The U.S. is currently investing billions of dollars and significant amounts of military personnel and equipment in Afghanistan to conduct a task called “Nation Building.” There is a legitimate reason to conduct nation building. The previous government, the Taliban, was ousted from power. Whatever national constitution they may have used is now void. Military operations damaged the infrastructure. The social climate that allowed the Taliban to come to power still exists in some fashion. Through nation building, the hope is to create a stable government with an opportunity to create national wealth, a sense of unity and a feeling of self-respect in the international community. Once achieved, the probability that Afghanistan would once again harbor international terrorist training camps becomes greatly diminished.
These are all worthy goals. The problem is in achieving them. There are many factors about Afghanistan that make completing this highly unlikely in the next 2 decades. The cost of sustaining the nation building effort until its completion is more than the Western world can bear.
To get an understanding of the challenges faced, a look back to U.S. history is instructive. In 1803, the U.S. secured the Louisiana Purchase and in 1845, newspaper editor John O’Sullivan coined the term “manifest destiny” to describe the American mindset that the U.S. border should reach from the Atlantic coast all the way to the Pacific Ocean and include all of the territory between. However, living in that stretch of land were many independent Native American Indians who had no allegiance or even a desire for allegiance to the central government in Washington D.C.
In a similar way, Afghanistan is composed of ethnic groups with little allegiance to the central government. The largest are the Pashtun, Tajik, Hazara, Uzbek, Aimak, Turkmen, and Baloch. There are other small groups that account for 4% of the population. Additionally, within the large groups are individual tribes and villages. These smaller tribes distrust others within their own ethnic group and outsiders in general. There are also nomadic groups that have no ties to anything except themselves.
To make matters worse, many of these consider the Karzai government as corrupt. Even at the province level, governors are not trusted and many at both the national level and the provincial level are known criminals.
Furthermore, many villages are isolated with no roads, no telephones, no computers, and no access to television and radios. Compounding the challenge are multiple languages and the somber fact that only 28% of the population can read. The female literacy rate in the year 2000 was a dismal 12.6% and within the country, there are groups that are violently opposed to women receiving an education. Schools that teach girls have been destroyed and those who teach girls and girl students have been murdered.
Many of the West’s cultural norms are not welcomed in Afghanistan. Freedom of religion as known in the U.S. is not practiced. The last public Christian church in Afghanistan was razed in March 2010, according to the State Department’s latest International Religious Freedom Report. The report says, “The government’s level of respect for religious freedom in law and in practice declined during the reporting period, particularly for Christian groups and individuals. Negative societal opinions and suspicion of Christian activities led to targeting of Christian groups and individuals, including Muslim converts to Christianity. The lack of government responsiveness and protection for these groups and individuals contributed to the deterioration of religious freedom.” Conversion from Islam to any other religion is a criminal offense punishable by death in Afghanistan.
Separation of church and state is not an Afghan value. The official name of the country is the “Islamic Republic of Afghanistan.” The government has a cabinet level agency, The Ministry for Haj and Religious Affairs. According to their website, they are responsible for addressing religious affairs in Afghanistan. Responsibilities for the Ministry include among other things: sending Afghan Haji (pilgrims) for the performance of Haj to Saudi Arabia; sending mu’tamir (for the performance of Umrah Haj) through private tourism companies; providing girls and boys with Islamic teachings in the mosques and holy places; ensuring diplomatic relations with embassies and with Islamic welfare organisations around the globe through Ministry of Foreign Affairs; issuance of Fatwas and testing of Imams and preachers; better co-ordinating of preaching affairs through mosques and Takia khana; convening religious meetings and ceremonies; and raising public awareness on religious issues at the national and sub national level.
Husbands are free to beat their wives and children. Men in certain areas demand that their wives be dressed in the burka. Child brides are commonplace. In one report, it was noted that a 12 year-old girl was given in marriage to a 40 year-old man and a random sample of educated people in Herat showed 28.5 per cent of respondents married before the age of 16 years. Youtube videos reveal girls as young as 7 being married.
In many of these villages, females are not allowed in the company of men without the presence of a male from her family. During a particular battle between U.S. forces and the Taliban, a women was seriously wounded. U.S. Soldiers provided first aid and evacuated her to a military hospital for medical treatment. The people in her village began demonstrations and almost rioted because there was no male member of her family taken to the hospital with her. The situation could not be diffused until a male member of her family was sent to the hospital and the mayor called a town meeting and assured them that she was now accompanied by a male from her family.
Even the military culture is difficult. The U.S. provided one Afghan base with a state of the art kitchen. Rather than using the gas burners, the cook brought a 55-gallon barrel into the kitchen, filled it with wood, set it on fire, and cooked on it. Reports abound of Afghan military clothing (paid for by U.S. tax dollars) being sold at local bazaars. While U.S. military personnel are restricted from sexual contact with anyone (to include their spouse who may be deployed with them) while in theater, the Afghan military culture is different. As one Soldier explained, “We were given all kinds of cultural classes, but no one prepared us for ‘man-love Thursdays’.” He explained that it was really impossible to get much accomplished on Thursdays because that was when Afghan soldiers had sex with fellow soldiers. As an Afghan officer explained to a U.S. officer as they walked around a vehicle and saw two male soldiers involved in a sexual act, “Girls are for babies; boys are for fun.” The U.S. Military depends upon a literate force that can read and comprehend training mauals and war plans. The Afghan Army illiteracy rate is 90% and only half of Afghan military forces will be able read and write at the 1st grade level by January 2012
The growing of poppy for opium is a major source of income for Afghan farmers. Many of them are little more than indentured servants who are heavily in debt and have little option but to grow poppy. Other crops are difficult to grow in the Afghan soil and climate or there are no cash markets available for legitimate crops. It is easy to tell when poppy harvest time comes to an area; hostilities cease. That’s because the Taliban and the Afghan National Police lay down their arms to harvest the poppy. Attempts to eradicate poppy fields are limited due to lack of local government cooperation and in some instances, the only cooperation given is when a government official identifies the fields of his enemies or competitors, while protecting his own.
The hardest decision with nation building in Afghanistan, or any country for that matter, is to know when you have accomplished the task. When do you know you are finished? To do that, a set of metrics has to be developed that has easily quantifiable benchmarks of success. But remember, nation building is more than the number of soldiers and police equipped and trained. Nation building means a stable, centralized government. It means a reliable executive, legislative and judicial branch of government. It means a populace that is committed to the concept of a unified Afghanistan. And to some extent, especially since the effort is being funded by the West for the stability of the international community, successful nation building includes a national ethic that is compatible with international norms.
These goals can be reached in Afghanistan. The concern is the amount of time and effort. In addition to all of the issues listed above, there is the meddling in Afghan affairs by Iran and by the Taliban leadership based in Pakistan. Taken in its entirety, it will take more money than Western national coffers have, more time than the will of the Western national people possess, and access to international markets that Afghanistan as a land-locked country does not have.
The unfortunate reality is that the investment of time, money, personnel and materials to accomplish the goal of nation building in Afghanistan will bankrupt the U.S. and those nations that choose to remain for the long haul. Afghanistan is like a self-wringing sponge: no matter how much is poured on it, it will always remain dry and its character will never change. It’s time to leave Afghanistan to its own affairs knowing that the goals of eliminating the al-Qaeda training camps and the threat of freely operating, international terror organizations has been successfully accomplished.