in Just War Theory

Nation-Building on the Cheap

Spencer Ackerman has a post today laying out the argument for abandoning the war in Afghanistan. According to Ackerman:

It’s perfectly coherent to assert that the U.S. has interests in Country X that are worth pursuing — at acceptable cost. Setting out a test for whether they’re achievable at Cost-Value Y, measured in time, blood and treasure, is rational. So is deciding at the end of the test that the resources necessary to achieve that interest exceed the acceptable cost. And in this case, it’s not that the U.S. fights for just 12-to-18 months. Eighteen months from now is January 2011, which will make the Afghanistan war nearly a decade old, an often overlooked point. No nation has interests that are worth limitless cost short of survival.

That last point is obviously true enough. But I’m struck by the…well, impatience now on display in much of the liberal blogosphere regarding Afghanistan.

Recall that a few months ago, the main criticism of then-President Bush is that he had diverted resources from a just war in Afghanistan to a totally unnecessary (and probably unwinnable) war in Iraq. I’m pretty much on board with that assessment, though I’d add “blatantly unjust” to the description of the Iraq war. But now, a few months and one serious commitment to Afghanistan later, there seems to be a growing desire to cut our losses and get out of Afghanistan.

This strikes me as problematic on a couple of different levels.

First, just from a purely moral perspective, there’s a very real sense in which the mess in Afghanistan is our fault. We armed and trained a bunch of lunatics because they happened to hate the same people we hated at the time. We did not, however, give much thought to the fact that those lunatics hated us only slightly less than they hated the Soviets. Moreover, once the lunatics had run off the Soviets, we pretty much just left them to rot in their totally devastated country. We continued to turn a blind eye when the lunatics helped take over the country and began killing anyone who didn’t pray to the right imaginary being and abusing the half of the population that didn’t pee standing up. In fact, we didn’t pay any attention at all until some of those lunatics helped crash some airplanes into some buildings.

The U.S. (rightly enough) sent troops in with the dual mission of (a) removing the lunatics and (b) stabilizing and rebuilding the country so that the lunatics couldn’t come back. We did a pretty good job of (a). Not so much on (b).

But here’s the thing: nation building takes a lot of time. It takes even more time when the nation in question is mostly rubble, has no real sense of “nationhood” and is populated by lots of people who haven’t yet realized that we had this Enlightenment thingy a few hundred years ago. It’s naive to think that we can simply kill off the lunatics and expect Afghanistan to instantly morph into Sweden.

Look, say what you will about colonialism (or “nation building” if you prefer the modern terminology), but in those few instances where it has (arguably) been successful, it has generally taken a long damn time. Japan needed decades after WWII to transform into a liberal democracy. The Brits were in India for more than a century. NATO troops still patrol Kosovo and Bosnia more than a decade after intervention (and those were already post-Enlightenment civilizations).

We can certainly argue about the wisdom of attempting to impose liberal democracy anywhere. I’ve argued in favor of a limited colonialism in failed states, and it’s pretty hard to see Afghanistan as anything but a failed state. There is, of course, a difference between saying that X is morally permitted and Y ought to do X. We can still argue about whether the U.S. ought to attempt any sort of nation building in Afghanistan. But, to the extent that we think we ought to undertake such an attempt, we should be aware that it’s a costly and extremely long-term endeavor. One that may well be measured in decades.

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