Can we rebuild Afghanistan?

There is no Marshall Plan for this tattered nation, and the lessons of trying to fix Cambodia, Bosnia and Somalia aren't inspiring.

Published October 11, 2001 6:28PM (EDT)

It's the American way of war: First we destroy a country, then we try to rebuild it -- and usually fail. Is there any reason to believe Afghanistan will be different?

Even before the U.S. attacks, much of Afghanistan was rubble. The pictures of Afghan desolation released by the Pentagon to date hint at military progress, which means even more destruction: Where training camps and buildings once stood, only strewn debris could be seen; roads and airstrips were warped from straight lines into pockmarked patches. Few worthwhile targets remained by the fourth day of bombing, the New York Times reported Wednesday. The initial campaign, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld declared, was clearly a "success."

But today's success story could be tomorrow's nightmare. It's impossible to know when or how the war in Afghanistan will end -- or even if the United States will win. Administration sound bites discussing limited deployment of "special forces" elicit a distinct sense of déjà vu from those who still remember Vietnam. But should the United States indeed be victorious in removing the Taliban from power, the pictures of ruined infrastructure and hospitals unintentionally hit demand their own response.

The good news is, the U.S. has pledged to help rebuild the embattled nation. The bad news is, the task will entail not just nation-building, but wholesale "nation-creating," says Dan Goure, a senior fellow with the Lexington Institute, a military think tank. There's no "there there," he says. "It's a tar baby, because once you get there, how do you get out?"

But the U.S. is already there, and foreign experts see assistance to Afghanistan as an inevitable outcome of the war, because Americans have been rebuilding countries that they have attacked ever since World War II.

"For most Americans, the concept of conducting a war against a government rather than against a people is very engrained," says Ilana Kass, professor at the National War College in Washington. "In every case of conflict, America has gone in and tried to rebuild after the war is over."

Reconstruction, suggests Kass and other experts, will lead to stability, which will in turn transform Afghanistan from a haven for terrorists into a vital part of the international community.

For many observers, the option of fighting and leaving -- something the United States is already guilty of at least once in Afghanistan, after having abandoned the country once the Soviets were successfully pushed out -- will only lead to more chaos, more radical fundamentalism. Terrorism, the most ardent proponents of intervention argue, can't be defeated without a complete reconstruction of Afghanistan's government, infrastructure and society. In effect, what is needed is a 21st century version of the Marshall Plan that rebuilt Europe after World War II.

"Our fundamental goal of eliminating terrorism and keeping Americans safe can't be realized without improving the average Afghan's lot," says Ivo Daalder, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who worked for the National Security Council under President Clinton. "We can do nothing less than completely rebuild the country."

Politicians, so far, are going along. The United Nations has promised to create a $700 million fund for Afghanistan, while Sen. Joseph Biden called last week for a $1 billion recovery and development package for Central Asia. Even President Bush, who has repeatedly stressed that his administration wants nothing to do with "nation building," has allocated $320 million for short-term aid. Since the Bush administration is already simultaneously dropping food and bombs, says Kass, "they'll surely be thinking of offering assistance after the bombs stop dropping."

But the Bush administration has shown no signs of abandoning its opposition to broad international intervention. The money it has set aside specifically applies to short-term humanitarian needs created by the war effort. And even if the staunch isolationists in the White House recognize that there are huge benefits to creating a stable Afghanistan, they might have a hard time convincing Americans that the cause makes sense. The potential costs -- politically, economically and militarily -- could tip the political scale.

The success of the Marshall Plan more than 50 years ago notwithstanding, recent history is less than encouraging when one looks for examples of successful national reconstruction campaigns. Stabilization campaigns in Cambodia, Haiti, Somalia, Bosnia and elsewhere have cost billions -- and substantially failed.

And the basic conditions of such countries shine in comparison to Afghanistan. Decades of civil war and foreign invasions have destroyed what little infrastructure previously existed, even as a two-year drought has ruined the country's ability to feed itself. Most of the educated class that might be willing to create stable government left long ago, and even if they returned, Afghanistan has little history of self-government to fall back on. Add to all of this a rugged terrain that makes any kind of geographic cohesion extremely difficult and you end up with a quagmire that defies description.

