“America’s entire war on terror is an exercise in imperialism”


Nation-Building Lite


Published: July 28, 2002

The Warlords

The bulky American in combat camouflage, sleeveless pocket vest, wraparound sunglasses and floppy fishing hat is not going to talk to me. He may be C.I.A. or Special Forces, but either way, I’m not going to find out. These people don’t talk to reporters. But in Mazar-i-Sharif, second city of Afghanistan, in this warlord’s compound, with a Lexus and an Audi purring in the driveway, armed mujahedeen milling by the gate and musclemen standing guard in tight black T-shirts and flak jackets and sporting the latest semiautomatic weapons, the heavyset American is the one who matters. He comes with a team that includes a forward air controller, who can call in airstrikes from the big planes doing Daytona 500 loops high in the sky. No one knows how many C.I.A. agents and Special Forces troops there are in country. The number is small — perhaps as few as 350 — but with up-links to air power and precision weapons, who needs regiments of ground troops? When you ask the carpet sellers in Mazar why there has been peace in the city, they point up into the air. Only America, the carpet sellers say, puts its peacekeepers in the sky.

The biggest warlords in northern Afghanistan, Big D (Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum) and Teacher Atta (Gen. Ostad Atta Muhammad), are inside this compound, with a United Nations mediator who wants them to pull their tanks back from the city. In Mazar’s main square, eyeing one another from the backs of their dusty Pajero pickups, equipped with roll bars, fog lights and plastic flowers on the dashboards, are about 50 fighters from each side, fingers on the triggers of rocket-propelled grenade launchers, Kalashnikovs and machine guns. In the past weeks, the militias have been dueling. The fighting has been so bad that the Red Cross hasn’t been able to leave Mazar for the central highlands, where as many as 1.2 million people may be starving.

The presence of the American in the warlord’s compound is something of a puzzle. Bush ran for the presidency saying he was opposed to using American soldiers for nation-building. The Pentagon doesn’t want its warriors turned into cops. Congress is uneasy about American soldiers in open-ended peacekeeping commitments that expose them as terrorist targets. And deep in the background, there still lurks the memory of Vietnam, America’s last full-scale attempt at imperial nation-building. But here in Mazar, Americans are once again doing what looks like nation-building: bringing peace to a city most Americans couldn’t have found on a map a year ago.

Yet the Special Forces aren’t social workers. They are an imperial detachment, advancing American power and interests in Central Asia. Call it peacekeeping or nation-building, call it what you like — imperial policing is what is going on in Mazar. In fact, America’s entire war on terror is an exercise in imperialism. This may come as a shock to Americans, who don’t like to think of their country as an empire. But what else can you call America’s legions of soldiers, spooks and Special Forces straddling the globe?

These garrisons are by no means temporary. Terror can’t be controlled unless order is built in the anarchic zones where terrorists find shelter. In Afghanistan, this means nation-building, creating a state strong enough to keep Al Qaeda from returning. But the Bush administration wants to do this on the cheap, at the lowest level of investment and risk. In Washington they call this nation-building lite. But empires don’t come lite. They come heavy, or they do not last. And neither does the peace they are meant to preserve.

Peace in Mazar, it should be understood, is a strictly relative term. The dusty streets are full of turbaned adolescents with Kalashnikovs slung on their shoulders, and firefights are not uncommon. But the American in the floppy hat is not about to call in airstrikes to stop a militia shootout. He’s there to deter the bigger kind of trouble — tank battles or artillery duels. The question is whether the American presence is sufficient to keep Afghanistan from sliding back into civil war. Senators Richard Lugar and Joe Biden have warned that nation-building will fail here unless the force of 4,500 foreign peacekeepers, currently patrolling in Kabul, is expanded and extended to cities like Mazar. They are undoubtedly right, but the Europeans aren’t likely to back fine talk with actual soldiers, the Pentagon doesn’t want to put peacekeepers on the ground and the Bush administration needs all the legions at its disposal for a potential operation against Iraq. For the time being, it’s American peacekeeping in the air or nothing.

In the vacuum where an Afghan state ought to be, there are warlords like Dostum and Atta. They are the chief obstacle to nation-building, but not because they are feudal throwbacks or old-style bandits in uniform. The warlords in the Mazar negotiations are late-modern creations of the American and Soviet duel for influence in Central Asia. Now that the Americans are ascendant, each warlord has a press officer who speaks good English and lines up interviews with the foreign press.

