The challenges of nation building

The U.N. warns that though its civil war is over, Afghanistan could easily slip back into chaos.


Simon Tisdall
February 25, 2005 8:03PM (UTC)

One woman dies from pregnancy-related causes approximately every 30 minutes. One in five children dies before the age of 5 from diseases that are 80 percent preventable. An estimated one-third of the population suffers from anxiety, depression or post-traumatic stress. Annual per capita income is $190. Average life expectancy is 44.5 years. And the education system is now "the worst in the world."

These are just a few of the findings contained in a United Nations Development Program report on Afghanistan published this week. More than three years after the Unites States and Britain declared victory in Kabul and promised to rebuild the country, it paints a disturbing portrait of "a fragile nation still at odds if no longer at war with itself that could easily slip back into chaos and abject poverty."

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Not all is gloom. The report says Afghanistan's economy has expanded significantly since 2001. Nearly 55 percent of primary-age children are now in school.

About 2.4 million refugees have returned from Pakistan and Iran. The new Constitution guarantees equal rights for women. And a democratically elected president holds office, although "factional elements" with their own militias still control much of the country.

Afghanistan's woes long predate the U.S. war against the Taliban, stretching back to the 1979 Soviet invasion. But this present-day audit dramatically demonstrates the daunting scale of the reconstruction effort to which the West has pledged itself.

In one respect, Afghanistan is fortunate. Despite problems over merging U.S. and NATO forces, the deployment of "provincial reconstruction teams," squandered aid and a booming heroin trade, a reasonably coherent and agreed to long-term international strategy for Afghanistan does actually exist. This is not usually the case elsewhere. For the U.N.'s findings also indirectly illustrate a more fundamental dilemma facing other so-called transitional states, such as Iraq, Palestine, East Timor, Kosovo and Haiti, as well as less extreme cases like Ukraine.

While the international community's appetite for transformational nation building, stimulated by President Bush's crusade for global freedom, shows no sign of satiation, it habitually bites off more than it can chew. Now the growing institutional rivalry between the United States and Europe, not dispelled by this week's summitry in Brussels, Belgium, is in danger of further undermining collective efforts.

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The minimalist NATO agreement on military and police training in Iraq, with France grudgingly agreeing to contribute one midlevel headquarters officer, gave the lie to claims that Euro-Atlantic war wounds have healed. Five leading E.U. countries still refuse point-blank to let their soldiers set foot in Iraq. The E.U.'s decision to launch a civilian training mission in Baghdad only served as a reminder of Europe's rising ambition to act as an independent international player. Europe's use of trade incentives with Iran and Syria, on which the United States has imposed trade sanctions, and its attempts to engage North Korea also exemplify this diverging diplomatic and philosophical approach.

It is these structural problems that Gerhard Schroeder addressed in his recent speech on facilitating the Euro-Atlantic dialogue. The German chancellor's call for "a strong European pillar" with equal responsibilities was interpreted as widening the transatlantic divide. In fact his speech was a timely if clumsy attempt to close the gap by building more coherent joint platforms for managing the growing list of nation-building and aid projects that, if Bush has his way, could one day include Zimbabwe, Sudan, North Korea, Burma and Belarus.

The United States and Europe must work together more effectively, Schroeder said. "We should focus with determination on adapting our cooperation structures to changed conditions and challenges. We need a strong multilateral system which provides a reliable framework for solidarity and guarantees good global governance." If that upset existing hierarchies such as NATO, he seemed to say, well, tough.

His reform proposals have been met with shrugs in Britain and the United States, although not in France. But Schroeder put his finger on a problem that will have to be addressed sooner or later. The children of Afghanistan would say sooner.

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Simon Tisdall

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