The Plunge into Nation-Building

Invading a foreign country is one thing, but building it into a replica of America’s democratic pluralism is quite another. Nation-building and democracy-promotion goals constituted a volte-face from George W. Bush’s earlier utterances. “Sending our military on vague, aimless, and endless deployments is the swift solvent of morale,” said candidate George Bush about Clinton’s humanitarian deployments in Somalia and Yugoslavia.23 His principle foreign policy advisor during the presidential campaign, Condoleezza Rice, put the argument even more precisely about the military’s role: “It is not a civilian police force. It is not a political referee. And it is most certainly not designed to build a civilian society.”24

First in Afghanistan and then in Iraq, the Bush administration came around, after initial hesitation, to the proposition that it must occupy, develop, and instill democracy in its newly acquired subjects.25 This assessment constituted a huge commitment to societal transformation under the most unpropitious conditions. This projection of US power, ideology, and vast resources drew upon the post-World War II precedent of implanting democratic institutions and building prosperity within defeated Germany, Italy, and Japan. But those countries and other West European beneficiaries of the Marshall Plan all had more than a brush with industrial economic development and democratic traditions. Afghanistan, the world’s second poorest nation after Somali, represented an extraordinarily backward economic and political state.

The rapidity of the US-led victory over the Taliban caught Washington unprepared and off balance much as a tug-of-war team stumbles when its opponents unexpectedly let go of the rope. On the eve of the American bombing campaign, the incoming chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Air Force General Richard B. Myers, speculated about the conflict lasting a year or more. The Taliban resistance folded after a few months. The US war machine hardly revved up before the need arose for occupation, administration, and government services.

A great impediment to democratic state-building rested not solely with the need for overnight implementation but with the President Bush’s own initial predilections against it. During his run for the Oval Office, the Texas governor disparaged the Clinton administration’s deployments of US troops for peacekeeping and rudimentary nation-building tasks in Somalia, Haiti, and the Balkans. He resolved to avoid a similar pattern. One week into the Afghan aerial bombardment, Bush firmly re-stated his position—“I don’t want to nation-build with troops”—to his advisers in a strategy meeting.26 Later, in his second-term inaugural address, he wholeheartedly embraced the global spread of freedom and liberty as America’s mission. At the outset of the Afghan campaign, he recalled his electioneering rhetoric, however.

The president was not alone in his abhorrence to nation-building prospects. Colin Powell voiced a similar disdain for societal transformation in the forlorn land. As the Taliban fled Kabul, the secretary of state reiterated a common refrain: “We will turn it [Afghanistan] over to Brahimi and the U.N.”27 The UN Secretary General Kofi Annan had recently appointed Lakhdar Brahimi, an Algerian diplomat, to the post of UN special representative to Afghanistan. Brahimi and the UN did play a role in trying to stabilize the turbulent nation but its military and civilian capacities fell well short of what was needed to cure the deeply fractured country at war since 1979. The secretary of defense joined the chorus opposing a long-term US presence to remake the face of the country. Donald Rumsfeld thought it “highly unlikely” that American soldiers and Marines would assume “a part of a semipermanent peacekeeping activity in the country.”28 The Bush administration, while embarking on an interventionist cycle, still displayed a reluctance to go full bore into lengthy occupations cum civil society reconstruction akin to that America carried out in postwar Germany and Japan. In the meantime, Washington turned to the United Nations to handle governance.

The UN did summon a conference to form an Afghan government from the country’s opposition figures. Meeting in Bonn, Germany, two weeks after Kabul fell to the United States and its local allies, Afghan political figures and tribal representatives bickered and jousted until they settled on a governmental framework. Signed on December 5, 2001, the Bonn Agreement set up an interim government, established basic administrative functions, and laid out a roadmap to democracy. The conferees picked Hamid Karzai, an English-speaking former deputy foreign minister, to be the interim president. Karzai hailed from an anti-Taliban Pashtun subclan in the country’s south. In addition to support from Washington, Karzai gained the approval of Iran and Russia, two nations uneasy about instability on their doorstep. The Bonn attendees doled out other administrative posts in a rough attempt to balance ethnic representation at the national level. The agreement mandated elections for president in 2004 and for a parliament the next year. Even though the Bonn conference was not strictly a democratic answer, it resulted in a reasonable ethnic inclusion of the country’s various peoples. In hopes of preempting subversion from a powerful and ruthless warlord, Karzai brought into his fledgling government the Uzbek commander Aburrashid Dostrum. Later, Karzai relied on other warlords to govern. These decisions telegraphed the new president’s reliance on unsavory figures—a dangerous turn for the re-born country.

