Nation-building and imagining nationhood: is Afghanistan being fattened up for neo-liberal exploitation?

“Nations” as Benedict Anderson observed are “imagined communities”. They are socially constructed spaces that only a small group of people have a hand in building  This group is, for all intents and purposes, the dominant class. They commission national anthems, flags and compile the histories. They are also responsible for the way in which myths are incorporated into the story of the nation or conscripted for use in war-making campaigns. There are always legends of heroes fighting against the odds to create the nation that we all know today. There is also the lie that is told each time someone criticises the nation-state – “I fought a war to give you your freedom”.

As we have witnessed in the last 70 years, the construction of nations is not always the responsibility of the inhabitants of that nation; rather they are constructed by an outside nation – usually a more powerful nation that has either invaded or occupied the geographical space that people think of as their country. We have some recent examples of this tendency of the powerful to build states or nations in their own image. Iraq is one place and Afghanistan is another.

Before the 18th century, nation-states were dominated by a sovereign who was the physical embodiment of the state. As Foucault argues, any crime that was committed was considered to be a slight on the body of the sovereign (who was also His ‘representative’ on Earth) and the punishments could be brutally severe – even for the slightest crime. Nation-states exist to make wars; they invade other countries, lay siege to its cities, kill its denizens and cart home the booty – this was the case in the Classical and Medieval periods and it still the case today but rather than use Deuteronomy as a means of legitimation, the cry of ‘free-trade’ is now employed to achieve the same effect – this is a product of Enlightenment thinking. Therefore today’s wars are ostensibly waged either for the ‘defence of liberty/freedom/democracy’ or to ‘open up markets’. Iraq and Afghanistan provided cover for the latter in the guise of the former. The ‘opening’ of  Iraq’s markets in the aftermath of the invasion is a modern version of carrying home the spoils of war.

Today, we still have vassal states that are yoked to more powerful countries rather than vast empires . These are the states that have been destroyed and rebuilt with mainly US money. The principle of humanitarianism in the case of Iraq does not apply; it was seen as ripe for conquest and colonization by the free-market – a lab for the extended free-market ideas of Friedman. The memory of Chile was still fresh in the mind of the war’s planners who had high hopes for Iraq’s resources.

In the early days of the occupation, the US exarch in Iraq, L Paul Bremer, issued a series of executive orders all designed to lay claim to as much of Iraq’s wealth as possible. Executive Order 39 for example says that “all sectors of the economy except oil and gas are open to foreign investors on terms no less favourable to an Iraqi investor”. Bremer instituted a flat tax rate under Order 37 –  flat tax rates are often portrayed by proponents as ‘fair’, when in fact they benefit big business and the rich.  Order 17 grants immunity to certain contractors and persons associated with the Civil Provisional Authority immunity from prosecution under Iraqi law. So any foreigner could quite literally get away with murder.

So what is in store for Afghanistan, that other site of Western nation-building? I saw an item on yesterday morning’s BBC Breakfast where the journalist was reporting from inside the mine. He pretty much said, ‘Afghanistan has a lot of natural resources: iron, copper, gold’…. It wasn’t so much a news report as a marketing message to would-be opportunists, ‘Come to Afghanistan and claim your share’!

The Globalrealm says that the war in Afghanistan is a profit-driven one and US geologists have discovered plenty of mineral booty under the ground. It argues that these vast mineral deposits will pay for cost of the war  I am sure that Karzai’s  government has already bent over backwards to assist foreign investors.  Here’s what the Cato Institute said in 2002

The real long-term answer to Afghanistan’s development lies with free trade and the internal pro-market reforms that trade helps bring about. The Bush administration should therefore pledge to negotiate a sweeping free-trade agreement with Afghanistan’s newly formed government once the Senate passes trade promotion authority (TPA)–something that needs to happen soon.

The TPA expired in 2007 but USAID (US Agency for International Development)are still deeply involved in the country – as one would expect. USAID produced a document in 2002 that provided the blueprint for the mass privatization of Iraqi assets. Has it done the same for Afghanistan? USAID does not dole out aid as such, it doles out reconstruction contracts to companies like Bechtel and Dyncorp. It is deeply involved in the liberalization of state economies to not only re-form them in the economic image of the parent but to create systems of exploitation that benefit the occupying power(s). As US General Smedley Butler once said “War is a racket“. Here’s what he said in his pamphlet written about World War I but it could be about any war.

A racket is best described, I believe, as something that is not what it seems to the majority of the people. Only a small “inside” group knows what it is about. It is conducted for the benefit of the very few, at the expense of the very many. Out of war a few people make huge fortunes.

A YouTube version of Butler’s speech can be viewed here.

Another example Butler’s thoughts on war and nation-building can be found in this clip from The Corporation.


A group of US industrialists and others tried to persuade Butler to participate in a coup plot against the White House but he refused to become, in his words, a “gangster for capitalism”. Shame that lesson hasn’t been learned by other military leaders.

We were told that the war in Afghanistan was being waged to ‘protect us’ and to defend ‘our way of life’. The plain truth is that the world is not a safer place and the bodybags are still coming home in their hundreds (the British death toll  stands at 308 at the time of writing). Yet, there are those who would applaud the nation-building efforts in Afghanistan precisely because they have something to gain from the adventure. The Afghans, on the other hand, have nothing to gain from any of this – except, perhaps, for Karzai and the various warlords who are allied to the NATO occupiers.

Nation-building is fine if it is done by those who live in the country or region but national identity is a different matter and one that I shall cover at a future date on this blog. Creating nations in order to serve the interests of a more powerful nation can only lead to one thing: exploitation.


I found this while looking for something else. It’s about rentier state-building in Afghanistan.


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Filed under Afghanistan, Government & politics, National Identity

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