They are also building a political constituency at home. Dostum has his own local TV station, and its cameras are in the courtyard waiting to put him on the evening news. While their power comes out of the barrel of a gun, they also see themselves as businessmen, tax collectors, tribal authorities and clan leaders. Big D actually began life working in the local gas plant. Both he and Teacher Atta prefer to be known as commanders. A warlord, they explain, preys on his people. A commander protects them. Warlords build schools, repair a road or two and make the occasional grand public gesture.

Big D, for example, has placed a plaque near the entrance to the exquisite blue-green 16th-century mosque in the center of Mazar, letting foreign visitors know — in English — that he paid to have the place rewired and the gardens replanted with box hedges and roses. Big D does not attend to the city’s more banal needs, like sewers, garbage collection or hospitals. These have languished for 25 years. Children with legs ripped apart by mines push themselves along in the dust on homemade carts. But such distress is beneath a warlord’s notice. Holding power in Afghanistan is not an exercise in public service.

Nor is Big D’s newfound attention to the foreign press a sign of a change of heart. About 50 miles away in Sheberghan — inside a palace decorated with baby pink and blue tiles and surrounded by a rose garden and peacocks — he runs a foul and dilapidated prison where he kept about 800 Pakistani Taliban fighters captured in the battle for Kunduz last November. When representatives of the International Committee of the Red Cross visited the prison, they discovered that Dostum was letting the inmates starve to death.

When the local I.C.R.C. delegate reminded the general of his responsibilities, he denied that he had any. Go talk to Karzai in Kabul, he growled. The Red Cross had to step in and put the prisoners on an emergency feeding program like one used in a famine. No sooner had the I.C.R.C. restored the prisoners to health than the good general traded them back to the Pakistanis in a gesture of reconciliation. This is how an upper-level warlord plays the new political game in Afghanistan: by forcing international aid agencies to shoulder responsibilities that are actually his own and then making sure he gets the political credit.

During a break in the negotiations, Big D saunters out into the courtyard. He is a burly figure with short, spiky salt-and-pepper hair that comes down low above his brow, giving him the appearance of an irritable bear. While his bodyguards take up protective positions around him, he makes calls on the latest in satellite phones, a Thuraya. He’s trying to turn himself into a politician, so he dresses like a civilian in a white shirt and slacks. Teacher Atta, when he appears, is wearing a shiny gray suit and carrying a businessman’s diary.

Dostum represents Jumbesh, a military and political faction based in the Uzbek ethnic minority, while Atta represents Jamiat, a more religiously flavored group based among the Tajiks. They are fighting over who will rule Mazar, its blue-green mosque, a population of several million people and a hinterland of well-irrigated fields and some useful natural-gas deposits. But they are also waging a personal vendetta. When I talk to Atta, a tall, gaunt man with deep-set eyes and the intensity of a genuine religious warrior, he says scornfully that while he fought for his country against the Soviet invaders, that low intriguer Dostum was sidling up to the Soviets and keeping out of the fight. As Atta says this, he flicks his white worry beads to and fro like a lion flicking its tail.

Afghanistan has existed as one country since 1919. Although there is a rich heritage of interethnic hatred, most Afghans feel they are Afghans first and Uzbeks, Hazaras, Tajiks or Pashtuns second. This isn’t Bosnia, where the country didn’t exist until 1992, and Croats and Serbs fought a war to annex their parts of Bosnia to Croatia and Serbia. While the Afghan warlords do get their cash and guns from neighboring countries like Iran, Pakistan and Uzbekistan, none of them actually want to dismember the country. The warlords don’t threaten the cohesion of Afghanistan as a nation. They threaten its existence as a state.

According to the great German sociologist Max Weber, states are institutions that exert a monopoly over the legitimate means of violence in a given territory. By that rule of thumb there hasn’t been a state in Afghanistan since the Soviet Union invaded in 1979 and the war of resistance began. Because the warlords have the guns, they also hold the reins of power. The essence of nation-building is getting the guns out of the warlords’ hands and opening up space for political competition free of violence. But this isn’t easy in a country where there is no actual difference between a political party and a militia.

It will take years before the national government in Kabul accumulates enough revenue, international prestige and armed force to draw power away from the warlords. But Bosnia shows it can be done. Six years after the war, the Muslim, Croat and Serb armies are rusting away, the old warlords have gone into politics or business and a small national army of Bosnia is slowly coming into existence. The problem in Bosnia is corruption, and that is a better problem to have than war.

In Afghanistan, the Americans are currently beginning training for what they hope will be an 80,000-man army, air force and border police force for the Karzai government. But most of its manpower will come from one ethnic group, the Tajiks from the Panjshir Valley. Unless more Pashtuns, Uzbeks and Hazaras can be recruited quickly, the national army is going to become just another ethnic militia, albeit one financed by the American taxpayer.

