Afghanistan and “nation building”

In defending his decision to increase America’s war effort in Afghanistan, President Trump needed to do two main things: (1) explain why he was breaking his campaign promise to abandon Afghanistan and (2) distinguish his approach to the fight from President Obama’s. In the post I wrote right after the speech, I tried to describe how Trump went about accomplishing these things.

One technique I didn’t mention was the president’s insistence, several times, that we will not be engaging in “nation building.” That’s a buzz phrase, sort of like “neocon” in this context, the rejection of which is designed to show Trump’s supporters that he hasn’t gone Bushie on them.

It’s also a largely meaningless promise for several reasons, two of which John noted earlier today. First, I think it has been a while since we have engaged in nation-building, in the strong, Bushian sense, in Afghanistan.

Second, to the extent we are engaging in some affirmative nation-building, it looks like Trump will continue to do so. As John observed, the money Trump called on India to provide Afghanistan for “economic assistance and development” sounds an awful lot like money earmarked for “nation-building.”

The other point I want to make is that defeating Islamic radicals in Afghanistan, or even just keeping them at bay, is a form of nation building. It gives the Afghan people the space they need to build their nation in important ways.

And in large portions of the country they have taken advantage of it. Life expectancy is way up and infant mortality is way down due to improved health care. Education has improved significantly, especially for girls. Women’s rights, though still lagging, are more prevalent.

Critics often claim that nation building is futile in Afghanistan because society there is so tribal and primitive. In a sense, though, the opposite conclusion follows from the premise. Because the floor is so low, the opportunity for progress is great.

In the U.S., I doubt there’s much the government can do to improve education, increase life expectancy, or enhance women’s right. If anything, the Department of Education seems to be dumbing down education and the equal gender rights movement, nearly out of worlds to conquer, is fixated on bathroom “rights” for transgender people.

In Afghanistan, there is serious progress to be made. And lots of it can be made largely, though not entirely, by keeping the religious fanatic barbarians at bay.

This progress benefits Afghans, not Americans. Thus, it is be touted by an “America First” president. Nor, in my view, is this progress, standing alone, sufficient to justify the loss of American lives in Afghanistan.

But it is part of the equation, or should be. Unfortunately, President Trump feels he can’t or shouldn’t mention it.