Building the Nation: Missed Opportunities in Iraq and Afghanistan

Building the Nation: Missed Opportunities in Iraq and Afghanistan

by Heather Selma Gregg


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Building the Nation draws from foreign-policy reports and interviews with U.S. military officers to investigate recent U.S.-led efforts to “nation-build” in Iraq and Afghanistan. Heather Selma Gregg argues that efforts to nation-build in both countries focused more on what should be called state-building, or how to establish a government, rule of law, security forces, and a viable economy. Considerably less attention was paid to what might truly be called nation-building—the process of developing a sense of shared identity, purpose, and destiny among a population within a state’s borders and popular support for the state and its government.

According to Gregg, efforts to stabilize states in the modern world require two key factors largely overlooked in Iraq and Afghanistan: popular involvement in the process of rebuilding the state that gives the population ownership of the process and its results and efforts to foster and strengthen national unity. Gregg offers a hypothetical look at how the United States and its allies could have used a population-centric approach to build viable states in Iraq and Afghanistan, focusing on initiatives that would have given the population buy-in and agency. Moving forward, Gregg proposes a six-step program for state and nation-building in the twenty-first century, stressing that these efforts are as much about how state-building is done as they are about specific goals or programs.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781640120877
Publisher: Potomac Books
Publication date: 12/01/2018
Pages: 296
Sales rank: 762,411
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.30(d)

About the Author

Heather Selma Gregg is an associate professor at the Naval Postgraduate School’s Department of Defense Analysis. She is the author of The Path to Salvation: Religious Violence from the Crusades to Jihad (Potomac Books, 2014) and coeditor of The Three Circles of War: Understanding the Dynamics of Modern War in Iraq (Potomac Books, 2010). She has spent time in several regions of conflict, including Palestine/the West Bank, Croatia, and Bosnia.

Read an Excerpt


Bringing the Nation Back into Nation-Building

On June 5, 2014, the Islamic State in Iraq and Levant (ISIL) launched a major offensive into Iraq from neighboring Syria and captured Samarra, Mosul, and Tikrit within a matter of days. As ISIL forces advanced into the country, Iraqi security forces shed their uniforms and fled by the thousands; those who did not escape were lined up and executed. The Iraqi government attempted to declare a state of emergency on June 10, but the parliament, with active dissent from Kurds and Sunnis, blocked the Shia-dominated executive branch from taking action and eventually forced the prime minster to resign.

On June 29 ISIL declared a caliphate in the territory it held in Syria and Iraq, allowing the leadership to impose what they claimed was the most complete and perfect form of Sharia law on the planet. Morality police, the Hizbah, began enforcing strict dress codes for women and men, outlawing smoking, and punishing the population for a range of minor offenses. ISIL forces slaughtered Shias by the thousands, accusing them of being apostates. They also killed Yazidis, Christians, Sufis (mystical Muslims), and Sunnis who did not adhere to their radical form of Salafi Islam. In addition to imposing its interpretation of sharia, ISIL also began taxing the population and providing basic resources, including food, road improvements, and electricity.

Despite ISIL's brutality Iraq's Sunni population largely welcomed its rapid advance into the country, and local Sunnis were photographed cheering its arrival into Mosul, Tikrit, and other cities. Moreover, the firebrand image of ISIL attracted tens of thousands of foreign fighters to Syria and Iraq with the hopes of living under "perfect" sharia, waging jihad, and becoming part of a historically transformative movement. In addition to individuals backing ISIL, Islamic movements in Libya, Egypt, Afghanistan, the Philippines, and Nigeria all pledged the bayat (oath of fealty) to the Islamic State, recognizing it as the caliphate.

The rapid advance of ISIL, the collapse of the Iraqi government and dissolution of its armed forces, along with the tacit and active support of its Sunni population, unequivocally revealed the failure of U.S.-led efforts to "nation build" in Iraq following the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003. This strategy of nation-building included creating a stable democracy in Iraq that would be both domestically and internationally responsible, developing a functioning economy based largely on its oil production, establishing responsible and competent security forces, and providing key social services to keep the population loyal and happy to its government. Clearly, something went wrong in the U.S.-led efforts to build the Iraqi state after ousting Saddam Hussein.

In essence ISIL created a direct challenge to U.S.-led efforts to state build in Iraq and the Western state system more broadly, ignoring internationally recognized borders and offering an alternative to liberal democracy, freedom of religion and speech, and equality of citizens. Moreover, ISILprovided an identity, a sense of common purpose and destiny rooted in perceptions of divine justice and claims of the true path of Islam.

Anthropologist Scott Atran, in a 2015 testimony before the UN Security Council, called ISIL and groups like it "the world's most dynamic countercultural movement, one whose values run counter to the nation-state system." To compete with this movement, Atran proposes three conditions that governments and communities need to provide young people: "offer youth something that makes them dream, of a life of significance through struggle and sacrifice in comradeship ... which gives them a sense of special destiny and the will to fight; offer youth a positive personal dream, with a concrete chance of realization; and offer youth the chance to create their own local initiatives." Atran further asserts: "What dreams may come from most current government policies that offer little beyond promises of comfort and security? Young people will not choose to sacrifice everything, including their lives — the totality of their self-interests — just for material rewards."

