Afghanistan What Should Be Done?

Foreign policy discussions have not been a feature here. But I did spend 2.5 years working for the IMF and another 20 working as an economic consultant in developing countries. In all, I have worked in 45 countries and consequently have some foreign policy interest. Regarding the United States, it appears that starting with the Vietnam War, the country has made a series of fundamental policy blunders:

  • Mao Tse Tung asked for diplomatic recognition so as to avoid being controlled by Russia; John Foster Dulles said no because Mao was a communist;
  • Ho Chi Minh asked for diplomatic recognition in hopes of avoiding yet another invasion from China; Dulles said no because he was a communist;
  • By invading Iraq and deposing Saddam Hussein, the US destabilized the Middle East by destroying a balance of power between Saddam (Sunni) and Iran (Shiite).

And now there is Afghanistan: as I recollect, the US went into Afghanistan to get Bin Laden. So far, no luck. In the meantime, the US is engaged in a full scale land war in this god forsaken country! And we are trying to win the “hearts and minds” by convincing the people not to grow poppies!

Jerry Silverman is a friend and colleague whom I worked with in developing countries many years ago. He worked as a institutional-development specialist at the World Bank, and has been directly engaged for almost half a century in operational efforts to “build nations” in more than forty countries, including in Vietnam and Iraq. He knows more about what is happening in Afghanistan than I do. And he has expressed his views on the Afghanistan situation in the following article just published in the “National Interest”

The Folly of Nation Building

by Jerry Mark Silverman


Whatever other assertions might be made, the official mission statement of NATO’s International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan is: “to provide a secure environment for sustainable stability . . . observable to the population” by “conduct[ing] operations . . . to reduce the capability of and will of the insurgency, support the growth in capacity and capability of the Afghan National Security Forces . . . and facilitate improvements in governance and socio-economic development. . . .” The most popular label for that broader objective is “nation-building.” The recently leaked version of General Stanley McChrystal’s assessment of the situation in Afghanistan—and the current debate that has ensued—clearly assumes that the technology for “building nations” is known and the primary role of military forces is to provide sufficient security to enable our nation-builders to accomplish that task. But what if we don’t really know how to build nations—even when security conditions are relatively good?

As a political scientist directly engaged for almost half a century in operational efforts to “build nations” in more than forty countries—including about five years in Vietnam and much more briefly in Iraq—it seems to me that there is an awful lot of wish fulfillment going on. To be fair, the quality of McChrystal’s assessment of current “insurgent enablers and vulnerabilities” is professional and accurate. By contrast however, the solutions offered are woefully inadequate—consisting of several assertions about political causes and effects derived from a counter-insurgency doctrine (COIN) that is long on logic and short on experience. Thus, the general’s assessment is remarkable for the complete absence of references to lessons learned from other conflicts that might be applicable to this one. Granted, that should be read in the broader context of the military’s current COIN doctrine, a central tenet of which is echoed by McChrystal’s argument that “the greatest risk we can accept is to lose the support of the people. . . . If the people are against us, we cannot be successful. If the people view us as occupiers and the enemy, we can’t be successful. . . .” But whether harking back to T. E. Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom, Sir Robert Thompson’s Defeating Communist Insurgency, or the proliferating literature on “nation-building” during the 1950s and 1960s as applied in Vietnam, the strategic success of current counterinsurgency doctrine remains almost entirely theoretical.

Reducing civilian casualties, having officers foreswear side arms and body armor when visiting Afghani district or provincial governors, providing basic services, and sharing information more widely among tactical allies are all laudable. But it also reflects a view of Afghanis as politically infantile without fundamental political passions of their own. More realistically, such tactical measures have impact at the political margins and are unlikely to generate the critical mass of active support—or calculated cooperation—required to turn the war around. As McChrystal himself instructed subordinates during a recent 60 Minutes broadcast: “the question is not whether we’re making progress [but] . . . whether we’re making enough progress fast enough.” And key to measuring progress is identification of valid indicators—preferably based on relevant comparative benchmarks.

The struggle in Afghanistan is most often compared—when it is compared at all—to previous forays into Vietnam, Bosnia Herzagovina, and/or Iraq. But experiences in those states have little relevance if, as recently posed by Senator Evan Bayh, the fundametnal question is whether or not Afghanistan can become a “coherent nation-state” within any reasonable period of time. The answer to that question should be based on comparisons to the achievements of as many other “nation-building” states as possible. So how does Afghanistan’s record and prospects compare to 101 other countries that have been “nation built” over the past few decades?

The term “nation-building” is increasingly thrown around and debated, but is never much defined. For many social scientists, “nation-building” means something along the lines of “a process whereby a sense of common identity emerges among a people who, whether based on ethnic, cultural or other considerations, desire to govern themselves.” However, in the common parlance of today’s talking heads, it seems to imply an externally induced process directed toward the development of a national identity coincident with a people’s citizenship in a particular—already legally recognized—sovereign state. In those terms, nation building is all about establishing the foundations of a nation-state where those conditions have not emerged naturally during the last three hundred and fifty years.

