Afghan security personnel keep watch at the site of a suicide attack outside a bank near the U.S. Embassy in Kabul on Tuesday. (Shah Marai/Agence France-Presse via Getty Images)

In his Aug. 26 op-ed, “Nation-building is the only answer,” P.J. Crowley argued that “nation-building is the only strategy that is likely to produce the elusive exit from Afghanistan.” We have been “nation- building” since the end of World War II. After our successes rebuilding modern states, mainly in Europe, Western nations embarked on multigenerational nation-building, the tab for which was approaching $3 trillion before Afghanistan and Iraq.

If you measure success by the number of poor countries that have become modern through our aid, the tally is zero. In any case, what we do under the rubric of nation-building is no such thing. It is state-building. But a “state” is just the apparatus of a nation, and absent unity, identity and common purpose, the nation’s grand projects just become the state’s white elephants. A nation can thrive in spite of a weak state, but a strong state by itself can’t create a nation.

For 16 years in Afghanistan, we have tolerated warlordism, a drug economy and corruption. Had we demanded that before the Afghans board the foreign-aid gravy train they first establish and live by the true rule of law, we might have created something durable and popular there. But all we have are laws that favor (or are ignored by) the elites, and a few thousand more troops and few billion more dollars won’t change that.

Peter F. Schaefer, Washington

The writer was a senior official at the
U.S. Agency for International Development in the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations.