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Michael Swartz / August 18, 2021

The Problem With Building a Nation

The challenges are myriad, especially in a country that still resembles the seventh century.

Now that we’ve seen how this Afghanistan movie ends, the question becomes whether we were ever really prepared for the plot twists we endured.

In the fevered wake of 9/11, President George W. Bush built a coalition to fight the overall War on Terror, and with its assistance we found ridding Afghanistan of the initial Taliban government was relatively easy. Yet the second act of this play turned out to be pivotal: the one where we tried to help establish a functioning Western-style government in a nation where the Taliban had taken power by overthrowing a Soviet-backed strongman.

Indeed, in the beginning there were triumphs. After being a provisional leader in a “transitional government” for two years, the nation elected Hamid Karzai as its first democratic leader in 2004 and a decade later saw a peaceful transfer of power to now-deposed President Ashraf Ghani in 2014. Unfortunately, the Heritage Foundation’s James Jay Carafano notes that the Taliban never really went away — it simply set up shop in the rugged border region of neighboring Pakistan and waited, taking advantage of our system where policies are dictated by the winner of national elections.

Having outlasted several colonial empires over the centuries, the Afghan insurgents realized it was only a matter of time before Americans lost interest in the War on Terror, which was the original reason we cared about the Afghans in the first place. As the Wall Street Journal’s Gerald Seib points out: “The war was started by a Republican president, the peak in troop strength reached under a Democratic president, the agreement to leave struck by another Republican president, that departure decision carried out by another Democratic president. Every one of those presidents learned what history should have taught about Afghanistan, which is that the local fighter always knows he will outlast the foreign occupier.”

While our chaotic departure brings up bad memories of abandoning Saigon nearly 50 years ago, the speed at which the pro-Ghani Afghan army folded was shocking to many observers who thought they could hold out for several more months. Yet the Afghans have existed in a realm where loyalty to family blood and a tribe is more powerful than loyalty to a nation, and the Taliban has been relatively successful at keeping factions together. It would be a bit like if the Crips and Bloods formed an alliance in 1980s South LA against a common threat.

The common threat is now practically gone — aside from the poor souls who, thanks to our lack of foresight, will be hunted down like dogs for the simple crime of being loyal to the erstwhile and elected Afghan government and those protecting it. The Taliban is not going to appease all of the tribes and factions, at least not without convincing them there is a common enemy — or a larger goal. Does “Death to America” ring a bell?

All this brings up a larger moral question: While we in America believe that people exist with a God-given right to life and Liberty, how do you pair up that square peg with the round hole of a people whose loyalty to tribe and religion reminds one of the state of play in the seventh century? One theory is that allowing Islam to be Afghanistan’s state religion (as enshrined in its constitution) doomed the project, since Islam and its demand for fealty and dependence on strict, religious-based law simply isn’t compatible with a Western vision of Liberty. For example, no matter how many Democrats offer bromides about how the “world is watching” how the Taliban will handle women’s rights, women will never have rights under the Islamists now in charge.

Perhaps the best we can hope for is to simply be the shining city on the hill for the world. Unfortunately, not everyone becomes aware that there is a place where they can be free to live as they choose and can make as much of a name for themselves as their hard work and talents will allow. We can still spread that message around the globe through diplomacy and commerce, but at a time when our own light needs attention, it may be the right moment to pause building nations for others and rebuild the one that we’ve all but squandered.

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