Thursday, March 29, 2012

Afghanistan violence should be a clear lesson in the futility of nation-building

On Tuesday Marine Gen. John Allen, the NATO commander in Afghanistan, told the House Armed Services Committee that the mission in Afghanistan is on track. If he really believed that, I think he'd be delusional.

Last month, the accidental burning of Korans at Bagram Air Force Base set off massive rioting. The thing is, the Korans were confiscated (and subsequently thrown into an incinerator by accident) because Afghan prisoners were writing military messages in them. The Korans that were supposedly "desecrated" by US troops had already been desecrated by the Afghans. So I really doubt that the riots--which caused at least 41 deaths--were all about the Koran burning. I think it had more to do with the fact that US troops have been occupying their country for the past ten years, and that we continue to prop up a corrupt and unpopular president who blatantly stole the last election. A common chant among protesters was "Death to America, death to Obama, death to Karzai." The Koran burning, it seems, was just the latest reason for anger toward their foreign occupiers.

On March 1, an American staff sergeant, who had served honorably during multiple tours in Iraq, broke down in Afghanistan and murdered 16 civilians, including women and children. Retired Army intelligence officer Ralph Peters says we should be surprised that this hasn't happened sooner and more often. Because of stop-loss policies, our troops are often serving multiple tours of duty--and in an environment where the mission has become less and less clear. It is indeed remarkable that more of them haven't cracked under such prolonged and outrageous stress.

Finally, since Gen. Allen still thinks that our mission is on track, one might ask him what exactly our mission in Afghanistan is at this point. The original mission, taking out the Taliban government who was supporting Al-Qaeda, was pretty much accomplished back in 2003. And yet US troops have stayed in Afghanistan for nine years since then, trying to set up a stable democratic government--in other words, nation-building. In the 2000 campaign, George W. Bush said that "I don't think our troops ought to be used for what's called nation-building...if we don't stop extending our troops all around the world in nation-building missions, then we're going to have a serious problem." Since then, thousands of US troops have been killed or maimed because Bush and Obama failed to listen to that advice.

In fact, the US record of success in nation-building missions over the last 100 years is fairly dismal. We have had two major successes, in Germany and Japan after World War II--but both those countries were fairly modern, industrialized, and had had a democratically elected legislature throughout most of the 1920's. But in Third World countries--Vietnam, Somalia, Haiti, several South American countries, Bosnia, Iraq, and Afghanistan--nation building has been largely a catastrophic failure. The scars of these wars are numerous: tens of thousands of dead and wounded (both American soldiers and local civilians) and tens of billions of dollars in spending added to the debt. Yet we never seem to learn from the past.

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