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Nation-busting from Afghanistan to Iraq

Authors: Jennifer Seymour Whitaker, and Arthur C. Helton
November 15, 2002
International Herald Tribune


The U.S. record on reconstruction in Afghanistan should raise apprehension about the consequences of a U.S. invasion of Iraq. In Afghanistan, the Bush policy has ignored the connection between security and peace-building. But nation-wrecking without reconstruction creates the environment in which terrorists can thrive, an ominous specter for Iraq. Bush administration pledges to build a better Iraq after taking out Saddam Hussein sound disturbingly similar to American promises after the U.S. military entered Afghanistan.

In light of the president's declaration that America would work in Afghanistan for "a moral victory that resulted in better lives for individual human beings," George W. Bush seemed to retreat from his oft-stated antipathy to "nation-building."

However, the U.S. record since the fall of the Taliban drains away any confidence about the prospects for postwar reconstruction in Iraq. Despite recent statements by the Pentagon, the administration remains unwilling to commit significant American resources in Afghanistan except on the battlefield. The U.S. post-Taliban strategy has fostered a weak central government and abetted the resurgence of regional fiefdoms headed by warlords.

The policy is dominated by a negative principle -- America must not get bogged down in peace-building. War-fighting -- no matter where, when, or to what end -- always has priority. Since the fall of the Taliban, the United States has continued to spend nearly 30 times as much on pursuing Al Qaeda in caves and rural villages as on reconstruction of the war-devastated Afghan society.

At the same time, the United States has stood in the way of deploying peacekeepers outside of Kabul, and has expanded collaboration with warlords in various regions. As a result, Afghans believe that the central government has no power to stop bandits from terrorizing travelers, to keep warring clans from destroying villages and raping women, or to apprehend Islamists who burn down girls' schools. Warlords openly defy central government edicts as they battle for turf. With his phalanx of American guards, but no power to affect security outside the capital, President Hamid Karzai looks disturbingly like the warlord of Kabul.

The meager trickle of international aid to the Afghan government has left it feeble. Of the $1.8 billion in international aid pledged for this year, only about $890 million has arrived. Of that sum, $800 million has gone to UN agencies and other international organizations, with only about $90 million routed to the government. At present, the Afghan government has only secured about half of its modest operating budget of approximately $460 million for this year. Many ministerial offices still lack furniture and even rudimentary equipment. Nor have salaries for officials, teachers and police been paid regularly. Donors are concerned about the capacity of the inexperienced Afghan administration to set up effective aid programs, but even a handful of high-profile early development projects could have helped to legitimize the new order. Karzai has been requesting funding for just such a project -- road-building -- since January 2002. Only now have the United States, Japan and Saudi Arabia promised $180 million (half the funds needed) to rebuild the decimated Kabul-Kandahar-Herat road.

The Afghan Finance Ministry and international experts estimate that rebuilding the country's shattered infrastructure and developing an economy that can sustain its people will cost at least twice as much as the $5.25 billion pledged for 2002 to 2006. But the per capita per year allocation for Afghanistan is far smaller than in many other post-conflict situations -- $42 for Afghanistan, versus $195 for East Timor, $288 for Kosovo and $326 for Bosnia The most important consequence of the U.S. failure to deliver on reconstruction is the setback to the war against terrorism.

Reportedly, Al Qaeda fighters who had fled to Pakistan are now returning. Former Taliban militants, only slightly disguised, are edging back into the open. And now, Afghanistan once again leads the world in opium production.

Nation-wrecking without rebuilding in the wake of military action has a predictable result -- creating the sort of ungoverned chaos out of which the Taliban first emerged in Afghanistan. America and its allies must do better there, not to say Iraq, to avoid making the world more dangerous.

The writers are senior fellows at the Council on Foreign Relations. They contributed this comment to the International Herald Tribune.

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