TCS Daily

Too High a Price?

By Melana Zyla Vickers - August 20, 2002 12:00 AM

As talk of an Iraq invasion turns from "if" to "when," the administration needs to prepare the U.S. public not only for a war, but also for a lengthy commitment of U.S. personnel to Iraq after the war has ended.

The U.S. has already undertaken this sort of a commitment in Afghanistan, where it has removed the terrorist-minded Taliban regime from power and now has a duty and interest in ensuring the stability of President Hamid Karzai's successor government. Success in Afghanistan is made all the more important by the fact that the U.S. will be similarly obligated to bolster a successor regime in Iraq.

Unfortunately, this sort of post-conflict assistance has a bad name these days. It's referred to as "nation building," and is most often confused in the public mind with the sham peacekeeping operations in the Balkans, where over 5,300 U.S. troops are to this day scandalously misused for cleanup jobs that would be best left to civilians or police. National Security Council advisor Condoleezza Rice described the Balkans sideshow best when, during the Bush election campaign, she derided it as "soldiers accompanying kids to kindergarten." She wasn't kidding: The latest issue of NATO's "Stabilization Force Informer" literally leads with an account of soldiers who "toured Bosnia and Herzegovina. Divided into two groups, they visited four kindergartens in the town of Banja Luka on July 10."

What's required in Afghanistan and Iraq is far from that kind of child's play. As a matter of principle, if the U.S. deposes a government, it needs to ensure the successor government's stability in power. The successor must be capable of wrestling down challengers, raising and commanding a united, loyal, and effective military, setting the groundwork for zero tolerance of terrorism and amiability toward non-Islamic states, namely the U.S., and employing the machinery of government that will allow the countries to function economically and politically and to adopt democracy quickly. Put another way, the U.S. has to replace the bad governments with good governments that have more than a snowball's chance at survival.

If the U.S. doesn't support new governments in Afghanistan and Iraq, and instead pooh-poohs such work as being best left to others, it will jeopardize the gains it made in wartime. These include:

  • denying terrorists and their supporters safe haven

  • eliminating the risk of weapons of mass destruction being used by rogues in Kabul or Baghdad

  • ridding the Iraqi and Afghan people of the despots crushing them

  • opening a new era of democratic, pro-U.S. leadership in the Islamic world

Abandon Iraq or Afghanistan after the fighting stops, and all this could be lost. Consider that when the U.S. abandoned the Afghan mujaheddin after they fought to defeat the Soviets, the resulting vacuum gave rise to the Taliban and Al Qaeda. Consider that there is already a risk that Afghanistan's fledgling, new government could fall prey to scheming regional leaders. And that in both Afghanistan and Iraq, there is a risk of the old foes resurging in a vacuum.

Given all this, the U.S. nation-building task in these Islamic countries looks much more like the work it had to do in post-war Japan than the work NATO and the UN do in the post-war Balkans. Granted, what's called for in Afghanistan is nowhere close to the level of engagement Washington had to take on to ensure that the Japanese war machine did not regroup and that the North Pacific did not fall into the hands of yet another set of despots - the Soviets. But the nation-building basics were the same: Give the country a basis for solid, democratic-style governance and economic viability, ensure that the enemy cannot rise again, and ensure that military power is monopolized by the new government (in Japan's case, that meant demilitarizing the country and having the U.S. take on the burden of Japan's and the region's security.)

The U.S. nation-building in Japan resulted in what remains to this day a deep U.S. military, political, and economic commitment in the Pacific. It has not been without cost. Yet engagement there was not too high a price to pay for the end of Japan's marauding, the trumping of a Soviet rise in the Pacific, and the birth of pro-U.S., democratic capitalism in Asia.

U.S. nation-building in the Islamic world, principally Afghanistan and soon, possibly, Iraq, will have its costs as well. Possibly lives will be lost, and the financial burden could last for decades. But if it's done right, Americans and local populations alike will gain the chance to look back and say it was not too high a price to pay for the end of murderous regimes that harbor terrorists and abuse their own populations, and for the birth of pro-U.S., democratic capitalism in the Islamic world.



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