We should have learned from South Vietnam that the U.S. is just not very good at nation building, and in fact we did remember that lesson for a time, but then we forgot it again and had to be reminded in places like Iraq and Afghanistan. Even in 2001, when Osama bin Laden escaped into Pakistan and, as it turned out, hid there for ten years with the collusion of the authorities, it should have been quite clear that nation building in that part of the world would fail. Britain and Russia also failed there in the past so we should not regard it as a unique problem, although the U.S. is particularly impatient with long, drawn out wars that end inconclusively.
We can pay people in Afghanistan to be on our side, just like we could pay Iraqis and Vietnamese, although those at the bottom usually end up receiving very little for their services. Generations of children grew up in these countries knowing nothing but war, death and destruction. For example, many of the young Afghans hired to fight for us after 2001 were extremely poor, illiterate, lacking even the most basic education and health care, and they hardly cared which side won the war. That is because they knew all along that whoever won, it would make no difference to them. They also realized that the warlords and drug traffickers who really ran the country were extorting and taking bribes from everyone, including from bin Laden when they allowed him to escape into Pakistan (Stack 26). When the war finally comes to an end, these corrupt elites will mostly have fled the country with their loot, not giving a single thought to the fate of the common people. Meanwhile, they collect their ‘rents’ and live in “sumptuous headquarters”, while caring nothing even about the basic needs of most Afghans (Stack 18). This is a situation that should be very familiar to anyone who remembers South Vietnam and the corrupt oligarchy that run the country in the 1950s and 1960s.
These conditions have improved very little during the ten years that the U.S. has been in Afghanistan, despite the expenditure of tens of billions of dollars and thousands of lives. One experienced journalist who is very familiar with the country saw “no discernible improvement in conditions” at all in ten years (Hamilton-Little 2011). Apart from the contractors and corrupt officials, this country remains one of the poorest in the world, with 80% of adults illiterate and over 50% of children who receive no education at all. Most of the teachers are not even being paid by the government, just as most of the villages and towns destroyed during the wars of the last thirty years have never been rebuilt. Knowing there is no future there, anyone who has the money and the connections to escape simply leaves the country, while those left behind struggle in “harsh conditions. They don’t care who wins the war” (Hamilton-Little 2011).
Hamilton-Little, Magsie. Back to Afghanistan. The Daily Beast, October 6, 2011.
Stack, Megan K. Every Man in this Village is a Liar: An Education on War. Doubleday, 2010.