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[casi] Iraq: "Nation-building mental blocks"

Aug 14, 2003

Nation-building mental blocks

B Matthew Riemer

Though the wars fought in Afghanistan and Iraq were tactically dissimilar
and of varying levels of intensity, the post-war social, cultural and
political factors at play are very similar. The most relevant and
foundational similarity between the two countries is their creation: each
was cobbled together from a plethora of local, autonomous/tribal regions
into reluctant wholes in the form of what the conquering country felt to be
a modern nation-state. And for both, since their involuntary birth, this
fact has hampered their development, as well as posing a deep, historical
puzzle for, first, Great Britain and now the United States, in their efforts
at "nation building".

This predicament - if only in the name of thoroughness - must eventually
elicit a series of important questions from the concerned observer, some of
which might be:

What are the inherent weaknesses of the "nation-state" model?

When Washington uses the phrase "nation building", what does this really

Is the so-called "nation-state" a viable model for Afghanistan and Iraq?

The US may be uncovering a troublesome truth in its latest global endeavors:
the fact that the nation-state is not a universal model for all regions and
peoples of the world, and, in some cases, it may even obstruct the
development of the very stability and select economic development that the
US is seeking through its operations - especially in areas with a
concentration of ethnic diversity, like in the Balkans, the Caucasus and
much of Central Asia, where state-sized regions more readily stabilize under
a sub-network of autonomous zones defined by some obvious feature, whether
it be ethnic, linguistic or geographical.   The dominant US polity has
always assumed that the keys to American success are the keys to global
success, that what works for them will work for others. This belief has led
many in the US leadership to think that concepts like democracy and free
market capitalism can be smoothly exported to other regions and environments
and have the same effect that they had in 18th and 19th century America.
This widely held belief is shared by the Bush administration and has been
explicitly stated in its 2002 National Security Strategy.

However, unlike modern-day Afghanistan and Iraq, America, at the time of its
founding, consisted of a single ruling class that came together to codify
the social and economic rules that others would live by and best continue
their prosperity. These individuals were all wealthy, Caucasian, Christian
males who shared broad and overlapping interests. These so-called "founding
fathers" also decided on their inherent and inevitable sovereignty and its
announcement at a time and place of their choosing.

This picture, to even the most casual of observers, paints a perfect
contrast with the countries in which the US is currently attempting nation
building today. Both countries represent a diverse array of languages,
religions and cultural traditions, while encompassing regions that were
never unified in the sense that a modern day independent state is. This fact
alone complicates the democratic process to the point of futility: the
biggest obstacle being the interests of minority groups within any given

But this is a painful reality for Washington to accept as it greatly affects
the continuation of economic paradigms so cherished throughout the centers
of power in the Western world. If the Bush administration, other influential
world leaders and future US administrations were to accept a greater amount
of regional autonomy in distant lands - like by letting Iraq splinter into
three independent states or at least autonomous regions - this would greatly
affect the implementation of laws concerning free trade and deregulation;
such political forms provide infrastructural barriers to the rather organic
growth of free market economies. By being self-contained and, to a certain
degree, self-reliant, regions where such a process were to take place
inhibit the plans of Washington's economists.

There are other concerns, however, when hypothetically imagining the breakup
of larger states into multiple smaller ones. One of the biggest of these
fears is the potential shift in regional power balances. For example, if
southern Iraq were to become its own state completely dominated by Shi'ites,
this would undoubtedly portend some kind of union with Iran, possibly to the
point of annexation on the part of Tehran. If the Kurds in the north were to
gain their independence, this would ruffle Turkey and put diplomatic
pressure on Washington. This is obviously not in the interests of the US.

Further east in Central Asia, reflections on Afghanistan produce similar
results. Though Afghanistan is different from Iraq in that it has endured
failed government after failed government for decades with regular periods
of anarchy - warlords unconvincingly filling the power vacuums - while Iraq
was ruled consistently by centralized power. If Afghanistan were to
fragment, it would be more difficult to predict what may happen - virtually
all the warlords have both fought and been allied with one another at some
point. Certainly, the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan in the south
and east would completely blur if the Pashtuns were to realize a
long-awaited Pashtunistan; in the eyes of Washington, this would provide an
undesirable strategic boost for Islamabad, despite their partnership in the
US "war on terror". And, like in Iraq, Iran could be expected to curry favor
with those along its border - Iranian border patrols did skirmish with the
Taliban from time to time - such as the governor of Herat, Ismail Khan.

Because of such potential for unpredictable and dangerous events, such state
fragmentation will remain a non-starter for Washington - market growth,
acquisition and stability are just too much at risk in that kind of

So in this categorical rejection of new, or perhaps old, political forms,
the US must realize what that rejection brings to the table: the situation
currently faced by the occupying forces in both Afghanistan and Iraq today.
In both countries, diverse groups with overlapping agendas are jockeying for
position in a post-war context that features low-intensity guerrilla
warfare, an occupying army, and the marginalization of large percentages of
the population.

It remains a dubious proposition that both Afghanistan and Iraq can be
shaped into fully functioning and integrated (within the globalized economic
infrastructure) nation-states capable of long periods of stability, relative
peace and economic growth.   The US must decide what it really wants. Does
it want democracy? And if it does, it must realize what democracy can
actually mean in volatile regions such as Afghanistan and Iraq. Instability
and democracy are not mutually exclusive conditions - democracy does not
equal stability - and revolution - regardless of what one conceives it to
be - is a democratic expression. Given a true choice, many people in many
countries may feel no solidarity with a colonially-created "nation".

And if the primary interests of the US are ones of economic security through
expanded markets in new regions, the leadership in Washington must expect
the degree of resistance to its efforts that it is now receiving in Eurasia.

Published with permission of the Power and Interest News Report, an
analysis-based publication that seeks to provide insight into various
conflicts, regions and points of interest around the globe. All comments
should be directed to

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