While Karzai waits to take charge of his army, his only option with the warlords is to co-opt them, as he has tried to do with Dostum by appointing him to the grand but empty title of deputy minister of national defense. This means that Dostum’s militia is nominally a part of the national army. However, on the road between Mazar and Sheberghan, the barracks, tank parks and checkpoints are decorated not with Karzai’s picture but with Dostum’s. In the north, at least, Karzai looks like nothing more than mayor of Kabul and vice president for public relations.

It would be as foolish to be discouraged about this as it would be to suppose that American power can change it quickly. History suggests that nation-building is a slow process. America’s own nation-building experience — reconstructing the South after the Civil War — lasted a full century, until the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Overseas, it was the blood and fire of an imposed unconditional surrender in 1945 that enabled America to help rebuild Germany and Japan as liberal democracies. The shattered European states were fully formed to begin with, so the Marshall Plan built on firm foundations. In Bosnia, by contrast, nation-building has been slow because the political institutions left behind by Tito’s Yugoslavia were weak. None of the ethnic groups had any experience in making democracy work.

The American capacity to shape outcomes in Afghanistan, still less to create a state, is constrained by the way it won the war against the Taliban. Its military success last November was victory lite. The winning strategy paired Special Forces teams and air power with local commanders and their militias. When victory came, America thought it had won the war, but the warlords in the Northern Alliance thought they had. Now they dominate the Kabul government and insist that they, rather than the Americans, should shape the peace.

But even they don’t control the Pashtun-dominated south. There, in the valleys and passes bordering Pakistan, nation-building is taking place in the middle of a continuing campaign against Al Qaeda. The only people who know where to find Qaeda fighters are the local warlords, and they won’t go looking unless the United States pays them handsomely and provides them with weapons. Some Washington policy makers profess to be untroubled about this: paying the warlords to hunt Al Qaeda keeps them busy, and keeps them under the control of the Special Forces. Yet the essential contradiction in American efforts to stabilize Afghanistan is that in the south, at least, winning the war on terrorism means consolidating the power of the very warlords who are the chief obstacle to state-building.

Moreover, the question of who is using whom is not easy to answer. Ever since the days of the British North-West Frontier, Afghan tribal leaders have been experts at exploiting imperial troops for their own purposes. It’s no different now. In December, a southern warlord informed a Special Forces unit that a Qaeda detachment was on the road nearby. The detachment was duly hit from the air, only for the Americans to discover that the dead were just some of their warlord’s rivals heading off to Kabul. Instead of controlling its warlord proxies, Washington is discovering that it can be manipulated by them.

he parlay in the compound at Mazar goes on until 7 in the evening. Oncoming darkness concentrates minds — it is not safe, even for warlords, to be on the roads at night, and both Dostum and Atta live outside the city in their own walled enclaves. So at dusk, with the Mazar swallows wheeling in the sky, Big D and Teacher Atta emerge — a deal has obviously been struck — and jump into their black Audi and black Lexus. With their bodyguards clambering aboard backup cars, and the warriors in the Pajero flatbeds falling in behind, the two columns of fighters roar out of the city in a plume of exhaust and dust.

The United Nations negotiators — Mervyn Patterson, a frenetic Northern Irelander, and Jean Arnault, a suave Frenchman — later explain the terms of the deal they have negotiated. ”In the name of Allah, the compassionate and merciful,” the document commits the warlords to withdraw their tanks 100 kilometers from Mazar, to ban heavy weapons and machine guns from the city and to contribute 600 fighters to form a city police force. The negotiators acknowledge that they have no troops to enforce the deal. But they can call on a powerful friend. Throughout the talks, the American with the floppy hat has stood silently in the room.

Imperial presence is the glue that holds Afghan deals together, but there is precious little of it to go around. By comparison, Bosnia, which would fit easily into a couple of Afghanistan’s 30 provinces, has 18,000 peacekeepers. But there are none outside Kabul in a country the size of France. The United States wants a presence here, but not an occupation. Afghanistan has been an imperial plaything since the 19th century, and nothing makes an Afghan reach for his rifle faster than the presence of an occupying foreign power. So in Mazar, indeed anywhere outside Kabul, the imperial presence is a nebulous thing — a Special Forces detachment here, a plane overhead there.

The day after the deal is done, in the Mazar stadium, a dust-blown space usually used for the chaotic Afghan polo known as buzkashi , 600 mujahedeen, stripped of their Afghan dress and now wearing ill-fitting, hot gray uniforms, straggle out onto the parade ground. As their old militia commanders watch from a shaded reviewing stand, sipping cups of tea, the new police force squares off for its first parade. Peace in Afghanistan depends on whether the warlord militias can be lured into policing or other civilian lines of work, and the only people determined to make this transition happen are a silent quartet from Special Forces, watching from the reviewing stand, just behind the warlords’ adjutants.