"[Fixing Afghanistan] is more difficult and complex than anything the international community has done in the last 10 years," says Kass. "It's bigger than Vietnam and Korea."

Afghanistan belonged in the Stone Age long before American bombs started dropping. Over the past 30 years, while other developing countries in Asia and Latin America surged forward or at least held their ground, Afghanistan hurtled backward.

"Every sector needs repair," says Barnett R. Rubin, an Afghan scholar and author of "The Search for Peace in Afghanistan: From Buffer State to Failed State" and "The Fragmentation of Afghanistan: State Formation and Collapse in the International System."

"Banks?" he asks. "There are none.

"Roads? They are totally destroyed.

"Agriculture? It's the main economic activity, but if people are not to grow opium poppy for survival they will need markets (therefore roads) and access to foreign markets, and credit, vocational training, and measures to prevent the population from cramming the ruined cities."

Communications systems also don't exist, hospitals lack basic medicine and schools are rare. Cities look like "graveyards for giants," says Bob Laprade, deputy director of CARE, an aid agency that's been in Afghanistan for years. "The only thing left standing are single walls where buildings used to stand."

The only way to help Afghanistan without getting in too deep, says the Lexington Institute's Dan Goure, would be to keep the campaign limited. Start small, improve the roads. "The history of Africa shows that when the road network fractures, so does the country. Congo is a great example; as the roads started being destroyed in the '70s, the place started breaking apart, ceasing to be a cohesive place. Then it went down to tribe or group."

But a road-building effort alone would take years. The level of devastation matches or exceeds that of Cambodia, and it took a decade to improve the infrastructure there, according to Joel Charny, a Refugees International expert on Asia who worked in Cambodia during the '80s and '90s. With Afghanistan's more rugged, mountainous terrain and larger geographic area, significant transportation solutions could require 20 years.

Plus, roads can't be built without some level of stability, says Charny. "Without a legitimate government, you can't start reconstruction," he says. There must be some sense of security -- "confidence that aid workers won't be killed" while laying down pavement.

"Roads and hospitals and foods are all part of the solution, but if you don't address the underlying problem, infrastructure makes no difference," says Daalder of the Brookings Institution. "Roads just mean rebels can move faster; hospitals simply mean that rebels have a better place to take care of their wounded."

Creating stability out of Afghanistan's fractured and feuding tribes won't be easy -- even in the unlikely event that the country's long-exiled king, Zahir Shah, provides a center for factions to unite around. Some pessimists believe that the only way forward may to be institute an all-out U.N. protectorate -- "benign colonialism" in the words of Jamie Metzl, a former State Department staffer under President Clinton.

Others believe that making plans for reconstruction might be premature. The war has hardly begun, after all. But Barnett Rubin is already writing a formal plan for redeveloping Afghanistan. Rubin's proposals are founded on a small government presence. Success can only be achieved, he says, by "getting the institutions right." A "small task-oriented central government presiding over a decentralized administration" would do. International groups, not just the U.N. or the U.S., could put this government in place and assist leaders with the infant democracy, as they've successfully done in other countries, such as East Timor. A legal framework for accountability would be established at the same time, to guard against corruption.

But will Rubin's plans, or any others, actually work? The key ingredient of any rebuilding effort lies within the country's borders; to sum up the view of most foreign policy experts, both conservative and liberal, "the only ones who can rebuild Afghanistan are the Afghans themselves."

Afghan disunity offers little cause for optimism.

"The ethnic issues are very complicated," says Charny of Refugees International. Every attempt to create a legitimate government over the past 20 years has failed because no one could get along."

The demographics of the country make extended war even more probable. Afghanistan today is a society of warriors, men who know nothing but war. Not only do many families have no primary breadwinner, because he's been killed, but "for those men who are still there, the retraining mission is extremely daunting," says Martha Brill Olcott of the Carnegie Foundation. "They're not even military men who have experience with discipline. They're guerrillas."

Getting them to put down their guns will require huge effort, and may not ever succeed. With a ready supply of funders and with so many caves and other places to hide, Taliban soldiers could become guerrillas once again. Even if most of the country wants peace, a small, well-armed minority could disrupt any attempt to rebuild.

