Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Nation building

"If you break it, you own it." - Thomas Friedman referring to Iraq in early 2003

I'm thankful that as a member of the military I get to take part in the nation building we're doing here. Nation building is something you would think might be undertaken more by civilian agencies or the State Department, but that's certainly not how it is here, and probably rightfully so since we're building a nation in the midst of an insurgency. It's nice to be able to talk with local people about projects and construction that we're funding or supporting. It certainly feels good to help people out. But as for the concept of nation building itself...well, I'll say it's an idea that sounds good. Seems good on paper. We'll devote x amount of reconstruction dollars to y country and then eventually voila! we'll have a functioning, productive member of the international community. Certainly, nation building has become a big part of our strategy here in Afghanistan. The theory goes something like we'll set up a democracy, build up the nation a bit, and then hopefully they'll never bother us again and we can all live and peace and prosperity.

I'm all for giving the people their freedom and removing the Taliban, but I'm not so sure about the feasibility or realism in all this nation building. How do you pull a nation out of poverty? Is democracy compatible with Biblical standards of living? So few countries ever break out of relative poverty to join modern Western nations' standards of living. The few that have over the past 40 years (Singapore, Taiwan, S. Korea) were all E. Asian nations that valued hard work, saving, and education. Culturally, Afghanistan has little in common with those countries or any other rich nation save the Arab oil states. Of course, other factors beyond the merely cultural come into play when we're talking about the overall economic state of a country, but the culture and habits of a country's inhabitants have to be considered key in its political and economic development.

All of the development money that's been spent worldwide over the past few decades has had limited success, given the living standards today of those receiving it. The same regions seem to have the same problems they've always had. I'm an advocate of nations pulling themselves out of poverty, rather than having aid given to them. As developed nations we can help set the conditions for their success (free trade, without subsidizing our own industries in which they might be able to compete, namely agriculture, or by technology transfers), but no one really grows, in the developmental sense of the word, by handouts. Maybe that's why I get so annoyed with do-gooders like Bono who like to lay the guilt on rich nations to give to the poor. Poor nations have to bring themselves out of their predicament for development to catch and be sustainable.

War and rebuilding are expensive undertakings. I've seen several Javelin missiles shot; each one of those costs $80,000. Sometimes I can't help but ask myself if the 80K would be better spent on a development project rather than shooting (with often marginal success) at some guy on a mountainside harassing us. A well-aimed 7.62mm round would be much cheaper, and leave the savings for development in theory. But the idea presupposes that development can be accomplished with enough time and money, and again scant evidence exists to support the proposition. We can build roads all over the place, but who will maintain them when we're gone? We can put in power plants, but again, how long will they last in a country that can get its act together enough to keep them running? Building schools is probably a good idea, but does brick and mortar ensure the population will progress on an intellectual level? I know the people are interested in educating their children because I've been to girls' schools where hundreds of young girls were present, and I would like to think that since the desire exists to educate, and aid money is present, then the kids will end up educated. But in practice I'm not so sure where it will all end up.

One of the big problems with developmental funding is accountability. Accountability is a problem in any large agency, especially a governmental one. The head of a Civil Affairs Group gets good marks on his evaluations for spending money and building projects. But who's out there market testing these projects? I've seen numerous projects work for awhile, from agricultural replacement (substituting saffron for opium) to hydroelectric power, only to be neglected in the end because the local population did not have the know-how or desire to see them become permanent fixtures. Building a community center is all well and good, but after we're gone who's to stop the local strongman making it his dwelling?

In the end, what we need to help create is a stable political and economic system whereby the individual is rewarded for his or her efforts. Individual liberty through systemic incentives. But I have to ask myself whether individual liberty is compatible with Islamic/Afghan tradition. And how do we establish a political system anyway? It may have worked in post-War Germany and Japan, but those were modern nations. The Japanese in particular went to great lengths to modernize themselves prior to WWII without any goading or handouts from Western nations. In fact, Japan's modernization was in response to Western aggression. We may have provided the impetus, but we didn't do it for them. Expounding an ideology that requires cultural change by use of military force and engineering prowess doesn't seem workable. Afghanistan needs to modernize on its own accord, or not, it's up to them, but either way at the end of the day they are on their own. Getting the Afghan people to care seems to be the toughest challenge of all.

Granted, I agree with Friedman to an extent, when he says that if you break it, you own it. We can't leave absolute chaos in our wake. But having ousted the Taliban and established some important institutions like the army, I think it's important we start looking toward leaving, and leaving under very imperfect circumstances. I have no doubt we could succeed completely with enough time and money, however staying in this place until it's a reasonably well functioning country would probably require staying here until Islam modernizes itself...a process that I hope is ongoing, but may take many years.

So while nation building and development held a certain appeal for me at the outset of my time here, more and more I thinking we had our theory of the war right from the get-go - come in, overthrow the government, and stay away from nation building. We can always come back and overthrow another government if need be. We did it the first time with a few Special Forces and CIA guys backed up by the Air Force. The implied or overt threat to invade again would provide the proper incentive to whatever government that establishes itself that it needs to behave or risk being removed.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Those special forces got their hands tied when they had BinLaden in their sites. What was that all about anyway? OR, am I incorrect in that statement?