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Whither State-Building?

The West’s bruising, bitter experience in Afghanistan has soured attitudes toward international missions to help fragile countries and regions establish effective governance institutions. But to abandon such efforts completely would be both immoral and dangerous.

STOCKHOLM – Suddenly, “nation-building” has become a dirty word, particularly in the United States. The trauma of America’s defeat in Afghanistan has triggered a panicked retreat from a concept that was long central to US security thinking. After the September 11, 2001, attacks on the US, it was widely understood that the invasion of Afghanistan was necessary to deny al-Qaeda its base there. And by the same token, the attacks also launched a wider effort to rid the world of ungoverned territories that could become platforms for international terrorism.

From a European perspective, nation-building was never the proper term. Since nations take many different forms, the real task is one of state-building to ensure that territories are governed in a reasonably effective manner. That was certainly the case in Afghanistan after the US toppled the Taliban’s governance structure (such as it was). Preventing al-Qaeda or other extremist groups from returning depended on putting new governance structures in place. It was widely recognized from the start that there was no daylight between anti-terrorist operations and state-building.

In his memoir, former US President George W. Bush wrote eloquently about the strategic interest that the US had in “helping the Afghan people build a free society” in order to deny future extremists a base, and also to provide “a hopeful alternative to the vision of the extremists.” The problem with the US-led mission in Afghanistan wasn’t its goal or ambition, but rather its haphazard implementation and the lack of strategic patience for carrying it out.

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