Why Afghanistan needs a General MacArthur

The west must take a lead in establishing democracy and stability. It cannot leave the job to the UN peacekeepers, says Amity Shlaes.

It has become clear that some kind of western presence in Afghanistan is necessary to prevent the nurturing of future Osama bin Ladens. The consensus is that Afghanistan is a job for the United Nations. In newspaper opinion pages, policy types are already outlining the task of that multilateral force.

The appeal of a many-headed entity is strong. Western leaders are deeply proud that they have managed to pull together a coalition to launch this new war and feel, understandably enough, that coalition conflict must be followed by coalition peace.

Governments in capitals that were sceptical of President George W. Bush's early unilateralism believe that recent events have taught the US administration a valuable lesson: that it cannot go it alone. This week's award of the Nobel prize to Kofi Annan and the United Nations seems to confirm a global conviction that in the new world order multilateralism, the more faceless the better, is the best tool for long-term peace.

This, though, is wrong. It is wrong because UN peacekeepers, whatever their strengths, are what their name says: peacekeepers, defusers, whose goal is to calm a battlefield so that neighbours will be left alone. They are not peacemakers and they are not nation- and democracy-builders.

And if the long and gruesome history of Afghanistan has taught anything, it is that Afghanistan's own instability, violence and political extremism - not to mention drug-trafficking - are due to the fact that outside nations have always viewed it as a buffer zone to be managed, rather than a true state whose people believe that it has an independent reason to survive. This has been so from the days of the British Crown and tzarist Russia right through to the time when Kabul served as a hot proxy in the cold war between the US and the Soviet Union.

The best model for reconstruction after conflict is Germany after the second world war, or, better yet, occupied Japan. There, one strong authority, the US, backed by its allies, was able to build nations of long-term stability. Such models are hard to promulgate - and especially in a part of the world that has managed to allow only two democracies, India and Israel, to survive. Still, even the most vociferous of UN supporters acknowledges that blue helmets alone will not stabilise Afghanistan. It is time they considered whether the place needs a single, individual force to inspire it - a General MacArthur who will work and then depart.

If this argument sounds far-fetched, consider the now lengthy record of UN peacekeeping. In Cyprus, peacekeepers have been able to keep Greek and Turkish factions from reigniting regional war - but not more than that. In Cambodia, an intense effort after Pol Pot has also disappointed: UN-supervised elections ended up providing window dressing for Hun Sen's power grab. A UN mandate in fact booby-trapped the US in Somalia. Even in the case of the former Yugoslavia, it was the US-led Group of Eight - the developed nations plus Russia - that brokered the peace deal with Slobodan Milosevic.

In other words, the UN has mainly proven itself to be good at keeping the lid on a festering status quo. The problem is not ill will but the UN's structural limits: it was not designed to be a supergovernment. "If the assumption is that keeping warring factions apart is the goal, or providing basic humanitarian support, then the UN is a great place to go," says William Antholis, a director of studies at the German Marshall Fund. (I should note here that I recently joined the board of the German Marshall Fund, an endowment created by Germany as a thank-you to the US for some rather heavy-handed American-style democracy-building.) Alas, notes Mr Antholis, the UN rarely has the political mandate to do German-scale work. Just as important, its structure has given rise to an internal culture that has never embraced the kind of free-market liberty that is at the core of social stability in nearly all successful nations. And with Syria soon to go on the Security Council, as it is, that is not likely to change soon.

What exactly, then, might nation-building in Afghanistan look like? The answer is: like hope. The programme should, for a start, include a big economic component - a Marshall plan. Food and first aid packages like the ones dropped from the air in the past week are only the beginning; Afghans must also believe that one day they too can own computers, or at least feed themselves.

But even more important, as in the case of Japan and Germany, is political work. The west can and should write a constitution for Afghanistan and reinforce that constitution with unabashed propaganda. Spending billions now on aerial bombing has a purpose but more billions ought to be spent on radio and television, as in the heyday of Voice of America.

Last, Afghanistan needs a strong transition leader, a charismatic personality like MacArthur, who first tamed the Japanese, then inspired them, then was withdrawn. The departure part here is crucial. In its day the Soviet Union, after all, did enormous amounts of social work in Afghanistan. But its Bridge of Friendship and other efforts were shows to secure communism and so only strengthened the mujahideen.

In the current culture, the democracy-building plan I suggest is hard to envision. Still, it is even harder to imagine that surgical- strikes-cum-care-packages can stabilise Afghanistan - or Pakistan, its fulminating neighbour - in even the medium term. They are likely, rather, to strengthen the call for jihad. Offering the chance of lasting stability and the hope of freedom is the challenge here - a challenge that the UN may aid but which western democracies are best suited to lead.

© Copyright 2001 Financial Times

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To book Amity Shlaes for a speaking engagement, contact Jamie Brickhouse at the Red Brick Agency, 646.281.9041.
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