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The Failure of Nation Building

The Failure of Nation Building

By Jack Kelly - July 15, 2012

Six soldiers were killed by a roadside bomb, another in a Taliban attack, making last Sunday the bloodiest day this year for American troops in Afghanistan.

In Warduk province July 3, an Afghan soldier opened fire on American troops, wounding five. Three days earlier in Helmand province, an Afghan policeman killed three British soldiers and wounded a fourth. One-seventh of NATO casualties this year have been inflicted by our "allies" in the Afghan army and police.

Last year 35 allied soldiers were killed in 21 attacks by Afghan forces. Through June this year, 22 soldiers have been killed in 16 separate attacks. "Green on blue" attacks were virtually unheard of before October 2009. During the entire war in Iraq, there were only three such incidents.

When the 2,000th Allied soldier was killed June 13, the milestone passed without the media fanfare that accompanied the 2,000th U.S. death in Iraq on Oct. 25, 2005.

Nearly two-thirds of all Americans killed in Afghanistan have died since Barack Obama assumed office. Most Americans don't know that, or that spending for the war there ($118.6 billion) in the last fiscal year was more than what was spent on the war in Iraq in all but the two years of the troop surge. To the news media, bad war news is big news only when a Republican is president.

The troop surge in Iraq brought victory. The troop surge in Afghanistan hasn't.

After a decade of fighting, "What do we have to show for our efforts?" asked former Navy SEAL Leif Babin. "A government, under President Hamid Karzai, that is corrupt, largely incompetent, and of questionable loyalty; inept Afghan security forces that regularly turn their weapons on their American and NATO advisers; and a resurgent Taliban poised to regain control of the country after U.S. forces withdraw."

Bickering among President Obama's aides "squandered" the surge, said Washington Post war correspondent Rajiv Chandrasekaran. But it was a mistake from the get-go.

"The Afghan people largely wanted to be left alone and they hate their government, in many cases, as much as they hate the insurgents," he said. "And when we went to them and said, 'Ah, we're coming here to help bring your government to you.' They said, 'Whoa, we don't want our government!' "

"Afghanistan" is a colonial construct, a mishmash of ethnic groups thrown together for the convenience of the British. The main thing the Tajiks, Hazara, Uzbeks, Aimak, Turkmen and Baloch have in common is detestation of the Pashtuns, the largest ethnic group. Yet -- as the British did before us -- we've installed a Pashtun as ruler, and tried to build a strong central government around him.

The Tajiks, et. al., comprised the Northern Alliance, which did most of the fighting against the Soviets, and were our allies in driving the Taliban (who are Pashtun) from power. We betrayed our friends to assist our enemies, with predictable results.

Policies peculiar to the Obama administration have made the situation in Afghanistan much worse. But it was President George W. Bush who installed Hamid Karzai, and began "nation building" in what, arguably, is the most primitive society on earth.

It's a peculiarly American folly -- going back at least to Vietnam -- to spend so much effort on winning the hearts and minds of the people, when we would be better served by killing the enemy.

"Nation building" is expensive; in the year before it began in earnest (FY2004), we spent just $14.5 billion in Afghanistan. And it's counterproductive. Just 52 U.S. servicemembers were killed in Afghanistan in 2004. That number doubled as soon as nation building ramped up. Last year 418 Americans were killed.

"Nation building" wouldn't fail so egregiously if our leaders learned something about the people whose hearts and minds they're trying to win. But our leaders find it more comforting to exchange liberal cliches than to deal with reality. The international conference on Afghanistan in Tokyo last weekend was "an awkward mixture of hope, fantasy and failure," said Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

"Nation building" in Afghanistan hasn't worked. And with trillion-dollar budget deficits, we can afford it no longer. Ronald Reagan had the right idea. He provided aid and moral support to people fighting for freedom in their homelands, but left the building of their nations to them.

Jack Kelly is a columnist for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and The Blade of Toledo, Ohio.

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