State-Building, the Unwanted Pregnancy

Strangely, even ISIS finds that it must do so-called “nation-building,” but nation-building, or, more properly, “state-building,” is the ugly duckling of world politics. Neither President George W. Bush nor President Barack H. Obama have wanted it, but they become saddled with it anyway. Up to this point, state-building has been wrongly handled in at least two ways. No wonder it looks like something to stay away from.

The would-be enlightened country that does not fulfill the requirements of state-building incorporates a self-destruct mechanism into itself. It creates an entity that functions like an ocean liner without a rudder, one with no helm. The Peoples Republic of China is an example of this self-created destiny. The United States is moving in the same direction by progressively inhibiting democratic feedback mechanisms, e.g., creating a Congress that is selected by gerrymandering, provided with districts that will always return Democrats or always return Republicans to the House of Representatives failing a mass movement to secure a return to unbiased congressional district borders. The United States is accelerating that slide into unresponsiveness as more and more money is permitted to determine first, who can even afford to run, and second, who will have the campaign that uses the most effective manipulations of voter opinions.

The United States has tried several versions of nation building, sometimes with success, but often with failure. Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq can be counted as failures. It may be possible to change course in Afghanistan and Iraq, but only if ISIS is handled with more skill than has earlier been demonstrated in any of the conflicts in the Middle East. At present ISIS threatens to take over Syria and Iraq and move on to other nations, even a nation as far away as Indonesia. Only those who would welcome ISIS to rule over them should accept the current state of affairs. Two factors have prejudiced American presidents against getting involved in state-building. (1) Creating a state that gets governance working effectively is difficult, expensive, and time-consuming.

(2) Previous attempts have generally failed. So, our leaders have concluded, let’s not do that again. Fight only the kind of war that we can win. That means limited objectives, an exit strategy, etc. In Afghanistan we should have stopped when it was clear that we had chased al-Qaida out and so severely disrupted the Taliban that they were no longer capable of interfering with any government that the indigenous people might put up. (This plan ignores the presence of Taliban and Taliban-friendly groups in their sanctuary in Pakistan. More on that later.)

George H. W. Bush might have continued the first punitive invasion of Iraq by chasing down and destroying the remnants of Saddam Hussein’s armies, destroying infrastructure necessary for war, and killing as many high-level officials as could be found before leaving with a “we will be back if you misbehave” warning.

Despite their distaste for nation building, during the end game of the first Iraq invasion people had already thought of a significant question: If we take out Saddam, what kind of leadership will replace him?

The question of what kind of leadership would replace Saddam after he was killed in the second invasion must have given cause or concern to planners in Washington. Some have argued that winning the initial invasion and hunting Saddam down had been so easy that US leaders thought that they could do the nation building they had previously forsworn so easily that it would be a mistake not to carry on through to the end given that they had the chance.

It seems incredible that responsible leaders in Washington could claim that all that was required to remake the Middle East was to “give people the vote,” but that seems to have been the dangerous view of simplistic thinkers in the Bush administration. Even if some of their thinking was less simplistic than that, nobody seems to have understood the true nature of and requirements for nation-building.

A further accelerant to the future firestorm was the failure to understand and properly apply beginning logic. It was correctly observed that “if we fight our kind of war then we will win.” Assuming that to win means that the enemy no longer wills to do what we do not want them to do, then it is surely true that after invading some nation, taking out its upper-echelon leadership, destroying its armies, destroying its infrastructure, destroying its engines of war, etc., then the enemy would neither have the desire to invite a further punishing incursion by providing itself with a weapon of mass destruction and aiming it at Washington, D. C., nor would it have the financial and other means necessary to do so even if someone were so self-destructive in mindset.

From their fundamental premise, US leaders appear to have wrongly concluded: “If we do not fight our kind of war, then we will lose.” (It is true, as shown by experience, that “if we do not fight our kind of war then we sometimes lose.” Failing to distinguish properly between “sometimes” and “always” statements can easily produce unreasonable conclusions.) So, the Bush II administration went into Afghanistan with the idea that they would not do nation building, and then after Taliban forces had been made to disappear and there was no longer any sign of al-Qaida, what should they have done? Well, instead of leaving with a stern warning that they would be back at the first sign of al-Qaida training going on there, they began to do state building.

