Why end of Afghan war is not end of US-led nation building

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff/File
Afghan girls study at school, before the Taliban regained power last month. The U.S. will not abandon efforts to export its values, say experts, even in the wake of failure in Afghanistan and Iraq. But Washington will likely not back such projects with major military force.

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When President Joe Biden defended the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, he said it marked the end of “major military operations to remake other countries.”

It may be a long time until the next U.S. invasion of a foreign country aimed at regime change, requiring a lot of boots on the ground in a hostile environment to build a new society. But that almost certainly does not mean the end of American-led nation building.

Why We Wrote This

After Iraq and Afghanistan, nation building as a U.S. military enterprise is out of favor. But the impetus to export democracy and social norms is in Americans’ DNA. It will be back, experts predict.

In the future, Washington is likely to undertake such efforts only when the fighting is over, to support a peace process, for example. It will rely more on civilian development experts, and less on soldiers or military contractors. The U.S. government will limit its ambitions to areas of priority to national security, and will have to be sure of political support both at home and in the receiving country.

Nation building may be out of favor now, but it will be back, says Christopher Ankersen, a former security adviser to the United Nations. Because “frankly,” he says, “it remains in our interest to help create those stable states.”

In his speech last month marking the close of America’s Afghanistan War, President Joe Biden said the decision meant the end of major military operations “to remake other countries.”

It sounded like a knell, tolling the demise of an era of American nation building.

Over: the impulse to make democracies out of autocracies, as former President George W. Bush aimed for in launching the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Why We Wrote This

After Iraq and Afghanistan, nation building as a U.S. military enterprise is out of favor. But the impetus to export democracy and social norms is in Americans’ DNA. It will be back, experts predict.

No more: the stabilization and institution-building initiatives of the sort ordered by former President Bill Clinton in Bosnia, Liberia, and elsewhere.

But is American-led nation building really ready for the history books? The answer, say many international development experts and former officials, is almost certainly not.

“We’ve seen the pendulum swing back and forth between nation building – in my view better called state building – and … periods of the state-building fatigue we’re seeing now in the American public and others around the world,” says Christopher Ankersen, a former security adviser to the United Nations system.

“But that pendulum will swing back because the instinct for the U.S. and the West is still … to intervene to assist nations in building a stable and benevolent and just state,” adds Professor Ankersen, who now teaches transnational security at New York University’s Center for Global Affairs. “And, frankly, because it remains in our interest to help create those stable states.”

Higher profile for USAID

Indeed, one clue as to why the United States won’t turn its back on all nation building came in another decision Mr. Biden made in April, when he named former U.N. Ambassador Samantha Power to head the U.S. Agency for International Development.

In announcing Ambassador Power’s appointment, Mr. Biden said the human rights and anti-genocide crusader would also be joining the National Security Council’s principals’ table – the first formal inclusion of the USAID administrator in the NSC and the first time the missions of international development and national security have been so closely linked.

The decision underscored what some longtime international affairs experts like former Reagan White House national security staffer Henry Nau have emphasized in the face of Afghanistan post-mortems: Nation building will go on because it will continue to be in America’s national security interest to strengthen unstable and failed states.

At the same time, others say, in an era of mass migrations – look no further than the U.S. southern border – it will remain in the national interest to help foreign governments and their citizens develop the tools to build secure, healthy, and fulfilling lives at home.

Odelyn Joseph/AP
USAID Administrator Samantha Power speaks during a visit to Haiti. She is the first USAID chief to be given a seat on the National Security Council, signaling a new focus on the importance of international development to U.S. security.

“We’ve heard this ‘never again’ in regards to nation building before,” says James Dobbins, who served in three administrations as special envoy to unstable states including Afghanistan, Haiti, Kosovo, and Somalia.

Most often, as is true now, this “highly negative assessment” of nation building is reserved for “the regime-change versions and forced-entry operations that require heavy boots on the ground” in hostile environments, says Mr. Dobbins, distinguished chair in diplomacy and security at the Rand Corp. in Arlington, Virginia.

