Are We Nation-Building in Afghanistan?

The White House's big ambitions and open-ended commitment raise concerns about the scope of our engagement

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While the White House tries to dissipate confusion about troop withdrawals, stressing that July 2011 is merely the start of a gradual process, many questions linger about President Obama's Afghanistan strategy. What is America's ultimate goal there? Of the possible overarching strategies, nation-building would be both the biggest and the costliest way to deal with the problems of Afghanistan. After all, the state itself, from the office of President Hamid Karzai to the battered infrastructure, is ailing, and would takes years to fully reconstruct. The White House has focused on forecasting an exit, but some pundits speculate that we're committing ourselves to a nation-building mission the scope and demands of which we don't fully understand. Are they right?

  • Yes: Afghanistan is 'Special Needs Baby' The New York Times's Thomas Friedman warned on Fareed Zarakia's CNN show, "This is nation building. This is nation building 101 in the most fragmented country in the world." He added, "I feel like we're like an unemployed couple who just went out and decided to adopt a special needs baby."
  • Yes: Classic Mission Creep Democracy Arsenal's Michael Cohen worries. "Here we go again. If in fact, the tactical approach being utilized by the United States and ISAF is a population centric counter-insurgency that's fine (ish), but the Administration needs to be very clear about what a COIN operation in Afghanistan entails," he writes. "As I noted several months ago, it does seem as though the Administration is being less than upfront with the American people about the sort of conflict we are preparing to wage in Afghanistan."
  • Yes: Globalization Makes It Inevitable World Politics Review's Thomas P.M. Barnett explains. "[T]he West is unlikely to be able to finance, for any significant stretch of time, the stability operations needed across the world's unstable developing regions. And yet, by most expert accounts, we're looking at a high global demand for such services for the next several decades, to keep pace with globalization's unprecedentedly rapid penetration of these -- on average -- highly fragile states," he writes. "Now, as globalization extends itself rapidly into previously off-grid regions, both the advanced West and the rising East suddenly find themselves confronting the common burden of stabilizing nations across the South."
  • No: 'It's Not Nation-Building' Spencer Ackerman finds no evidence in the U.S. strategy. "No mention, in other words, of the structure of the Afghan government; no normative judgments about the structure of the Afghan economy; nothing at all about culture or religion," he writes. "This looks more like meeting Afghan society where it is, not where we'd like it to be."
  • No: It's Population-Centric Counterinsurgency Via Foreign Policy's Thomas Ricks, Col. Jack McCuen pushes back. The "purpose" of U.S. counterinsurgency strategy "is not 'to win hearts and minds.' The purpose is not 'nation building.' The purpose is to win the war against [the Taliban who] wage this war within the population by using the population as a shield and weapon. Thus, the population becomes the 'terrain.' 'Population terrain' becomes just as critical to insurgent warfare as physical terrain is to conventional warfare."
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.