Before they could do even a half-job of nation building in Afghanistan they attacked Iraq. At the time, I concluded, from the solemn declarations issuing from Washington, that they must have had firm intelligence of nuclear or lethal gas missiles on a loading dock somewhere, just waiting for workmen to nail the lids on the crates. I was relieved when U.S. troops reached Baghdad without having been hit with nerve gas. Soon I was astounded because, whatever the truth about hidden research and armament facilities might be, there were no weapons anywhere that were ready to be deployed abroad. There was no need for the haste to go to war with Iraq that the Bush administration had manifested.

For a short time it appeared that the Iraqi people would indeed receive US forces with open arms. The statue of Saddam was pulled down, people hit it with their shoes, there was applause for the American tank that had helped topple it. According to the theorists in government, the United States should have destroyed any remaining tanks, military aircraft, any still-hostile troops, etc., and then they should have gone home.

An obvious pattern recurs: the US switches to a state-building course in mid stream. It even is showing up today when President Obama, originally sworn to get out of Afghanistan and Iraq, and to let things take their natural course from there on out, now thinks it will be necessary to do nation building in Syria if we can ever get ISIS and Assad out. Why can’t the US leaders do what they say they must do?

It is obvious that leaving a torn and tattered state like Afghanistan in the lurch will produce a power vacuum that will be filled by whomever has the most guile and military power. Before the communist takeover and the Russian occupation, Kabul was a comfortable city. A blond foreigner with outlander’s clothing could wander the streets in perfect safety. One could get a good meal at the Khyber Restaurant. The weather might be cold, but the air was unpolluted. After 1978, things must have changed considerably. There appears to be virtually nothing left of the earlier social and political structure.

It would appear that in both Afghanistan and Iraq the Bush II administration determined that no nucleus of talented and well-trained leadership was available to take over control from them. So rather than be blamed for having abandoned these nations to a takeover by some force hostile to the United States and its allies and presumably uncaring about the true well-being of the average Afghan citizen, the US then reversed course and tried to do nation building. Whether they have made adequate preparation before-hand to take on this complicated and crucial task is another matter.

Bush and others have failed to see the obvious: If there is to be a successful government then it must earn the allegiance of the people. An indigenous leader selected by an outside power cannot be accepted by the people on that basis. To be effective, a would-be leader must actively work for the loyalty of citizens. He or she must also attract a group of talented people dedicated to the same project. The entire group must not only understand the ways of politics in order to campaign effectively for political followers, but they must also understand the goals that state-building must meet in order to become effective and successful. The problem for the US or anyone else coming into this situation from the outside and looking for local forces to cooperate with is that after decades of living under a repressive regime there may be no citizens who have been permitted to gain the various competencies needed to form and operate a government.

Therefore, the first deficiency in planning, up to now, has been that the US has not taken account of the need for a cadre of talented and adequately prepared indigenous leaders who will be willing to work with foreign forces for the benefit of their own country.

The second strategic shortcoming has been failure to nurture a supply of leadership candidates in advance. Perhaps there has been an element of fatalism in the planning for war of some administration figures, an assumption that people with “the right stuff” will either appear when needed or there will be none to be found. Perhaps it is merely because planning before interventions has been hasty, and consideration of what will need to be done after a military victory is achieved is slighted in favor of getting onto the battlefield without delay. Although it is said that no plan laid out in advance for military movements in warfare has ever survived the first engagement, it remains true that without planning that takes all known eventualities into consideration in accord with their probabilities, the troops will be left without adequate provisions for whatever does occur.

The steps that need to be taken to establish a state that will function well in both short- and long-term ways are not obvious on casual inspection, but they also are neither difficult to describe nor difficult to justify by reason and observation. Providing educational resources on this and related subjects would be possible via the Internet but more complete competency in using this knowledge could be achieved by creating a school for prospective leaders among those with aspirations toward advancing their own nations toward freedom and stability.