Saturday, November 13, 2010

Did we screw up Afghanistan?

Conventional wisdom is that the US "deserted" Afghanistan after the Soviet withdrawal in the 90's, so everything afterwards was our fault.

Mired as we are in a decade-long nation-building and counter-insurgency project in Afghanistan, I keep thinking about its antecedents and background. A frequent narrative is that the US, after supporting the Mujahideen (jihadists) operating out of Pakistan through the 80's against Soviet occupation, dropped them like hot potatoes and was therefore derelict in its humanitarian, moral, and strategic duties in rebuilding Afghanistan.

It is surely a complicated issue, but I'd like to suggest that this narrative is wrong, and that the US was holding to its principles in leaving Afghans to their own devices, and doing very much the right thing. It seems deeply patronizing to say that without our "adult" supervision, the many fighters who had made the Soviet military machine cry uncle couldn't come up with a viable political structure for their own country. The natural presumption had to be that the Afghans, after so much sacrifice, had earned the right to direct their own affairs and form a government to their own liking.

In the first place, the analogy to our own revolution comes to mind. Would we have wanted France to "assist" us in setting up a new government, perhaps supervising our constitutional conventions or installing a temporary king? Clearly not. We muddled through with the Articles of Confederation for a decade, without any serious interference from Europe, and were glad of their neglect. After a decade or more of valiant war, the Afghans would hardly have wanted to exchange one colonizer for another, however well-meaning. Even now, after their own political system melted down further through chaos, civil war, and through to Taliban tyranny, it would be hard to say that the majority of Afghans want us there. Nor would Russia or the international community have seen us as terribly benevolent in taking advantage of the sudden collapse of the Soviet system by rushing into a former client.

Secondly, Islam presents itself as the ultimate political structuring ideology. It is a complete solution- a "government in a box", if you will, encompassing the spiritual system, social system, and political system. We had our Founders and our enlightenment principles, leading to durable social and political structures. Islam has its thorough compendium of Koran, hadith, sharia, and other legal structures, expressed to various extents in current Muslim states. Pakistan calls itself an Islamic republic, and Afghanistan just as much views itself as an Islamic state, whatever the vagaries of local tradition. Both should have been able to cooperate as friends and allies to bring the Islamic political vision to pass for the Afghan people.

Now of course I write with my tongue partly in cheek, since the empirically speaking, Western enlightenment principles of government are far superior to what Islam has been capable of, mired as it is in frankly medieval political theory with huge gaps where rational government, personal freedom, and popular legitimacy would otherwise be (though ironically, Islamic government during its golden age, a millennium ago, wasn't so bad). One solution is that of Turkey a century ago, which threw the whole Islamic edifice out the window and started from scratch on a Western model. And cancelled the caliphate for good measure. Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Indonesia, and other Muslim countries have all tried to find middle ways, none very good to Western eyes. But who are we to criticize? If another country can keep itself together and not trouble its neighbors, that should be well enough. Right?

So one question is how capable the Mujahideen were of founding a decent Afghan state. We knew they were no Jeffersons and Madisons, but still, we had little right to meddle in their post-war arrangements. In fact, many had been brutalized through the Soviet war and related internecine wars, to the point that they could hardly conceive of a government not imposed at the tip of an RPG launcher. They also continued the age-old fissiparous traditions of Afghan tribalism which saw little need for a central government at all, but rather an unending small-bore contest of charismatic personalities and ad-hoc militias, harkening back to ancient Greece and before. But that again would not be a huge issue for us on the outside, as long as some internal arrangement arose, however decentralized.

This is one reason why Ahmad Shah Massoud, the Panjshir warlord most resistant to the Soviets and the Taliban, remains so revered in Afghanistan. He seems to have been the one person closest to a founding father, among all the parochial warlords and mafia figures, who towards the end of the Taliban era was broadcasting a broad vision of a unified and civil Afghanistan, before being assassinated by Al Qaeda. He was the only major leader not coopted by Pakistan, Iran, Russia, or other foreign powers, as well as not being Pashtun and thus particularly interested in a non-sectarian vision of Afghan unity. Now the country limps along under the tutelage of Hamid Karzai, originally thought to be a similarly unifying figure, but as it turns out, one with a much smaller vision, with deep problems of corruption and nepotism, who has been seriously undermined by our own failures and lack of understanding.

Another large question is the influence of Pakistan. After supporting Afghan nationalism for so many years, it was hard to believe (for a naive person, perhaps) that the Pakistanis would so thoroughly abdicate their brotherly and Islamic role in Afghanistan's postwar future by promoting the most vicious civil war, continuing instability, and ultimately, the rule of astoundingly regressive Islamists orginating from the madrasahs of Pakistan (the "students", or Taliban). But that is what happened.

Of course, the Pakistanis have little to crow about in their own governance or neighborhood relations, so this also would have been less surprising to experienced US policy makers. All the same, the malign influence of Pakistan, even if fully recognized, was hardly reason for us to enter the treacherous Afghan political scene in a more direct way, especially as we had let Pakistan control our aid to the mujahideen for years. Even now, when Pakistan remains the bulwark of Al Qaeda and Taliban resistance to Afghan and US interests, we are, of all things, giving them arms and calling them our "allies".

So we were honestly and rightly reluctant to have any deep role in Afghanistan after the Soviet era. Should we have given more aid? Perhaps, though it is hard to see to whom that aid should have gone. Should we have watched developments carefully and nurtured our own intelligence and language capabilities for Afghanistan? Of course. Should we have put the screws on Pakistan to turn off their spigot of arms and not play strategic games with their neighbor, poor and weak as it was? Sure, that would have been nice, but ineffective in light of our current influence on their perpetually self-defeating policies. By the late 90's, we had put Pakistan in the deep freeze anyway over their nuclear testing.

Now, two decades on, we are very much in Afghanistan, and need to be clear on the vast scope of what we are trying to do. Which is, to reshape the political culture of Afghanistan from top to bottom, easing Afghans out of a civil war mindset, sidelining Pakistan's influence, and protecting nascent civil life and political institutions, patterned partly on Western models, from the constant assaults of insurgent violence and islamist ideology. It is an enormous job, and not one we would have willingly gotten into without the absolute necessity of "fixing" a nexus of failed governance and playpen of global jihadery.

Can we fix it? That we pulled the bacon out of the fire in Iraq is promising as a model, but the problems of Afghanistan are less tractable- especially the influence of Pakistan and the Afghan's own lack of experience in state structures vs tribalism. We are perpetuating the civil war as participants, so it is hard to say that our influence is entirely good and pacific. Nevertheless, the main need is time, since the core of the job is a slow process of cultural change. Afghan minds are turning from internecine warfare to democratic political contests and quality of government issues at all levels. The deal is that we will leave once enough Afghans have turned the corner and once the middle tier of warlords and mafiosi has been disempowered, replaced by public servants. The US and NATO, as representatives of, let us just say- empirically superior Western governing practices, are protecting and teaching, but it is up the Afghans to listen and hear.

"The current state of affairs – with appallingly high unemployment and low activity levels – can be considered an equilibrium in the sense that there are no dynamics present that will change the situation. Firms are producing and hiring at levels that are consistent with their sales. The unemployed clearly desire higher consumption and would buy more goods and services if they were working but that latent demand is “notional” and not effective (backed by cash). The market fails to receive any signal from the unemployed and so firms cannot respond with higher production."
..."My own profession should hang its head in shame for being instruments of this religious persecution of the disadvantaged."

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