Nation-building lite looks too lite in Mazar to be credible for long. Authority relies on awe as much as on force, and where awe is missing, as it was in Mogadishu, Somalia, in 1993, Americans die. The British imperialists understood the power of awe. They governed huge tracts of Africa, and populations numbering in the millions, with no more than a couple of administrators for every thousand square miles. In Afghanistan, awe is maintained not by the size of the American presence but by the timeliness and destructiveness of American air power. What the Afghan warlords saw being inflicted on their Taliban opponents, they know can be visited upon them. For the moment, this keeps the peace.

However, awe can be sustained only if force is just — that is, accurate. When American planes pulverize an innocent wedding party, as they did earlier this month, just because some of the more exuberant partygoers were firing into the air, Afghan style, the planners back in Tampa, Fla., will tell you it was just a mistake. But it is more than a mistake: it is a major political error, and the more errors there are, the less awe and the more resistance American power will awaken.

Effective imperial power also requires controlling the subject people’s sense of time, convincing them that they will be ruled forever. The illusion of permanence was one secret of the British Empire’s long survival. Empires cannot be maintained and national interests cannot be secured over the long term by a people always looking for the exit.

American power has a reputation for fickleness. C.I.A. agents mysteriously appeared in Afghanistan in the mid-1980’s and supplied the mujahedeen with Stinger missiles. Once the Soviets were in flight, the Americans went home, leaving Afghanistan to the mercy of the warlords. Years of devastation and war ensued. Afghans have no problem with the idea of a limited American imperial presence, provided that it brings peace and chases away the foreign terrorists from Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Chechnya. But Afghans look at these American imperialists and wonder, How long will they stay? If, as the rumors go, war against Iraq’s Saddam Hussein is next, will the man in the floppy hat with his communications team still be here in the fall?

Back in Kabul, past the Marine security cordon at the fortress-style American Embassy, Elisabeth Kvitashvili, the head of programs in Afghanistan for the United States Agency for International Development, will remind you bluntly: ”We’re not here because of the drought and the famine and the condition of women. We’re here because of 9/11. We’re here because of Osama bin Laden.” U.S.A.I.D. was spending $174 million in Afghanistan before 9/11, feeding a people abandoned by the Taliban government. But that figure doubled after 9/11, as languishing humanitarian motive found itself reinforced by the national interest of making Afghanistan safe from terrorism.

In reality, rebuilding failed states will never guarantee American security against the risk of terror. Even well-run states, like Britain and Spain, can find themselves unwilling harbors for terrorist groups. Rebuilding Afghanistan’s institutions won’t necessarily keep Al Qaeda from creeping back into the country’s mountain passes and caves. Nor will fixing Afghanistan banish terror from the region. It is just driving Al Qaeda south into the frontier provinces of Pakistan.

Given how difficult it is to police the North-West Frontier, America will be tempted to declare victory early and go home. Already, uncertainty about American intentions is causing insecurity. The recent assassination of Hajji Abdul Qadir, a vice president and one of the few ethnic Pashtuns to join the Karzai government, is not just the normal turbulence of Afghan politics. It is an attempt to bring down the government, and if it did collapse and civil wars were to start again, as in 1992, the United States could not walk away as easily as it did last time. This time the disgrace would stick. Al Qaeda would conclude that if it can topple Karzai, why not topple President Musharraf in Pakistan? Actual defeat, in other words, is a possibility. To avoid it, Washington will have to help Karzai, and the only help that counts in Afghanistan is troops.

Even with American help, the best Karzai and his Kabul government can hope for is to appoint the least-bad warlords as civilian governors to keep a rough-and-ready peace and collect some taxes. This sort of ordered anarchy, among loosely controlled regional fiefs, would provide ordinary Afghans with basic security. This may be all that is possible, and it may be all that American interests require. Keeping expectations realistic is the key to staying the course there. Understanding what’s at stake is just as important. America could still lose here. If it did, Al Qaeda would secure a victory as large as it achieved on 9/11.

The Internationals

Since the end of the cold war, nation-building has become a multibillion-dollar business. This is not because rich nations have been seized by a new tenderness of heart toward poor and failing ones. The percentage of Western budgets devoted to foreign aid fell steadily in the post-cold-war period. At a recent conference in Mexico, rich countries promised to do better. But still, with the exception of tiny Denmark, which just scraped by, there isn’t a country in the world that devotes even 1 percent of its gross domestic product to helping poor countries. The United States is nearly at the bottom of the pile, spending a derisory 0.1 percent of G.D.P.