Next, Washington secured Security Council passage of resolution 1386 that defined an international framework for assistance. That UN action established the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) for peacekeeping and security operations. Soon after, ISAF commanded 5000 troops in Kabul. Next, the Security Council passed resolution 1401 in late March 2002 that set up the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA). UNAMA sought to integrate the international reconstruction and administrative functions throughout the country. It parceled out government tasks among participating foreign nations. This crude division of labor put European powers in charge of standing up a Western-styled judiciary, modern health services, and a contemporary-trained police force. It fell to the United States to form a countrywide military, known as the Afghan National Army.29

Washington also pulled together former protagonists that flanked Afghanistan. Iran, long an adversary of Taliban-ruled Afghanistan, pledged $500 million for reconstruction projects. Tehran also prevailed on the warlord Ismail Khan, who it backed, to attend and to cooperate with the Bonn conference. India, which also despised the Taliban, bestowed billions of dollars for construction projects during the next decade to stabilize the new Kabul government. Pakistan officially joined the American camp on Afghanistan, although elements within its intelligence branch still assisted the Taliban to mount an insurgency against the Karzai administration. Russia, the most wary of the US intervention into its sphere, acquiesced to the Pentagon’s enlarging footprint in Afghanistan and neighboring states, once part of Soviet Union. All these neighbors acted for self-interest but it was Bush’s foreign policy aides who harnessed and channeled their political ambitions to American reconstruction plans.

For its part, the United States inched into the occupation business. By the end of the first quarter in 2002, the Pentagon had dispatched nearly 20,000 troops, who combed the borderlands for Osama bin Laden and his entourage. Some also tried to seal the transit points into Pakistan to prevent the master terrorist’s escape. Closing the frontier by this late date amounted to shutting the barn door after the horse galloped free. On the heels of the burgeoning military “boot print” came a raft of American civilian agencies. The Agency for International Development and the Department of State sent staffs to assist in statebuilding and rural regeneration. Inasmuch as its ISAF partners proved initially reluctant to venture into the countryside, the United States dispatched Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) to aid and to protect the rural population. Made up of troops and civilian-aid experts, the 60- to 80-member PRTs varied in quality and performance. In the end, they proved only of marginal effectiveness when the Taliban insurgents returned to Afghanistan.

The Bush White House rhetorically broke further with its opposition to assisting governance and development projects in prostrated Afghanistan. President Bush flew to the Virginia Military Institute to deliver a speech invoking the name and career of that school of arms’ most illustrious graduate—George C. Marshall. On a bright sunny day in mid-April 2002, the president recalled that the five-star general was “best remembered for the peace he secured” in the Marshall Plan. Bush declared that “we, too, must follow” a similar path in Afghanistan. He noted that the famous European Recovery Program was acclaimed for “rebuilding Europe and lifting up former enemies showed that America is not content with military victory alone.”30 Hours after the commander-in-chief spoke about reconstructing Afghanistan, his secretary of defense argued that the president did not envision deploying US troops in a peacekeeping role. Donald Rumsfeld noted that troop-contributing allies to the ISAF opposed expanding the ISAF mission beyond the capital.31

For its part, the Kabul government turned to warlords, who had gained power and influence since the anti-Soviet war. The Karzai government depended on these powerful local chieftains to ensure order in the domains beyond the capital. Relying on these warlords alienated the rural population from the central government. The warrior chieftains and their thuggish henchmen rode roughshod over the countryside, demanding bribes and inflicting harm on all who challenged them. Their depredations re-kindled favorable memories for some past Taliban practices. Before the Taliban seized Kabul in 1996, Afghanistan experienced a brutal period marked by corruption, human rights abuse, and warlordism. The Taliban ushered in stability and security, even if they sternly enforced a strict Islamic orthodoxy. They severed the arms of thieves and stoned adulterers. Now, Karzai’s Kabul, in part, turned back the clock to the pre- Taliban period. Bad governance, corruption, and local grievances undermined the legitimacy of the new Kabul administration to such a degree that American and international programs to restore and reconstruct the country were nearly doomed to fail from the outset.32 President Karzai won reelection against 17 other candidates in October 2004. A little more than a year later, the country’s first democratically elected parliament in 30 years took office. Beneath the surface, however, the Taliban insinuated themselves back into the southern reaches of Afghanistan, while Kabul’s corruption and its fractured civil institutions clouded long-term prospects for a peaceful and democratic nation.

After the start of the Iraq War in early 2003, Afghanistan suffered shortages in military and civilian assistance. Just months after the American-led invasion to topple Saddam Hussein, Iraq’s new rulers faced a brewing insurgency that further diverted manpower and attention from Afghanistan, which seemed peaceful on the surface compared to the savage sectarian violence washing over Iraq. Beginning in 2005, the Taliban re-commenced isolated assassinations and bombings, which raised Afghan anxieties. By the end of the same year, Iraq was embroiled in a fierce insurgency that threatened an American defeat. To the Bush policy mandarins, Afghanistan became a neglected stepchild as Iraq exploded with scenes reminiscent of Rodin’s Gates of Hell. Iraq’s sharp spike in violence and Coalition troop casualties grabbed the political spotlight in Washington circles. It would not be until Barack Obama’s presidency that Afghanistan again loomed large in Washington’s power corridors.

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