Is Nation-Building Stillborn?

Recent news and punditry out of Afghanistan raises the question: Is nation-building stillborn? After last year’s roll out of FM3-07, Stability Operations, stability operations has been overshadowed by irregular warfare throughout much of the U.S. military, and some have noted the presence of a “warfighter insurgency” within DoD, not unlike a previous intellectual movement within our Army that convinced President Bush that our military would conduct no more nation-building. To add insult to injury, various allied statesmen and generals tell us it will take forty years to make a lasting difference in Afghanistan or that we never will, pointing towards the futility of nation-building. (See links at right: “Expert: Afghanistan Policy Bound To Fail” and “General Sir David Richards: Afghanistan will take 40 years.”)

Forty years is too long for most of us, but is it too long for the nation? After our own Civil War, battle fatigue set in after twelve years of reconstruction and the United States Army (and Congress) declared victory and brought the troops home, arguably leaving it to the second Johnson Administration and the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s to finish the true political rehabilitation of the South. (A colleague of mine pointed out that if you read congressional testimony rendered by Army leadership during our own reconstruction, it reads very, very much like testimony about Iraq.) From a historical perspective, it can be argued that the United States government was penny-wise and pound foolish when it came to nation building after our own civil war.

The United States Government has not shied from investing forty years conducting nation in other countries. Japan and the Republic of Korea come to mind in this regard.

By the end of World War II, Japan had suffered extensive damage and death and was a shadow of its former self. The U.S. Army under General Douglas MacArthur contributed to some serious constitution-writing, economic development and other forms of nation-building during their tenure in Japan.

Our involvement in nation-building in the ROK goes back to 1945, when our Embassy and what would later become Joint-US Military Assistance Group Korea (JUSMAG-K) helped take control of the southern half of the Korean peninsula once the Japanese Army left. The Embassy and JUSMAG-K helped stand up the ROK security forces. During the fighting in Korea from 1950 through 1953 we would lose over 35,000 U.S. servicemen killed in action and many more wounded, but nation-building resumed quickly after the signing of the Armistice between the United Nations, the People’s Republic of China and North Korea.

For twenty years after the Armistice was signed in 1953 we kept two Infantry divisions in the ROK. Our United States Agency for International Development (USAID) contributed to nation-building in the ROK through its many development programs and the USG funded a major portion of ROKG operations for many years. (Into the early 1970s, the per capita GDP in North Korea was higher than that of the ROK.) The U.S. military expenditure on behalf of the ROK was not unrequited. Over an eight year period, the ROK sent over 320,000 Soldiers and Marines to fight along U.S. troops in Vietnam as part of our containment strategy. The ROK armed forces would suffer over 4,000 killed in Vietnam, almost as many ROK deaths suffered by ROK military, police and civilian during attacks by North Korean commandos during the late 1960s and early 1970s.

We pulled our 7th Infantry Division out the ROK in the 1970s, but we still keep the 2nd Division headquarters, a heavy brigade combat team, a fires brigade and an air defense brigade in the ROK, not to mention numerous fighter squadrons.

Our stay in the ROK was not without controversy. Presidents Nixon and Carter both attempted to pull U.S. military out of the ROK in order to save money and conserve military power, and President Regan had to intervene to save the life of then ROK dissident, later ROK President Kim, De-Jung. Many of US were not satisfied with the ROK’s march towards democracy, feeling President Park, Chung Hee was too heavy handed. (To Park’s credit, once he came to power in a coup, he took off his uniform and never wore it again. He stood for reelection six times before he was assassinated.) Park’s immediate successors were suspect with many human rights critics, and it was not until the 1988 Olympics in Seoul that many of US gave the ROK democracy our stamp of approval. Good governance aside, the ROK outdid itself in economic development, growing, with a dearth of any resources except its people from a third world agrarian economy to a first world information and manufacturing economy. More importantly, in the ROK, the wealth generated during its transformation has trickled down, and the average ROK youth is much better fed and educated than his cousin in North Korea. Much of the success of the ROK in its own nation-building can be attributed to the patience of support of the USG defense, diplomatic and development communities.

We must give credit where credit is due. For all of MacArthur’s brilliance as Emperor of Japan (and many in the ROK admire him still to this day), and for all of the humanitarian assistance and financial aid we gave Japan and the ROK early on, these two great nations did most of their own nation building. Still, it did take a good deal of commitment from our government and discipline and knowledge from our troops to help them along. Questions remain: Do the people of Afghanistan have the same cultural wherewithal to rebuild their society as did the people of the ROK and Japan? With our current emphasis on irregular warfare at the expense of stability operations, are U.S. forces properly trained and equipped to assist in the rebuilding of Afghan society?

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