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The Future of Nation Building

There are two essential lessons one can draw from the Iraq War: either that we should never get mired in counterinsurgency or “nation-building” operations in the future or that, if we do get involved, we should do a better job of achieving our objectives. The prevailing wisdom in Washington adheres to the former position, but I believe the latter lesson offers more useful guidance for the future.

No less an eminence than Bob Gates, on his way out the door as secretary of defense, proclaimed, “In my opinion, any future defense secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should ‘have his head examined,’ as General MacArthur so delicately put it.” Although he subsequently walked back that statement, it is fair to say that Gates’ view is now the conventional wisdom.

But is it—to borrow the favored term of Gates and others—“realistic” to argue that we will never get involved in another major ground war? No one could have imagined on September 10, 2001, that we would shortly be fighting in Afghanistan, nor can anyone imagine what the future will bring. Suffice it to say, when one looks at the wide arc of instability stretching from West Africa to Central Asia, it is hard to rule out in advance that U.S. ground troops will ever be dispatched into harm’s way.

And even if we don’t fight another major ground war anytime in the near future—something that we should of course avoid if at all possible—the likelihood is that U.S. forces will be involved in helping foreign governments in such nations as Mali, Libya, Pakistan, and Yemen to fight terrorist groups that threaten not only their interests but ours. That will require maintaining a significant capacity for nation building and counterinsurgency, even if the bulk of the work on the ground will be done by indigenous forces, not Americans. 

I know that “nation-building” is anathema in Washington, but there is simply no way to prevent terrorist groups from setting up training camps and hatching plots unless the local government can assert control over its territory. To achieve even that modest goal will require building up substantial governance capacity in chaotic nations.

All of this suggests to me that we need to maintain the hard-won counterinsurgency skills gained by the armed forces over the past decade—and we need to enhance our capacity for state building. That difficult task has fallen willy-nilly on the military because the civilian agencies of government have been MIA. It is high time to create, as I have been arguing since 2003, a dedicated state-building agency, perhaps by retooling the U.S. Agency for International Development to focus on this task. 

Such proposals are opposed by many in Washington because politicians figure that if we develop capacity for state building we will have to do more of it. But if history teaches anything it is that we will be forced into state building in a wide variety of scenarios no matter what. Just since the end of the Cold War, we have undertaken this task in nations such as Somalia, Bosnia, Kosovo, East Timor, Afghanistan, Iraq and, more indirectly, from the Philippines to Colombia. 

The question is not whether we will do nation building and counterinsurgency or not. The question is if we will do it well or badly. So far we have done it badly and paid a heavy price—witness the early setbacks in Iraq. This is a national-security weakness we need to fix because the demand for these skill sets is not going away.


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