Atran's comments suggest that the U.S. approach did little to inspire the population, particular the youth, and to give them a vision for their lives, a sense of purpose, and a vested interest in the destiny of the country. Rather, the U.S. approach focused on developing the structure of the state and, by building the trappings of a state, the population would have its most basic needs met, would be allowed to choose its government, and would be peaceful with one another and loyal to the state. The appeal of ISIL suggests that something is missing from these basic provisions.

A similarly troubling trajectory is visible in Afghanistan, where the United States began its nation-building efforts in the wake of the September 11 attacks on the U.S. homeland. The United States invaded Afghanistan with the aim of deposing the Taliban and denying al-Qaeda and other transnational terrorists a safe haven from which to plan and execute operations. Although U.S. forces failed to capture Osama bin Laden, Mullah Omar, and other key leaders, the Taliban government was toppled in a matter of weeks. However, what began as a military campaign with specific goals quickly morphed into a massive state-building effort. A December 2001 meeting of Afghans and international leaders in Bonn, Germany — followed by a massive donor's conference in Tokyo, Japan a month later — aimed to transform the country from one of the poorest and least developed to a modern democratic state with complementary social, political, legal, security, and economic institutions. However, despite billions invested in these efforts and thousands of U.S. andNATO troops' lives lost along with countless civilian casualties, Afghanistan still faces insurgent threats from the Taliban and other groups, a fragile government, widespread poverty, and a booming illicit opium industry.

Understanding what went wrong in U.S.-led efforts to nation build in Iraq and Afghanistan has taken on new importance in light of ISIL's success as a counterforce to Western nation states. The current global security environment will most likely draw the United States into efforts to strengthen fragile states in the future, although perhaps not on as massive a scale as the operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Weak and failing states create a security risk for the United States and its interests, especially if they provide spaces in which violent nonstate actors can reside, recruit fighters, and plan operations. Furthermore, weak and failing states are regionally destabilizing; internal wars rarely remain within the borders of a state and often produce refugees, weapons trafficking, and transborder skirmishes. Moreover, with the collapse of the Iraqi military and government in 2014, the United States finds itself being pulled back into the country by its commitment to train the Iraqi military and other initiatives. Therefore, understanding what went wrong in Iraq and Afghanistan and how best to aid failing states and put them on the path to long-term stability is imperative in this current security environment.

The Need for Population-Centric State-Building and National Unity This book proposes that state-building efforts in the modern world require two key factors that were missing from U.S.-led operations to build viable states in Iraq and Afghanistan: popular involvement in the process of rebuilding the state that gives the population "ownership" of the process and its results; and efforts to foster and strengthen what will be called national unity.

State-building needs to start with the population for several reasons. First, now more than ever, a state's sovereignty rests with its people, and without their buy-in, states are unlikely to thrive or governments to succeed over the long haul. Sovereignty has undergone a series of shifts from the time of the creation of modern states in seventeenth-century Europe to the twenty-first century. No longer is a state's sovereignty defined by monarchies, or territory and borders, or just the monopoly on the legitimate use of force. The birth of modern-day democracies, the creation of security through the levee en masse, the rise of private property, the increase in levels of literacy and education, the emergence of the public sphere, the ideas of the Enlightenment, and the revolution in information technologies have shifted sovereignty from governments and territories to the people. Perhaps unlike ever before in history, people have the power to determine the viability of the state in which they reside, and excluding them from the process of state-building — including the development of its government, law, security forces, economic viability, and social well-being — is likely to undermine the long-term stability of the state. Efforts to state build, therefore, need to start with the people.

State-building efforts also need to start with and include populations in order to create programs that resonate with the population and give it ownership of the effort in the here and now, which will pave the way for a population that supports the state and its various institutions. As will be described, intervening powers in Iraq and Afghanistan largely predetermined how the state would look and what should be built and why. This approach, while expedient, did not start by trying to understand the populations' vulnerabilities, needs, or hopes, nor did it understand their perceptions of security or leadership. In many cases efforts taken by intervening powers actually worked against the populations' needs and fueled perceptions of mistrust and insecurity. For example, decisions made by U.S. civilian leaders to disband the Iraqi army and punish members of the Baath Party effectively excluded Sunnis from the state-building process and sent a strong signal that they would not be part of the new Iraq. These decisions have been credited with fueling the rise of some of the insurgent groups that emerged in the country. Within this top-down approach to state-building, the United States and its allies missed valuable opportunities to partner with the population, foster leadership and decision making, and put the country to work after decades of dictatorship and war. Ultimately, the population needs to have ownership of the state-building process and see the state as its future for the endeavor to succeed.

Starting with the population in state-building is also important because, if properly structured, this approach can be a powerful tool for building unity among the people. In Iraq and Afghanistan, U.S. efforts at state-building focused on establishing unity through power sharing in government and by creating multiethnic security forces. This approach, however, did more to enshrine ethnic differences in these countries than work toward social harmony and national unity. As will be argued, state-building can be structured in a way that helps to build a sense of common destiny among the people and between the people and the state.

