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Afghanistan: The Irony of Nation-Building

The powerful images of U.S. embassy personnel and Marines evacuating from rooftops throughout Saigon during  the last few days of April 1975 perfectly encapsulates the strategic and moral failures of America’s Vietnam War. The conflict ruined a Presidency, lowered the U.S.’ standing internationally, and prompted the creation of a counterculture at home. All of these things shook  the foundation of America’s character, which has not been able to bounce back still.

There are pundits who try to draw parallels between the war in Afghanistan and the conflict in Vietnam: the impossible terrain unsuitable for combat, a fragmented political system, and, overall, a weak justification to enter into the conflict. However, there are more differences than similarities when comparing the two conflicts. Most significantly, the war in Afghanistan began with a clearly defined goal and enemy: defeat of the Taliban, a group who directly assisted Al-Qaeda in attacking the United States on September 11th and refused to disband its military bases. In contrast, the U.S. declared war against an “abstract” enemy in Vietnam. During the Vietnam War, George Kennan’s central policy of containment centered on fighting the ideals of communism to prevent the realization of the international domino theory. In Afghanistan,  the threat is not so abstract as a theoretical domino effect. Terrorism is not an ideal; terrorism is universally recognized as a tool of political coercion and fear that any nation tries to abate. Therefore, because the U.S. was directly confronted, the justifications for attacking Afghanistan were much more concrete, making the notion of a military retaliation much more acceptable in the eyes of the general public. Furthermore, while the United States is the main player in Afghanistan, it is important to note that the war has been supported by a strong international coalition (NATO) centered on the objectives of “nation-building”. Such was not the case in Vietnam.

However, a certain sense of irony has developed regarding the goal of “nation-building” , especially recently with the presence of escalating violence and political uncertainty. Within the span of a few months, four French soldiers training Afghan security forces were shot dead by a rogue trainee within the compound. The incident reverberated back to France during the current Presidential election cycle, causing Sarkozy to announce a withdrawal of NATO and training forces by 2014, a year earlier than previously planned. To make matters worse, NATO forces now have a new challenge proving difficult to contain, namely, the controversy which arose over the Korans burned inside the Bagram air base. The incident has led to more than 30 violent deaths, including two American servicemen who were killed in the heavily guarded Interior Ministry. As a result, all NATO servicemen have been recalled from Afghan ministries. The two deaths symbolize the great irony behind NATO’s noble attempt at “nation-building”: after 11 and-a-half long years, half-a-trillion dollars spent and 2799 coalition troop deaths, servicemen do not even feel safe within the confines of the Interior Ministry.

Looking solely at the numbers, it appears as though all those who gave their lives were unsuccessful in changing the region’s landscape. But that could not be further from the truth. We went into Afghanistan with a clear purpose: to defeat the Taliban government that gave shelter and support to Al-Qaeda. Soldiers fought bravely and valiantly during Operation Enduring Freedom, but it  takes greater courage to help Afghanis create a sustainable state.

Let’s look at Iraq. Here, the goal of “nation-building” was arguably a success  — albeit, a delicate one. Saddam Hussein (Sunni), the portrait of an evil dictator, was brought down and replaced by a (somewhat) democratically functioning coalition government. Oil exports are slowly picking up and, for the first time in the Arab world, Sunnis are sharing power with Shi’ites and minority Kurds. Iraqi officials have recently denied swaths of Americans visas to re-enter the country, a sign of growing independence. Of course, I am drastically oversimplifying the situation and many probably completely disagree with my seemingly “naïve” perspective. However, I am generalizing to make an important point: Under transitions of power, Iraq has proven capable to adapt to a new political landscape.

Afghanistan, on the other hand, is a different story. Its people have long experienced the influence and pressures of foreign powers due to its highly geostrategic location connecting Central Asia with the Middle East. Historically, the Afghan people have experienced severe political swings from the Communist invasion by the USSR in 1979, to civil war in the 1990s, to the rise of Islamic extremism under the Taliban. Its very rugged landscape and extremely harsh winters not only make Afghanistan a serious challenge to control politically, but militarily as well.

More importantly, it is a land dominated by small tribes scattered throughout the country, whose elders control the village politics. It has not been a “typical” war, one whose success is measured by territory controlled; rather, it is one focused on capturing  the hearts of the people. CIA agents understood the crucial role that village elders play in keeping the peace, unlike the Soviets who viewed the tribes as obstacles to social conformity and a threat to centralized political power. Instead CIA agents have funneled millions of dollars to tribes in order to ally with the Karzai government over the years.  It is now clear, though, that the central government has only become more and more corrupt.

Consequentially, the Afghan people have developed a sort of  resistance complex towards foreign powers, whether they be Soviets or NATO under a more “international-aid” auspice. And therein lies the problem: Afghanistan cannot go through “nation-building” because it truly does not want to be the modern nation the West envisions. The recent attacks have shown that after years of military and political influence, the hearts of the Afghan people do not know what they want. NATO forces fought gallantly and with pride, but the time has come  to start bringing troops home.



– Alexander Gardinier

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