The West's Afghan Delusions


Here's a question asked by Rory Stewart:

Why do we believe that describing what we do not have should constitute a plan on how to get it?

Because something must be done. But what if there isn't much to be done that can actually help? What if less might actually get us more? This almost perfectly sums up how Washington currently approaches the question:

Policymakers perceive Afghanistan through the categories of counter-terrorism, counter-insurgency, state-building and economic development. These categories are so closely linked that you can put them in almost any sequence or combination. You need to defeat the Taliban to build a state and you need to build a state to defeat the Taliban. There cannot be security without development, or development without security. If you have the Taliban you have terrorists, if you don’t have development you have terrorists, and as Obama informed the New Yorker, ‘If you have ungoverned spaces, they become havens for terrorists.’

These connections are global: in Obama’s words, ‘our security and prosperity depend on the security and prosperity of others.’ Or, as a British foreign minister recently rephrased it, ‘our security depends on their development.’ Indeed, at times it seems that all these activities – building a state, defeating the Taliban, defeating al-Qaida and eliminating poverty – are the same activity.

Here's Stewart on the possible unintended consequences of building a stronger Afghan army and police force:

US generals have spoken openly about wanting a combined Afghan army-police-security apparatus of 450,000 soldiers (in a country with a population half the size of Britain’s). Such a force would cost $2 or $3 billion a year to maintain; the annual revenue of the Afghan government is just $600 million. We criticise developing countries for spending 30 per cent of their budget on defence; we are encouraging Afghanistan to spend 500 per cent of its budget.

Some policymakers have been quick to point out that this cost is unsustainable and will leave Afghanistan dependent for ever on the largesse of the international community. Some have even raised the spectre (suggested by the example of Pakistan) that this will lead to a military coup. But the more basic question is about our political principles. We should not encourage the creation of an authoritarian military state. The security that resulted might suit our short-term security interests, but it will not serve the longer interests of Afghans. What kind of anti-terrorist tactics would we expect from the Afghan military? What kind of surveillance, interference and control from the police? We should not assume that the only way to achieve security in a developing country is through the restriction of civil liberties, or that authoritarianism is a necessary phase in state-formation, or a precondition for rapid economic development, or a lesser evil in the fight against modern terrorism.

Read the whole thing, especially snippets from the British debate over the self-same question in the 1860s.