US to help 'nation-build' in Afghanistan

Though wary of aiding 'failed countries,' Bush commits US to reconstruction effort.

It remains an open question just how much outsiders can do to turn around so-called "failed" nations.

But Afghanistan is about to provide a major case study in whether or not "nation-building" works. And the United States, which under the Bush administration had prior to Sept. 11 derided the nation-building concept, is gearing up to participate in a big way.

An international effort headed by the US, the European Union, Japan, Saudi Arabia, and other developed and Gulf countries is turning to post-war Afghanistan in what could be the costliest national reconstruction project since the US undertook the Marshall Plan after World War II.

Afghanistan has long ranked at the top of global national poverty rankings. But after 20 years of civil warfare, the country presents a kind of Mount Everest to international rebuilders. A country that once fed itself has seen most of its dams and essential irrigation systems destroyed, potable water is scarce, and most roads are impassable to civilian vehicles.

The "Big Build" required to repair that infrastructure could cost more than $10 billion over a decade. Some skeptics, however, would prefer to call it the Big Sinkhole.

"The Afghan people are going to have to decide for themselves if there is even really a nation to rebuild in the first place. The US or anyone else can't do it for them," says Ted Carpenter, vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute, a conservative think tank here. "Until they work that out, a lot of what other countries are talking of doing would be a waste, and could even make matters worse."

In many ways, the debate over nation-building mirrors a broader and older debate over the usefulness of foreign aid in general. Currently, the US State Department and the Pentagon take different sides.

State Department officials say US co-sponsorship of the rebuilding effort for Afghanistan is evidence of a desire to take a leadership role. The Pentagon sees US strategic interests largely limited to ensuring that Afghanistan is never again a haven for international terrorists.

American skeptic

Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, a nation-building skeptic, says a stable and functioning Afghani-stan is not going to be achieved by the US, any more than it's going to be achieved by any foreigners.

Still, project Afghanistan is already under way with Afghanistan's provisional government set to take office this Saturday, and a string of international meetings leading up to a ministerial meeting of donor countries in Tokyo on Jan. 21.

Proponents point to Mozambique, where the international community spent $6 billion to turn the "failed" African country around.

Other examples of outright success stories or programs that are making headway in stabilizing explosive conflicts and rebuilding economies include El Salvador, and ongoing interventions in Bosnia and East Timor.

They also emphasize the argument cited by President Bush that a country like Afghanistan became an international problem because it was largely abandoned by the world after the Soviet Union's occupation was thrown off a decade ago. It wouldn't be any more in the world's self-interest, they say, to leave Afghanistan alone now.

"It's not a question of acting out of human kindness, but you do it because you're smart," says Gareth Evans, a former Australian foreign minister who now heads the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based organization that works to prevent conflicts. If a decade ago the US had used "sticks and carrots" to influence key Afghan players, he says, "we wouldn't have had the situation we have now."

In part, the US determination to participate in rebuilding stems from a desire not to be seen leaving behind a country it has blasted with bombs for two months. Even Cato's Mr. Carpenter says the US should play some role in helping to rebuild roads and other infrastructure. The US also wants to avoid Afghanistan again becoming a major producer of opium poppies.

Fictitious nation?

Experts disagree, however, over how far the international community can go to fashion governments and impose principles like democracy and human rights - or even a sense of nationality. Carpenter says the international effort in Bosnia is holding together a "fiction" of a country, for example, keeping together populations that don't want to be together.

Other critics say the Marshall Plan worked because it helped countries that were economically and politically viable before the devastation of war. But the same cannot be said for Somalia, which is regarded as the poster child of dysfunction by skeptics.

But others say Afghanistan must have managed to stay intact for so long for some reason, and abandoning such a poor country would just invite greater instability in South Asia.

Mr. Evans says agreements earlier this month among Afghan factions and ethnic groups on a provisional government should have eased concerns about the country's viability. But a country without the pencils and paper to run a bureaucracy or schools can't be expected to develop an effective government on its own.

Despite the difficulties ahead, Evans says his discussions with administration officials indicate the US "accepts that a figure like $10 billion is in the real world, and they intend to join the other donors in this for the long haul."

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