Still, small sums eventually add up, and when you figure in all the checks and credit-card donations from ordinary people flowing into nongovernmental development charities, the money for nation-building aid rises into scores of billions of dollars every year. The new mantra of this industry is governance. Economic development is impossible, and humanitarian aid is a waste of time, so the theory goes, unless the country in question has effective governance: rule of law, fire walls against corruption, democracy and a free press. Since most of the countries that need help have none of these things, nation-building programs to create them have become the chief beneficiaries of government aid budgets.

Nation-building has become the cure of choice for the epidemic of ethnic civil war and state failure that has convulsed the developing world since the end of the long imperial peace of the cold war. The nation-building caravan has moved from Cambodia in 1993, where the United Nations supervised an election; to Angola, where it failed to secure a peace in 1994; to Sarajevo, where it was supposed to create multiethnic democracy; to Pristina, where it was supposed to stop the victorious Kosovars from killing all the remaining Serbs; to Dili, in East Timor, where it tried to create a government for a country left devastated by the departing Indonesian militias. Wherever the traveling caravan of nation-builders settles, it creates an instant boomtown, living on foreign money and hope. But boomtowns inevitably go bust. In Sarajevo, for example, the internationals arrived in 1996 after Dayton with $6 billion to spend. Now, six years later, the money is all but gone, and the caravan is moving on to Kabul.

Kabul is the Klondike of the new century, a place where a young person can make, if not a fortune, then a stellar career riding the tide of international money that is flooding in with every United Nations flight from Islamabad. It’s one of the few places where a bright spark just out of college can end up in a job that comes with a servant and a driver. So Kabul has the social attractions of a colonial outpost joined to the feverish excitement of a boomtown. But unlike the Klondike, this gold rush is being paid for not by speculators and panhandlers but by rich Western governments.

Empire means big government. One paradox of the new American empire is that it is being constructed by a Republican administration that hates big government. Its way around this contradiction is to get its allies to shoulder the burdens it won’t take on itself. In the new imperial division of labor on display in Afghanistan, the Americans do most of the fighting while the Europeans, who have no ideological problems with big government but don’t like fighting, are only too happy to take on the soft sides of nation-building: roads, schools, sanitation and water.

Rebuilding Afghanistan altogether is projected to cost between $14 and $18 billion over the next decade. In Tokyo in January, promises were made of $1.8 billion for reconstruction this year. The Afghans heard the promises. Now they’re waiting for the money. In anticipation, Kabul landlords have jacked their rents sky-high — a decent four-bedroom villa that rented for $1,000 a month only a year ago now commands as much as $10,000.

In the Kabul bazaars, the booksellers are doing a brisk business in English dictionaries and phrase books. All young Afghans want to learn English, the magic code that opens the door to salaries as drivers, translators, secretaries and cleaners. The car-repair shops, located in rusting freight containers, now hang out hopeful signs — Ponctur Repair,” ”Fix Foraing Engin” — in the hope of snagging one of the passing white Toyota Land Cruisers. Another sign proclaims ”The Golden Lotos Hotel and Restaurant Is Ready Again to Serve You Each Kind of Internal and External Delicious Foods.”

Nation-building isn’t supposed to be an exercise in colonialism, but the relationship between the locals and the internationals is inherently colonial. The locals do the translating, cleaning and driving while the internationals do the grand imperial planning. The locals complain that the internationals don’t understand anything, not even the local languages. Behind one prominent U.N. bureaucrat’s desk in Kabul there is a furtive crib sheet in Dari, Pashto and English: Stop, Go, Left, Right, Please, Thank You. The internationals may be ignorant — may even arrive believing that the Taliban invented the burka and that women’s oppression began with the Taliban seizure of Kabul in 1996 — but ignorance does not stop them from sighing about the corruption, complacency and confusion of the locals.

In nation-building contexts, however, the international lament is complicated by guilt. Every international in Sarajevo knew that his government could have stopped the Bosnian war. In Kabul, everyone knows that the martyrdom of the city, between 1992 and 1996, when dueling warlords reduced large swaths of it to rubble, could have been stopped had the big powers not abandoned Afghanistan after the Soviet withdrawal. So any smart local will exploit international guilt, while any smart international will blame the locals.

These are the colonial continuities in nation-building, but Afghanistan is at least supposed to be different. Such is the gospel according to Lakhdar Brahimi, the wily Algerian diplomat who is the boss of the 500-plus U.N. staff members already in place. Brahimi’s engagement with Afghanistan dates to 1997, when he first tried to broker cease-fires among the warlords. When I ask him what is different this time, he plays with his worry beads and says that all the warlords assure him that they have learned a lesson. They don’t want to repeat the brutal factional fighting of 1992. But he freely admits that the fighting between Dostum and Atta in Mazar suggests that all the talk of a change of heart may be just talk.

