- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 2, 2001

United States nation-building is off the table in President George Bush's anti-terrorism war against the Taliban regime.


Experience teaches that such a visionary quest would fail, absent indefinite United States occupation of the country at enormous cost. But in destroying or overthrowing the Taliban government, the United States confronts no Hobson's choice between creating an Afghan nation or letting anarchy nurture a reprise of the Taliban. Numerous intermediate dispensations could both eliminate Afghanistan as a terrorism paradise without risking a nation-building briar patch for America. That benchmark of success lacks the exhilaration of the 1789 French Revolution and the storming of the Bastille; but exhilaration unchastened by prudence breeds more misery than happiness.

Nation-building is dicey business. Even the most expert are novices. After thousands of years of civilization, our knowledge of how a nation can be forged from the centrifugal ties of family, tribe, ethnicity, race, religion and culture remains primitive. No Merlins or Nestors can be tapped. E pluribus unum proved a stupendous success in the United States, but turned Lebanon into wretchedness. India's fabled Mahatma Gandhi fasted and hectored against Hindu-Muslim enmity, but was impotent against the August 15, 1947, partition of the British raj into a Muslim Pakistan and a Hindu India accompanied by gruesome mutual slaughters between the two creeds mounting past a million.

United States occupation of Japan after World War II, featuring Gen. Douglas MacArthur, transformed the country from a religiously fanatical police state into a working democracy. But MacArthur built on a nation in being and sporting a semblance of constitutionalism as far back as the 1868 Meiji Restoration. Similarly, the post-WW II occupation of West Germany by the United States (with Great Britain and France as featherweight appendages) occasioned the abandonment of Nazism in a pre-existing nation born in 1866 and its replacement by a democratic dispensation that had been bubbling for a half-century or more.

In the largely Roman Catholic Philippines, United States rule and tutelage since the 1898 Spanish-American war ripened into 1946 independence with a fragile grip on democracy. (It fell to authoritarianism under Ferdinand Marcos before a democratic restoration in 1986). But the idea that the United States today would bear the costs and burdens of a corresponding 50-year venture in Muslim Afghanistan is chimerical.

To resurrect a nation from limbs and a torso, moreover, is one thing. To summon a nation into being, as would be necessary in Afghanistan, is quite another. As Hotspur retorted to Glendower's boast about summoning spirits from the vasty deep in King Henry IV, Part I, "Why so can I, or so can any man; But will they come when you do call for them?"

The United States attempt at nation-building in Somalia yielded no more than humiliation and body bags of American soldiers. Our military intervention in Haiti to restore Jean-Bertrand Aristide under President William Jefferson Clinton proved equally impotent to alter its anti-democratic political culture and virtual anarchy.

The legacy of European imperialist powers in Africa is also instructive. They built artificial nations which collapsed soon after colonial rule ended. Think, for example, of Sierra Leone, Angola, Uganda, Algeria, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Nigeria, Sudan or Burundi. Tribal, ethnic and religious divisions triumphed over loyalty to the idea of nationhood.

Afghanistan is no more promising. Those same centrifugal elements have bedeviled the territory since its nominal claim to nationhood in 1747 under the Durrani Empire. At present, the Pashtun, Uzbeck, and Hazara tribes all vie for ascendancy, and Sunni Islam is pitted against Shi'ite. Afghanistan's modern constitutional development beginning in 1931 has largely been a facade. In 1964, an interim government promulgated a new monarchical constitution wearing some trappings of democracy. But the experiment ended in 1973 with the overthrow of King Zahir Shad. Within a few years, constitutionalism was dead and a grim period of more than 20 years of anarchy began with the 1979 Soviet invasion.

In lieu of nation-building, we should enlist the United Nations as provisional "trustee" governor of Afghanistan after the Taliban is crushed. The U.N. record is encouraging. At present, it is the de jure supreme power in Bosnia and Kosovo until a more robust climate for the rule of law develops. The United Nations has governed in East Timor since its August 1999 independence vote. It will phase out after democratic elections are completed. And in Namibia and Cambodia, the U.N. assumed temporary sovereign electoral powers in making the two nations semi-democratic.

Accordingly, the United States should plan on placing Afghanistan under United Nations authority modeled on the system of international trusteeship elaborated in Chapter XI of the United Nations charter. We should also consider creating a United States antiterrorism defense base there like our Guantanamo naval base in Cuba.

The result may be unsatisfying to democratic or noninterventionists purists. But when the real lives and security of Americans and countless others are at stake, purists are a menace. Just ask the victims of Robespierre.

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