“But there’s another version that has often involved peace-keeping in the aftermath of conflict and is more about assisting a country in moving on, satisfying basic needs, and developing the institutions that enable people to build better lives,” as in the Balkans, Panama, or Sierra Leone, he says. “That is a form of nation building with a pretty good batting average.”

Learning from failures

Nation building may have a bad name at the moment in the wake of the messy and in many ways disheartening withdrawal from Afghanistan. But the U.S. has also learned some important lessons from the experience that will serve it and the international community in the future, some experts say.

“Nation building doesn’t work when you’re in a country that is in a civil war, where the political divisions are so sharp that the focus is on security and quelling violence,” says J. Brian Atwood, who served as USAID administrator in the Clinton administration.

“I don’t see too many situations where a military-dominated nation-building mission is going to work or where we’re going to resort to that anytime soon,” he adds. “You end up dominating and bullying, but successful development work is a partnership where you have enough trust for the two [sides] to work together.”

The nation-building “partnership” is not just between states, but also involves third parties such as multilateral development agencies and nongovernmental organizations. And a key reason nation-building efforts will continue is that the NGOs on the ground in places like Afghanistan say they are in for the long haul regardless of how the pendulum swings in Washington or elsewhere.

Rahmat Gul/AP/File
Former Afghan President Ashraf Ghani after his 2020 election victory. The collapse of his government last month, as U.S. troops withdrew from Afghanistan, offered striking evidence of the limits to U.S. military-backed nation building.

“Nation building doesn’t end when there are certain representatives who leave the country on a plane,” says Marianne O’Grady, Afghanistan country director for CARE.

“A very large part of nation building is keeping the spirit alive no matter who is in charge [in the country]” and “with or without the support of various people at any one time,” she adds. “The NGO world is there to fill some of the gaps, build new stairs on the building a country is constructing, and we’re going to continue doing that despite the bumps in the road.”

Less reliance on contractors

Other lessons the U.S. and others are likely to learn from the Afghanistan experience: Future nation-building missions must take into account political will (both at home and in the receiving country) and limits on resources. And they are likely to be limited to areas of priority to national security – no more grandiose missions in what experts call “peripheral regions.”

“Obama’s intervention in Libya was a regime-change mission, but it did not result in a nation-building effort because Libya was not central to U.S. national security and … there was no appetite for it,” says NYU’s Professor Ankersen. “We will continue to see efforts if a country is interested in development,” he adds, “maybe has a peace process or post-conflict reconciliation going, but no belligerent parties opposing the outside assistance.”

In Iraq and Afghanistan, civilian contractors did a lot of the nation-building work. Mr. Atwood expects to see less of that in future, in part due to sharp criticism of some contractors’ actions, and also because Ambassador Power is pressing to beef up USAID to allow for more U.S. development representatives on the ground.

“I think we’ve gone too far towards contractors in recent years, we’ve had too many experiences where some haven’t been efficient or others didn’t fulfill the task they were assigned,” says Mr. Atwood, a visiting fellow at Brown University’s Thomas Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs.

“We should be sending more of our own expert talent to the field, working with people on the ground to build local ownership,” he adds.

Rivalry with China

Noting that President Biden continues to push his democracy agenda, Rand’s Mr. Dobbins says he also expects to see the U.S. ratchet up the elements of nation-building work that aim to strengthen the rules-based order both within countries and internationally – especially as competition with China for commercial and trade partners heats up.

“There’s definitely a competition between those who believe in rules and respect for international law and democracy, and those who don’t care whether their partners are dictatorships or abuse their populations,” he says. “The U.S. is going to continue to look to build partnerships that respect both the international rules of the road and human rights.”

Ms. O’Grady of CARE says it would be “wonderful” to see American development experts returning to Kabul to fill the building that USAID has left vacant. But whether or not that happens anytime soon, she is confident that the nation-building work the international community has pursued in Afghanistan for more than two decades will continue.

“We are facing a struggle right now in terms of understanding how we can deliver girls’ education with the unknowns of the new government,” she says, citing one example.

But calling on existing partnerships and “figuring out together how we can continue this really important work is what growing a nation together means,” she adds. It’s that “commitment over time that brings communities forward,” she says, “and that [commitment] isn’t going anywhere.”

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