State building in Afghanistan – the view from the coalition partners

A couple of weeks ago I mentioned that Peter Marton (from the Ministry of State Failure) had co-edited a book titled “Statebuilding in Afghanistan:  Multinational Contributions to Reconstruction“.  Peter was kind enough to pass along a copy to review.  As I work through the chapters, I’ll talk about the salient points (at least from my point of view) here.

Two areas that I have an interest in are the current war in Afghanistan and how small nations pursue their foreign policy objectives.  This book, therefore, scratches two of my itches simultaneously and so I was quite excited to read over its contents.  Its chapters cover the Afghan experience of 14 Western coalition countries.  It would be interesting to see a treatment of some of the non-Western coalition partners, but that might fit better within a separate work.

So, the book appeals to me but why should you be interested?  Well, allow me to recommend a few reasons.  I think it’s safe to say that the United States is entering another one of its periods of isolationism.  We may not retreat behind our Atlantic and Pacific moats entirely but the writing seems to be pretty clearly on the wall that there’s a diminishing interest in becoming involved in overseas military ventures.  Even if we weren’t so inclined, the current economic climate means that there will be less money for both military and statebuilding endeavors for awhile.  That, in turn (and in addition to a host of other factors), means that future military actions involving the U.S. are almost guaranteed to be coalition affairs and there will be increased room for organizations like the EU or ad hoc coalitions to form and conduct operations without U.S. participation.  The better we understand how and why individual members work to support (or detract) from the overall mission the better.

The Introduction by Nik Hynek and Peter Marton is a bit dense and not ideally suited for a general audience but worth spending some time with in any case because it sets the stage for the rest of the book in terms of developing central themes and has some interesting ideas of its own worthy of more consideration.  Regarding the first point, the authors identify their goal as asking:

…the basic questions of why there are differences in the share of the burden aong states, how they manifest in different approaches, and how the actual performance of different members of the coalition ought to be assessed.

They provide a nice background to the strategic picture of Afghanistan from 2001-2009(ish) and make the case that despite the rhetortic, the coalition never really got beyond a military focused approach to the country.  Nik and Peter contrast ‘nation-building’ with ‘counter-terrorism’ strategies.  You probably remember the debate here in the U.S. between counterinsurgency and counter-terrorism strategies that occurred in 2009 and resulted in the ‘surge’ of 30,000 troops and a plan for a ‘civilian surge’ to work civil (re)construction issues.  While ‘counterinsurgency’ and ‘nation-building’ aren’t synonomous terms they seem roughly comparable in terms of their usage in American political discourse (such as it is) today.

Military entities were only able to conceive of civil-military cooperation as a way to ensure force protection and soldiers of most forces simply weren’t trained or oriented to do much beyond combat operations or traditional peacekeeping tasks.  Nik and Peter write:

…nation-building has in fact never overtaken counter-terrorism in importance.

Which I don’t think was a point made clearly (if at all) during the whole 2009 ‘strategy’ debate.

The quick success in 2001 over the Taliban (plus the invasion of Iraq and later disintegration of the campaign there) led many to think that Afghanistan could be managed successfully on the cheap.  Clearly, that was wrong.  They continue:

Thus ISAF troops had arrived at a situation by the end of 2009 whereby US President Obama decided to announce a largely unilateral but temporary surge of US troops as a strategy for Afghanistan, once again making clear that exit and counter-terrorism remained more important than a sustained statebuilding effort.

They then talk about ways to consider the efforts of coalition partners by looking at two variables:  alliance dependence (how much each partner thinks it needs the cooperation of the alliance to further their own goals) and threat balancing (how much the partner sees Afghanistan as a direct threat to their national security).

In talking about some of the challanges to determining the relative success or failure of the mission in Afghanistan through a cost-benefit analysis, Nik and Peter list a number of factors.  In talking about the importance of considering time as a consideration they write:

…should the West abandon Afghanistan, it would be likely to send a negative message about its capabilities and commitments elsewhere in the world.

I’m not totally sure about that one.  After all, after ten years in Afghanistan without much to show for it, even if we achieved some sort of victory now, wouldn’t one would seriously have to question our capabilities in such conflicts?  Further, at what point can we shed the claim that the West ‘doesn’t have the stomache’ for long conflicts?  Afghanistan now represents the longest war that U.S. has been involved with.  Iraq isn’t that far behind.  It may be easy to jump to the conclusion that any war abandoned short of ‘victory’ is a black stain on a nation’s reputation for commitment I don’t think such a conclusion could stand up to examination.

When trying to determine costs and benefits, they write an interesting observation which I suppose I knew but hadn’t seen put so succinctly:

…a weak state in Afghanistan where Western troops are bogged down works as a militant magnet and deflects threats from Europe, North America and elsewhere in the broader Middle East, even as it paradoxically also leads to threats in other cases in the same locations.

So, conflicts like Afghanistan and Iraq attract militants from all over the world to carry out jihad (one of the benefits often alluded to by the phrase ‘By fighting them over there, we don’t have to fight them here.’) and they also encourage people to domestic militant action who otherwise might not be so inclined (your homegrown violent extremists).  I’m not sure if there’s any emperical work done to determine the effects of each of those factors but it’d be interesting to see.

I also really liked his catagorization of coalition partners

All in all a promising start to what looks to be an interesting book.

One Response to State building in Afghanistan – the view from the coalition partners

  1. The concept of state-building as part of irregular warfare or countering irregular threats is valid – so long as the makings are present in the state to be built. State-building in Afghanistan is like trying to bake a pavlova with only mud pie ingredients…

    Reliance on other coalition partners is fine but the risk is that it becomes like PSO where the main driver is to have as many flags outside the HQ as possible and, really, you can afford to have quite a few social team players…in war-fighting, which arguably is till the bulk of OEF, you want your coalition to be the A team that can actually do the business unfettered by conflicting national objectives and caveats…

    I’ll be interested to see how your review develops…

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