Brahimi has no influence over the American presence in Afghanistan or over its war on terror in the southern provinces. But he worries at the way they are arming warlords in the south. ”I tell the Americans: Why do your planes fly at night here? Because you are afraid of Stinger missiles. And who, may I remind you, brought these missiles to Afghanistan?” Whether Stingers are actually being turned against the Americans, the point remains: if you feed a snake, it may return to bite you.

Brahimi has fought the United Nations bureaucracy in New York to keep the Afghan operation from being flooded with out-of-work nation-builders from the downsizing operations in Kosovo, Bosnia and East Timor. He has also insisted on coordinating the warring U.N. agencies: ”We want to be sure that the left hand knows what the right hand is doing.” As United Nations boss, he has resisted playing the role of imperial proconsul, insisting that ”the Afghan government is in the driving seat.”

The theory is that Brahimi’s people will force the ”U.N. family” and what is laughingly called ”the international community” to work in harmony. The reality, as in all nation-building cities, is ferocious competition among donors, United Nations agencies and nongovernmental organizations for a market share in money and misery.

The U.N. nation-builders all repeat the mantra that they are here to ”build capacity” and to ”empower local people.” This is the authentic vocabulary of the new imperialism, only it isn’t as new as it sounds. The British called it ”indirect rule.” Local agents ran the day-to-day administration; local potentates exercised some power, while real decisions were made back in imperial capitals. Indirect rule is the pattern in Afghanistan: the illusion of self-government joined to the reality of imperial tutelage.

The white Land Cruisers, the satellite dishes beaming e-mail messages skyward, the banks of computers inside all the U.N. compounds, offer a drastic contrast with Afghan government offices, where groups of men sit around drinking tea, without a computer in sight. At the Afghan Assistance Coordination Authority, the Afghan and international officials trying to coordinate reconstruction believe that as much as $700 million of the money pledged at Tokyo has so far gone to U.N. agencies, while only $100 million or so has gone to the Afghan administration itself.

The easy talk about helping Afghanistan stand on its own two feet does not square with the hard interest that each Western government has in financing not the Afghans, but its own national relief organizations. These fly a nation’s flags over some road or school that a politician back home can take credit for. American foreign assistance concentrates on food aid in part because it sops up U.S. farm surpluses. The unpleasant underside of nation-building is that the internationals’ first priority is building their own capacity — increasing their budgets and giving themselves good jobs. The last priority is financing the Afghan government.

Admittedly, the capacity of this government is limited. After the new Afghan cabinet ministers came to work in January, there wasn’t a fax machine, telephone, desk or chair in their offices until the United Nations shipped them a planeload of office supplies. Now most of the available chairs are occupied by redundant bureaucrats. The Afghan foreign minister, Abdullah Abdullah, confesses that the only way to get anything done in the ministries is to identify an ”implementation cell” of 5 to 40 competent people and to pension off the rest.

But the administrative weakness of the Afghan government is also an excuse to keep it enfeebled. How else can a state be created, unless it is given the initial capacity to deliver services and raise its own taxes? It’s a colonialist fallacy to suppose that Afghanistan need remain a basket case. Until the Soviet invasion and the civil war that followed, it exported dried fruit, vegetables, precious stones and natural gas. A ”Made in Afghanistan” label could support a big export industry in carpets and luxury clothing. Yet all of these bright prospects will remain a gleam in a few Afghan economists’ eyes unless Western governments can provide the Karzai administration with enough operating revenue to get through the first years.

Ashraf Ghani, the worldly and exhausted former World Bank official who is now the government’s minister of finance, sits in a wood-paneled office in the prime minister’s compound and directs his ire at the condescension of the U.N. bureaucracy and Western governments. Not a single one of the more than 350 projects submitted by international organizations and N.G.O.’s, Ghani says, actually promised to consult the Afghan interim administration. ”This government is asking for accountability,” he says.

Ghani is the most senior example of a trend: the return of the Afghan elite from exile. These returning exiles are not always popular. They are in a hurry, and exile makes them impatient with the old ways at home. Still, the Afghan diaspora, estimated at more than four million people worldwide, is going to be the country’s chief source of expertise and investment in the years ahead.