The Cambodian example offers a potent lesson. In Cambodia, a $2 billion international attempt to create peace and rebuild the country dragged on for a decade because a handful of warring factions -- including the Khmer Rouge -- wouldn't put down their weapons. Even now, after a peace agreement and a series of democratic and economic reforms, the government is widely considered hopelessly corrupt.

Stability is fragile, chiefly because "the U.N. couldn't govern the country," says Charny. "They had people in the capital and a military presence throughout the country, but it wasn't enough."

Somalia also reveals how difficult it will be to convince warriors that war is not the answer to their problems. The desert country on the eastern coast of Africa, like Afghanistan, suffers from a long-term drought. There is a lack of infrastructure that rivals Afghanistan's and the society is dominated by tribes and clans that have grievances stretching back for centuries. War has become a way of life, and attempts to help have completely failed.

Not only was there "nothing for the international community to put back together," as one aid worker puts it, but combat couldn't be quelled. In 1993, 18 American servicemen lost their lives in a commando raid aimed at eliminating a local warlord, and since then, humanitarian agencies have largely abandoned the country.

Such agencies fled Haiti as well, though war had little to do with it. Political squabbling and a failure to hold clean elections prevented the Haitian parliament from passing reforms that would have earned the country $500 million in economic aid. "We went into Haiti saying we would return the country to democracy, but failed," says Daalder.

"Why?" asks Stephanie Neuman, co-author of "War in the Third World," and a professor of international studies at Columbia. "Because the Aristide government wasn't interested in helping its people, didn't care about democracy and development. They just wanted power."

Even without war, then, restructuring is difficult. To a certain extent, it's simply a matter of local will and capability. Secretary of State George C. Marshall knew this. When he first announced his Marshall Plan for rebuilding Europe after World War II, he stressed that it "would be neither fitting nor efficacious for this government to undertake to draw up unilaterally a program designed to place Europe on its feet economically.

"This is the business of the Europeans," he said. "The initiative, I think, must come from Europe."

But if assistance can only do so much and if Afghanistan threatens to cost billions of dollars and possibly American lives, why bother?

President Bush must be asking himself the same question. He ran on a platform of avoiding messy international conflicts. Nation-building, he argued in debates, wasn't in the American interest.

Now, though, national security and nation-building seem suddenly intertwined. The paradox -- Bush's new dedication to security warring with his old commitment to isolation -- has yet to be resolved. His administration is walking a vague, gray line. Spokesman Ari Fleischer has repeatedly said that "it's not the job of the U.S. to engage in nation-building," but he's also stressed that "the U.S. will work with those who seek to create an Afghanistan that is peaceful, economically developed and terrorist-free."

Which is it? And what exactly is the difference between the two? When a reporter asked just that on Monday, Fleischer simply explained that the stance is "exactly what it says."

Observers surmise that the president simply hasn't made up his mind. "They recognize that we have to do something, but I'm not convinced they know what to do," says Olcott.

At least one member of the opposition party, Joe Biden, D-Dela., does have a clear vision, however, of why reconstructing Afghanistan is important. No other politicians have yet supported him, but as far as he's concerned, helping Afghanistan -- and announcing the plan as soon as possible -- will help win over the Muslim world.

"We must not permit this war to be mischaracterized as a battle against the people of Afghanistan or the wider Muslim world," he told Congress Oct. 3. "If we can't make this distinction" -- through long-term aid -- "all our efforts are doomed to failure."

Policy experts go further, noting that leaving could do more damage than staying. The idea is that once American forces leave, a power vacuum will follow. Into it will flow support from all sides.

Even if Afghanistan is a "tar baby," as the Lexington Institute's Goure puts it, it can't be shunned. "If you leave Afghanistan to its own devices, the danger is greater than what it is now," he says. "You don't just return to the Taliban. The lack of parental guidance means that everyone -- Russia, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan -- intensifies their support for specific ethnicities. Jumping in may not make things better, but it's the only thing that won't make things worse."

By Damien Cave

Damien Cave is an associate editor at Rolling Stone and a contributing writer at Salon.

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