearly continuous conflict.

Armed nation building?

Pack up your guns and come home, guys. Do whatever deals you need to do, to get out of there fast. Leave Afghanistan to the Afghans.

I'm not even sure where this notion of "nation building" came from, within US/western strategic and policy discourse. The current Wikipedia entry on it is suggestive and helpful. For starters, it denotes a clear distinction between the process of nation-building and that of state-building-- most notably, by sending you to a different page for the latter.

To me, nation-building implies a process that can only be effectively and sustainably undertaken by the constituent members of the nation itself. It certainly can't be carried out in any meaningful way by a horde of very heavily armed robo-troops parachuted in from a distant land. It just might be that a group of armed men from outside could do something to help with the process of state-building. (Not that that would make the resulting state recognizably a democratic one, however.) But nation-building, in the sense of building up the ties among a group of people so they feel they all belong to one "nation" and are bound by the obligations of that commitment?

Nah, I'm still not seeing it as a possibility.


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I don't think NATO can succeed at state-building in Afghanistan, either.

... Last week I was on a Press TV show with Larry Korb and Gareth Porter, about Afghanistan and Iraq, both. Larry, who's a sensible, realist person, seemed fairly supportive of Obama's decision to increase the numbers of US troops in southern Afghanistan. At one point I asked him what the best outcome was that he could reasonably foresee in Afghanistan. He said something like,

Well, that in 18 months we would have stabilized things enough there that the process of nation building could be taking root. But if that hasn't happened by then, we'd have to look at other options.

This is not exactly a gung-ho outlook. But I think that even this outlook is very short-sighted and irresponsible.
Why wait another 18 months, when it is almost certain that the kind of "stability" Larry was looking for won't be there then... and along the way, how many more Afghan citizens and how many more Americans will have died?

Pres. Obama should start acting now-- to reach out to the whole of the rest of the world community, but especially Afghanistan's neighbors, to ask their help in formulating a plan for a speedy withdrawal of the western troops from the country. Pakistan and Afghanistan both need a lot of help in re-establishing effective governance at all levels. But military troops who are western are just about the worst imaginable tools to help bring this about.

And guess what. There are plenty of other ways for these two countries' peoples to get what they need.

Sure, many Americans still have a lot of concern about future Al-Qaeda attacks, or about Afghanistan once again turning into the kind of place where Al-Qaeda can find a safe haven for organizing its heinous plots. But once again, the insertion, use, and maintenance of a large western military force in the Afghan-Pakistani border region seems like just about the worst, and most counter-productive way to respond to these concerns.

Helena Cobban

Helena Cobban is a writer and researcher on global affairs. She is a Contributing Editor of Boston Review, and writes weekly news analysis on Middle East affairs for Inter-Press service. Her blog can be enjoyed at Just World News.

Helena Cobban is a veteran Middle East analyst and author. She blogs at

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