There is growing fury, just visible beneath Ghani’s veneer of calm, at the contrast between the high-sounding language of capacity-building and the reality of capacity confiscation. How is Afghanistan to build up its own civil service if the government can pay senior officials only $150 a month and any international N.G.O. or newspaper can pay its drivers $1,000? How can the Afghan government coordinate reconstruction when every day N.G.O.’s arrive, fan out into the countryside and find a school to rebuild, an orphanage to establish or an orthopedic center to reconstruct, all without telling the Kabul government anything?

Ghani and his staff have put together a national development framework, and in a country where almost everything is broken — roads, schools, agriculture, electric power — it establishes what has to be fixed first. But how do you get foreign agencies to follow the plan, and how do you build accountability between a penniless government and rich donors who don’t trust the Afghans to spend it wisely?

Bosnia, Kosovo and East Timor led the internationals to believe that most of the aid that deluges these countries gets siphoned off into corrupt pockets. In Bosnia, the entire criminal and civil justice system was staffed with corrupt leftovers from the Communist era. The internationals ignored this and insisted on early elections, believing that democracy would throw out the crooks. Six years on, Bosnia has had four elections, it still has the same leadership and there hasn’t been a single conviction for bribes in a Bosnian court.

This failure to grasp that democracy works only when it goes hand in hand with the rule of law has been the costliest mistake in the Balkans. Instead of creating fire walls against the abuse of power, nation-building exercises usually take the form of funneling all resources into the hands of a few designated locals whom the internationals deign to trust. When these designated locals begin skimming, the internationals throw up their hands in disillusion. The right strategy, at least if the Balkans is anything to go by, is to build in checks and balances from the start, by helping the Afghans to rewrite the criminal and civil code and train a new generation of lawyers, prosecutors, judges and criminal investigators. Without these legal foundations, no country can make the transition from a war economy to a peace economy.

Currently, the war economy in Afghanistan, the one run by the warlords, depends heavily on the poppy economy. War and drugs will strangle the honest economy if they can’t be brought under control. All the money flowing in from international donors and N.G.O.’s will sustain the city of Kabul alone and will probably tail off within five years. That leaves the agricultural economy as the backbone of the country: the lovingly irrigated mulberry orchards of Gulbahar, the expanse of vines in the Shamali Plain, the rice and wheat fields on the plains between Mazar and Sheberghan. Afghanistan may be a poor country, but there is no reason, if the war and drug economies can be controlled, that it cannot feed itself.

For 25 years, Afghan resources have been siphoned into buying weapons. Changing these priorities will take more than turning warlords into politicians. Local revenues will flow to desperately needed projects like rebuilding villages, putting sewers in towns and collecting the garbage only after ordinary people, especially women, get some way to make their voices heard.

The problem is that most people, especially women, have no institutions of their own. The traditional Afghan jirgas are occasional assemblies convened only for emergencies; the village shura is the preserve of older men and is often dominated by local commanders. Since 1994, Samantha Reynolds, an intense British woman in her 30’s who runs the U.N.’s urban regeneration program, has been convening community forums in urban areas to bring together neighborhood residents — at first with men and then, as confidence builds, with women as well — to demand basic services, like garbage collection, electricity, sewers and schools. When the municipal officials or local commanders fail to respond, these groups tax themselves to provide them. The Afghan government is currently considering the expansion of the community forums nationwide. They would work out what towns and villages need, apply directly to a World Bank fund and then set about implementing them. It’s a grass-roots strategy for building up local leadership, as well as undercutting local commanders and busy-body internationals alike.

In the 50’s and the 60’s, thanks to Soviet and American engineers, Afghanistan had some of the best roads in Asia. Nancy Hatch Dupree’s old guidebook, published in 1971, and now remaindered on the stalls of Kabul’s book market, says that you can get from Kabul to Jalalabad in a couple of hours, and Kabul to Mazar in six. No more. Like those in all failed states, Afghanistan’s roads give out when you leave the capital. So do electric power and telephones. It’s hard not to think that the place needs fewer humanitarian bureaucrats and more civil and electrical engineers.

All the same, infrastructure can’t create a nation. Bosnia now has the roads and schools it needs, yet its ethnic groups remain as divided as ever. But it’s true that Afghanistan won’t have a functioning economy until the farmers can get their fruit and vegetables to market and the big truckers from Pakistan and Iran can get goods up to the northern towns. Here the Afghans do need international investment. They can mobilize the construction crews — everybody’s idea for weakening the warlords is to create construction jobs for the militiamen — but they need the big lenders to come through with money for the surveys, the engineers and the heavy equipment.

The Afghans are still waiting for delivery on almost all the promises the internationals have made. The overriding fact about reconstruction, at least in the first year, is that the pace set by Afghans has been faster than the internationals can cope with. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees expected the refugee return to be rather like it was in Bosnia — slow and cautious. Instead, it came in a flood that overwhelmed its resources. By the end of the year, an astonishing 1.6 million refugees are expected to return.

