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Our Reasons

It is an old truth that language is an early casualty of war, especially official language. Despite the grumbling of the press about the Pentagon's secrecy in the conduct of its campaign in Central Asia, we have no reason to believe that the country is being fed lies; and yet there are reasons to worry about an evolution of strategic will, a change of military tone. The development is disguised in the administration's unexpected passion for nation-building in Afghanistan.

"Nation-building" is a term with an intense and interesting history in recent times. The story comes in three chapters. It begins, of course, with the presidential campaign of 2000, in which the discussion of foreign policy, insofar as there was a discussion of foreign policy (September 11 now represents, among other things, the end of the end of foreign policy), consisted mainly of a debate about nation-building. George W. Bush was fervently against it. For his inchoate isolationism, nation-building epitomized the failure of foreign policy in the Clinton years. In an interview on October 11, 2000, he stated his opposition clearly: "Somalia. It started off as a humanitarian mission, then changed into a nation-building mission, and that's where the mission went wrong.... and so I don't think our troops ought to be used for what's called nation-building. I think our troops ought to be used to fight and win war."

Dissolve to the flaming, falling towers. The American war on terrorism required a swift revision of the new president's understanding of the requirements of American intervention. Suddenly it appeared that military force may have more than military objectives; and that political realities far, far away may affect the planning and the execution of military operations; and that military successes may be undone by political failures. In the early weeks of Operation Enduring Freedom, the idea of military action and the idea of nation-building consorted comfortably together. In Afghanistan we would do what is good for us and what is good for Afghanistan. This was the second chapter in the recent career of "nation-building."

Then things got sticky. We discovered how sorely we have need of Pakistan and how sorely Pakistan has no need of the Northern Alliance. American officials began to speak a great deal about "post-Taliban Afghanistan," about the rebels and the tribes and the king. Bodies were still being discovered in the smoldering pit in Liberty Plaza when experts began to weigh the advantages and the disadvantages of a loya jirga. The United States had put its forces on the ground in Afghanistan precisely when it became urgent to understand the postwar role that might be played by the odious Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. Slowly the foreground and the background are exchanging places: instead of the war against Al Qaeda serving as the premise of nation-building in Afghanistan, nation-building in Afghanistan is coming to serve more and more as the premise of the war against Al Qaeda. The great cause looks increasingly like the Great Game.

What has happened is that "nation-building" has mutated from a euphemism for vigorous intervention into a euphemism for unvigorous intervention. What was once a moral ambition has become a strategic inhibition. And so it is essential that we beware of the spell that nation-building has cast over this American campaign. For a start, Operation Enduring Freedom is not a humanitarian intervention. It is a war in defense of the United States. If we leave behind a country in chaos that can no longer serve as a base of operations against us, then we will have accomplished a necessary objective. And there is another reason to lose the obsession with nation-building: you cannot engage in nation-building where there is not a nation to build. Afghanistan is surely such a pre-national place. The only principle of political legitimacy in those mountains and those plains is ethnicity. What sort of coherent and overarching polity does Colin Powell propose to make out of the Pashtuns and the Tajiks and the Uzbeks? Democratization in Afghanistan requires, let us say, the long view.

In recent days, anthrax has driven Afghanistan almost completely off the front page. Those seeking news of the war have had to repair to the blue line at the bottom of CNN's screen, where air sorties and special ops vie for attention with O.J. Simpson's road rage. (The terrorists did not defeat us!) The alarm about anthrax is perfectly understandable, but the anthrax in our midst is not a health problem, it is an act of aggression against us; and this act of aggression cannot be understood properly except in terms of the American war in Afghanistan; and the American war in Afghanistan cannot be understood properly except as a war against terrorism. So enough about the pluralistic future of the Hindu Kush. We are destroying one of the world's most primitive and tyrannical regimes, but we have perfectly just reasons of our own for doing so. This time we are not making the world safe for democracy, we are making the world safe for Americans. That, too, is a meritorious enterprise.

This article originally appeared in the November 5, 2001 issue of the magazine.