Building on these points, the second key ingredient missing from U.S.-led efforts to create viable states in Iraq and Afghanistan is national-unity building. Despite calling its operations "nation-building," the United States really engaged in state-building. It developed the structure of the state, including its security, political, legal, economic, and social services sectors, or what the U.S. Institute of Peace calls the five desired end states of stabilization and state reconstruction. However, building or rebuilding a state requires more than developing the capacity of its government or security forces. State-building programs also need to foster and strengthen the population's sense of common destiny and the need for its various factions to work together to build a healthy, prosperous state. In other words a state needs a population that coheres and supports the government and other state institutions for it to flourish. This is national-unity building.

As will be discussed, efforts at building national unity were all but missing from U.S.-led operations to create viable states in Iraq and Afghanistan. This may be for several reasons. First, U.S. state-building efforts rested on the assumption that building the capacity of the state and providing people with security, public utilities, and other resources would result in a peaceful population that supported the state. This dynamic, which is known as the social contract, assumes a purely utilitarian approach to states: governments provide security, consistency, and resources, and the population supports these initiatives through taxes and by giving up some of their liberties (such as taking the law into their own hands).

This utilitarian approach to state-building, however, misses a critical, necessary component of a viable state: the emotional attachment citizens feel toward one another and to their state. States, in other words, are not just structural, rational, utilitarian entities; they also provide a sense of identity, purpose, and destiny among their people. People need to identify with their country on a personal level, share its norms, and believe in their common destiny — this is national unity. Rebuilding states, therefore, should be more than just establishing or reestablishing the social contract; it should also include cultivating this sense of national unity.

Programs of national unity include identifying and fostering shared symbols, myths, and rituals, common values and norms, a shared understanding of history, and — most importantly — a sense of common destiny. It is creating what anthropologist Benedict Anderson calls "an imagined political community." "It is imagined," he asserts, "because the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion." Without the emotional attachment that being part of an imagined community creates, states are unlikely to cohere and citizens will find their identity and emotional attachment in other, competing sub- or super-states, a role that ISIL fulfilled in Iraq.

Furthermore, programs to rebuild Iraq and Afghanistan likely did not address fostering national unity because a commonly held perception is that nations build states, not the other way around, and therefore nations and national unity are not built but simply "are." For example, economist Francis Fukuyama argues in his 2004 book on state-building that "only states can be deliberately constructed" and "if a nation arises from [state-building], it is more a matter of luck than design."

However, as will be described in chapters 2 and 3, nations are in fact created and the product of what will be called national entrepreneurs — artists, authors, socialites, philanthropists, politicians, businesspeople, and other members of society who develop and foster a sense of national unity through a range of initiatives. In seventeenth-, eighteenth-, and nineteenth-century Europe and the United States, for example, states were built first, and then nations were fostered thereafter. In Europe languages were formalized and became symbols of the nation, grand capital cities were built, national literature and art were cultivated, and monuments arose to document and reinforce the nation. In the United States, national-unity building included the creation of national parks, the founding of museums, and the construction of national myths that reinforced the United States' destiny as a great and pioneering nation. As will be shown, national entrepreneurs continue to play an indispensable role in shaping the nation within state borders, including in the United States and Europe countries. When they do this well, it is virtually imperceptible; the nation simply "is."

Finally, programs for building national unity were likely missing in Iraq and Afghanistan because the prevailing wisdom about these countries is that their ethnic and religious diversity precluded any efforts to build national unity. However, as will be discussed, evidence from both of these countries in the early days of U.S.-led operations reveals that the overwhelming majority of Iraqi and Afghan citizens wanted their countries to remain unified, including Kurds and Sunnis in Iraq, and Pashtuns in Afghanistan. The people, in other words, wanted to move forward together, and the United States and its allies missed valuable opportunities to seize on these desires and build national unity.

Ultimately, national-unity building may be the priority in twenty-first-century efforts to stabilize states and make them viable. Starting with the people and working through them to build and take ownership of the state, while recognizing their common destiny as citizens, may be the pathway to creating stable and prosperous states. Although nations can survive without states (as the Kurds, the Palestinians, and others have shown), states cannot endure without a population that sees its future in the state and all its people; national-unity building is a critical place to begin fostering this necessary component of the state.


Excerpted from "Building the Nation"
by .
Copyright © 2018 Heather Selma Gregg.
Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

List of Tables    
1. Bringing the Nation Back into Nation-Building    
2. States, Nations, Nationalism, and National Unity    
3. State-Building and Nation-Building in Europe and the United States    
4. State-Building Programs post 9/11    
5. State-Building in Iraq, 2003–2011    
6. Counterfactual State-Building and Nation-Building in Iraq    
7. State-Building in Afghanistan, 2001–2015    
8. Counterfactual State-Building and Nation-Building in Afghanistan    
9. A Program for Population-Centric State-Building and Nation-Building    

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