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Chapter 6 excerpt

Afghanistan and Iraq: Reconstruction after September 11


Click to learn more about the 5 "P"s of nation-building.

This chapter examines how Americans responded to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 with new nation-building efforts in Afghanistan, Iraq, and other countries. Once again, nation-building is an essential part of American PROBLEM-SOLVING, especially in volatile regions of the world filled with failed states and potential threats to the United States. 

The people of Afghanistan have endured violence for decades. They've been confronted with occupation—by the Soviet Union, and then by foreign Al Qaeda fighters who used Afghan land for their own purposes. So tonight, I want the Afghan people to understand—America seeks an end to this era of war and suffering. We have no interest in occupying your country. We will support efforts by the Afghan government to open the door to those Taliban who abandon violence and respect the human rights of their fellow citizens. And we will seek a partnership with Afghanistan grounded in mutual respect—to isolate those who destroy; to strengthen those who build; to hasten the day when our troops will leave; and to forge a lasting friendship in which America is your partner, and never your patron.

President Barack Obama, December 2009

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The most powerful states dominate international politics, but the small places in between define the fate of the world. That is the history of modern Poland, surrounded by Russia to the east and Germany to the west. Struggles for control of this poor north European lowland contributed to two world wars and the Cold War. The Korean Peninsula has a similar history. Conflicts over influence in this mountainous territory—surrounded by China, Russia, and Japan—have embroiled the countries of East Asia in wars, rivalries, and recriminations since the late nineteenth century. Location often matters more than wealth. Poor places often draw the most attention from the strongest actors. The most vulnerable societies frequently determine regional security and the global balance of power.

Afghanistan is the Poland or Korea of the Middle East. Its poverty, vulnerability, and location between empires have inspired recurring wars on its barren and rocky terrain. The landlocked country, about the size of Texas, sits astride Iran in the west, the Indian subcontinent in the east, and China, Russia, and the former Soviet states of Central Asia. This complex space marks the middle of major population movements across what one observer famously called the Eurasian "heartland"—the geographic pivot of power on the world's largest landmass. Afghanistan has never been a center of wealth, but it has long served as a transit route between east and west. It has had what one scholar calls "a positively magnetic attraction for conquerors."

Going back to the 8th century, Afghanistan was a major site for clashes and connections between a rich Persian culture and an expanding Islamic religion. In subsequent centuries, Mongol invaders brought new forms of horse-borne warfare and organized political administration from the Asiatic steppe to Afghanistan. The Mongols conquered and ruled much of the region for more than two hundred years, mixing their own traditions with influences from Iran, India, and Islam. The Turks, cousins of the Mongols, did much the same for another four hundred years.