At the beginning, the group was able to provide each family that arrived at its reception center in Pul-i-Charki, on the outskirts of Kabul, with 150 kilograms — more than 300 pounds — of wheat, together with a full medical examination and payment to Pakistani truckers to take them to their villages. Now the big government donors are telling U.N.H.C.R. that they can’t fully finance the program, and the organization is cutting back the food ration and the medical assistance.

In March, Unicef, the U.N. children’s fund, handed every school-age child a plastic bag containing a basic reader, purged of references to guns or warlords, together with a pencil and a writing book. The schools opened, and since then attendance has risen from 5 percent of the school-age population to 35 percent. Now, in the hot summer days, by the roadsides you see files of barefoot, scrofulous but cheerful children — and girls, too — walking to school, carrying their Unicef bags. But the numbers are not likely to climb above 35 percent, because donors have given Unicef only 60 percent of what it has asked for in its Afghan appeals.

Unless these gaps in financing can be filled, there is going to be trouble. When the refugees get home, they discover that their fields are still full of mines and that the de-miners can’t do the work fast enough. The irrigation systems that used to water their fields have been blown up, and the international experts are still walking around doing exploratory studies of how to reconnect them. The villages in the Shamali Plain, where the front lines were, are still flattened. So the families camp in the ruins, with their U.N.H.C.R. tarpaulins as tent material, and try to get a kitchen garden going. Each refugee who returns without a field to till or a home to live in is another potential recruit for the warlords’ militias. Afghanistan doesn’t need to be on life support forever, but if it doesn’t get sustained assistance for the first three years it may not escape its demons.

The Brick Maker

Imperialism used to be the white man’s burden. This gave it a bad reputation. But imperialism doesn’t stop being necessary just because it becomes politically incorrect. Nations sometimes fail, and when they do, only outside help — imperial power — can get them back on their feet. Nation-building is the kind of imperialism you get in a human rights era, a time when great powers believe simultaneously in the right of small nations to govern themselves and in their own right to rule the world. Nation-building lite is supposed to reconcile these principles: to safeguard American interests in Central Asia at the lowest possible cost and to give Afghanistan back a stable government of its own choosing. These principles of imperial power and self-determination are not easy to reconcile. The empire wants quick results, and that means an early exit. The Afghans want us to protect them, and at the same time help them back on their feet. That means sticking around for a while.

Washington had better decide what it wants. If it won’t sustain and increase its military presence here, the other internationals will start heading for the exit. If that occurs, there is little to stop Afghanistan from becoming, once again, the terror and heroin capital of the world. There is no reason that this needs to happen. Afghans themselves know they have only one more chance. They understand the difficult truth that their best hope of freedom lies in a temporary experience of imperial rule.

They are ready to seize the moment. It is easy to be cynical about the imperial outsiders, however necessary they may be, but it is hard not to be moved by the Afghans themselves. The nation-builders to bet on are those refugee families piled onto the brightly painted Pakistani trucks moving up the dusty roads, the children perched on the mattresses, like Mowgli astride the head of an elephant, gazing toward home.

The nation-builders to invest in are the teachers, especially the women who taught girls in secret during the Taliban years. I met one in an open-air school right in the middle of Kabul’s most destroyed neighborhood. She wrote her name in a firm, bold hand in my notebook, and she knew exactly what she needed: chalk, blackboards, desks, a roof and, God willing, a generation of peace. At her feet, on squares of U.N.H.C.R. sheeting, sat her class, 20 upturned faces, all female, having the first reading lesson of their lives.

Finally, you could believe in the brick maker, alone with his 5-year-old son, in the middle of an expanse of desolate ruins in downtown Kabul. After the militia fighting in 1992, nobody bothered to make bricks. What was the point? The shelling might start all over again. But now the brick maker had his wooden form in his hands, pressing it down into a mixture of straw and mud that has served to make bricks since the time of the Prophet. Behind him, a hundred neat brown bricks were drying in the last dusty light of the day. The brick maker had a beard, a dirty caftan and a cap on his head. All he had ever known was war. When I asked him why he thought it was time to make bricks again, he said: ”We have a government now. People need houses.” He didn’t have time to talk more. He was too busy making bricks.

It would be too much to say that the brick maker wants us infidels here, exactly, but I would venture that he knows he needs us. With us here he is able to gamble. But without the Americans in floppy hats nobody is going to feel safe enough to start building a house with his bricks.

Michael Ignatieff, a frequent contributor to the magazine, is the Carr Professor of Human Rights Policy and director of the Carr Center at the Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University.

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