With American efforts to pacify Afghanistan now in their eighth year and flagging, the Obama administration confronts this question: Is there an alternative to the Bush strategy of invade, occupy, and transform? Although few lessons from Iraq apply directly to Afghanistan, one does: “transformation,” in the sense of modernization, is hopeless. Operation Iraqi Freedom now ranks second only to World War II as the most expensive conflict in U.S. history. Transforming Iraq has cost roughly $1 trillion, with the meter still running and the job unfinished. Transforming Afghanistan, by any measure an even more daunting task, is likely to cost as much or more. That’s money we don’t have. Even if we did, the attempt to create a cohesive nation-state governed from Kabul (something that has never existed in modern times) is a fool’s errand. Better to acknowledge and build on the Afghan tradition of decentralized governance. Let tribal chiefs rule: just provide them with incentives to keep jihadists out. Where incentives don’t work, punitive action—U.S. air strikes in neighboring Pakistan provide an illustrative example—can serve as a backup. Denying terrorists sanctuary in Afghanistan does not require pacification—and leaving Afghans to manage their own affairs as they always have will reduce internal instability, while freeing up the resources to allow our own country to tackle other challenges more pressing than the quixotic quest to modernize Afghanistan.
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