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Was War the Problem, or Nation-Building?

Many of Chuck Hagel’s more vocal supporters have trumpeted his supposed anti-war credentials: He was against the Iraq war (after he was for it) and he was a skeptic about the Afghan war (again, after he was for it). Let’s put aside the fact that while senators can blow with the wind, the job of the defense secretary isn’t to abandon conflict when the winds of war change, but to adjust strategy in order regain momentum, fulfill the mission, and achieve the best results for U.S. national security.

There are plenty of mistakes to go around in Iraq and Afghanistan, but the ousting of Saddam Hussein and the Taliban government are not among them. What drove up the cost of the conflicts in both countries was not the initial military action, but rather all the nation building in which the United States subsequently engaged. While diplomats and politicians speak loftily of soft-power and development, the truth is that neither worked in Iraq and Afghanistan. The irony here, of course, is that while Zalmay Khalilzad and Ryan Crocker have endorsed Hagel, they were the ones most responsible for the prolongation of the Iraq mission with their decision to scrap plans for a provisional government prior to Operation Iraqi Freedom (and, no, despite the nonsense in the press, pre-war plans did not envision anointing Ahmad Chalabi as Iraqi leader). Had the United States exited Iraq in 2003, Iraq would not look much different than it does today. Likewise, if the United States abandons Afghanistan—as it seems the Obama administration is wont to do—it will simply return that country to the dark days of its civil war.

Meanwhile, there has been very little accountability at USAID: How is it that USAID could spend billions of dollars of taxpayer money and not make noticeable progress on Iraq’s re-electrification? Why is it they could spend millions of dollars on schools in Iraq and Afghanistan that crumble within months? Why is it that they build roads in Afghanistan that villagers don’t want and which catalyze land-grabbing?

The wars were not one decision but many:

  • To use military force or not
  • To replace one dictator with another or encourage democratization or a broad-based government
  • To reconstruct and redevelop or not

In Afghanistan, our mistakes were over-centralization and the speed of reform. Throughout Afghan history, speed of reform and breadth of insurgency has always been proportional. In Iraq, our mistakes centered on state-building. The irony is that, in the rush to blame neoconservatives, folks forget who it was that urged a quick turn-over to Iraqis (and indeed castigated neoconservatives for that) and who it was that instead sought state-building. If, once the Bush administration decided on a longer-term occupation, neoconservatives worked to take the situation that had been dealt and maximize the U.S. national gain, that is nothing to regret. The problem, instead, is the typical Washington types who will shift with the wind but do nothing to solidify U.S. national security.


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