WASHINGTON — Whose Afghanistan is it?
President Bush has raised this question, at least implicitly, in his resolve to maintain U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan while keeping the U.S. out of the business, as he calls it, of building nations. But his determination to couple military success with the presumptive right of old freedom fighters and monarchists to rule a new Afghanistan risks future peace and the mammoth reconstruction effort that, Washington says, the United Nations should lead. Rebuilding the Afghan state must mean reviving political life in the Afghan nation. If it does not, current U.S. action can easily damage not only Afghanistan's recovery but also regional stability.
The last time war in Afghanistan might have ended, when the Soviet Army departed in early 1989, the U.S. and its allies tried to manipulate local loyalties to decide who would rule after the communist government fell. They failed, and the corrupt, ineffective governance that followed prevented Afghan citizens from rebuilding or running their country.
Today, Washington is again negotiating with motley military commanders and leftover Afghan politicians to create an alternative to the Taliban. This remains a grave error. For Afghanistan to emerge from conflict and be a home for its people, rather than exist as a war-wounded buffer nation, the U.S. would be wise to help Afghan civilians govern themselves. To achieve the benefits of a revived Afghan state, however, will require not only resources and respect for nascent Afghan leadership; it will also require the trusteeship of the international community.
Effective and enduring reconstruction always strikes a balance between local initiatives, to build political trust within and among communities, and national ones, to create public goods for the entire country. Afghans are familiar with the former: In the absence of a state, the United Nations and its partners have been working in thousands of villages and towns to help communities salvage resources for farming and irrigation, urban renewal and, critically, removing landmines from populated areas.
Crucial as these efforts are, they cannot rebuild and sustain an economy to keep Afghanistan intact. This is where nation-building and state-building intersect: by creating physical infrastructure and social services--water, power, electricity, transportation, communications, justice, education, health and employment--that address Afghan needs under the governance of Afghan citizens.
To complement the bottom-up strategies of community development, Afghanistan requires top-down strategies to rebuild its state. But no means currently exist to arbitrate competing interests and give a political voice to a people long deprived of one. To level the playing field--indeed, to create a political playing field--someone, or something, must be able to act in trust for Afghans and the Afghan state. This is what the United Nations once did for post-colonial societies and can do today for struggling war-torn states like Afghanistan.
The U.N. knows how difficult it is to establish (or re-establish) the moral authority of a state. Its models for reconstruction and development, however unevenly executed, offer lessons for Afghanistan.
When the United Nations has stood in for a state in the absence of a functioning government, it has learned the critical importance of resolving social and political conflicts before they balloon out of control. In Kosovo, despite its indeterminate political status, some security and stability have been achieved for some Kosovars and Serbs as rehabilitation is introduced to the countryside. In the West Bank and Gaza, decades of U.N. superintendence have taught everyone the long-term dangers of staying too long. But the U.N. has tried by its presence not only to respond to crisis, but also to stave off potentially dangerous regional instabilities.
In other countries--Cambodia, Bosnia, East Timor--the international community has fostered recovery by creating an authority to oversee political transition. State bodies and non-governmental organizations have moved from peace accords to rebuilding nations and to holding elections. And in northern Iraq, a no-fly zone protects a massive international reconstruction effort to bring infrastructure and a modicum of stability to the Kurdish population.
Each undertaking has encountered significant obstacles; each has succeeded only to the degree that it has created an intersection between reconstruction and politics. All have required big money. Afghanistan, which now has absolutely nothing, will require even more. But the basic premise of trusteeship is trust: to enable Afghans to build a credible and durable state and forestall local disappointments caused by misguided development policies that can so easily fragment the country again.