The objective of transforming Afghanistan into a state that reflects both a legally recognized status and a socio-political reality is the most ambitious exercise in social engineering imaginable. Notwithstanding attempts by local demagogues to invent wholly or largely fictitious “nationalities” around the world, a sense of common nationality is seldom the result of a process designed and implemented by outsiders and, therefore, it is entirely unrealistic to view that process as a tactic to be employed to achieve other economic or political objectives. But that has essentially been the view of nation-building held by economic development and global-strategy decision makers since the 1960s.

Nation-building was initially viewed throughout the 1960s and 1970s as a requisite for “economic development” within newly independent “underdeveloped” countries. From that perspective, a shared sense of nationality provides a basis for regime legitimacy that, in turn, fosters voluntary compliance with government decisions. Because voluntary compliance is more efficient than coerced compliance, legitimacy is important for the effective functioning of sovereign states. Based on that logic, economic “developers” have been attempting to improve the capacity of states with the hope that “nations” will ultimately coalesce around them. Stripped to its foundations, that is the model reflected in McChrystal’s approach to nation-building in Afghanistan.

But what has been the broader result of that approach to date? Ninety-three nation-building states still receive concessional Country Programmable Aid (CPA)—$52.5 billion during 2005 and 2006 alone. And for at least 79 percent of those states, nation-building efforts have been ongoing for at least four decades. Yet, a third of those 101 states are included on the Fund for Peace’s current failing-states “alert” list—with “warning” status for another fifty-eight.

Whether or not Afghanistan has been the “graveyard of empires” is a matter for poets. But Afghanistan’s avoidance of full colonization was due primarily to strategic considerations by the British and Russians rather than the strength of any centralized Afghan government. Nonetheless, the British fought three wars with Afghan rulers in Kabul between 1840 and 1920; were responsible for the state’s foreign affairs for the final forty-one years of that period; and launched at least sixty-two military expeditions to quell uprisings in the border region during the four decades between 1849 and 1889 alone.

In the meantime, Afghan rulers in Kabul had their own problems exercising centralized authority. Although recurrent uprisings from one tribe or another were directed against Kabul less often than toward the British, no centralized Afghan government successfully exercised effective authority throughout the entire country. At its most simplistic, opposition to successive Afghan rulers tended to be about tribal autonomy; opposition to the British combined tribal defense of their autonomy with rejection of the non-Muslim colonial government. But it is also true that many tribal leaders and ordinary Muslims cooperated with the British and Afghan emirs—moving in and out of alliances or their employ as local circumstances and interests suggested. Shifting loyalties often led to attacks and counterattacks between those who supported and those who opposed the rulers in Kabul or British Indian government at any given time.

Afghanistan’s successive rulers have been attempting to build an effective centralized nation-state for more than 129 years. The first attempt to “modernize” the country followed more than eighty years ago with the introduction of secular education for both girls and boys; discouragement of veils for, and seclusion of, women; and preparation of the first official budget—all of which failed. By the 1930s, a few German technicians and businessmen and Soviet military advisors were residing in Kabul, displaced largely by American financial and technical support for the “modernization” of Afghanistan soon after the end of WWII—including financing irrigation in the Helmand Valley and substantial expansion of Kabul University twenty years later. Indeed, Kabul University played a pivotal role in educating a generation of Afghan Marxist, secular democratic and Muslim “nationalist” leaders. The World Bank followed with its first loan to Afghanistan—for a classic education-modernization project—in 1964; ultimately providing $1.7 billion for fifty-one separate operations. Thus, Afghanistan has been engaged in nation-building for a longer period than all but seven of one hundred other nation-building states. That is the reality in the face of which McChrystal asserts a reasonable chance to “gain the initiative” by securing the “support [of the] people in local communities” within the next critical twelve to twenty-four months.

Turning to that immediate task, we reference the program of the Fund for Peace to define, identify, and assess “failing” states. According to their most recent assessment of Afghanistan covering the year 2008: “all of [its] social indicators either worsened or stayed the same. . . . [Its] uneven development indicator worsened. . . . [and] all of [its] political and military indicators worsened.” Importantly, “the indicator for the legitimacy of the state worsened . . . as a result of the government’s inability to combat corruption, militant violence, and drug trafficking”—all issues mentioned in the assessment. From a comparative perspective, Afghanistan continues to score very near the bottom on almost any scale established to measure national cohesion or regime effectiveness.

With respect to five “core” requisites for “sustainable security,” Afghanistan is found at the absolute bottom among the eighty-three nation-building states scored by the Fund for Peace. On the obverse scale of state “failure,” Afghanistan ranks ninety-fifth of all 101 nation-building states and thirty-first of thirty-eight for which the Fund has issued an “alert.” With respect to “criminalization and/or de-legitimization of the State,” it ranks next to dead-last while it places ninety-ninth in terms of both the extent to which it maintains a “security apparatus [that] operates as a ‘state within a state’” and the continued “legacy of vengeance-seeking group grievance or group paranoia.” Those rankings place Afghanistan firmly in the company of Chad, Congo (Kinshasa), Guinea, Iraq, Sudan, and Zimbabwe—only Somalia ranks significantly worse across all categories.

Afghanistan’s ranking of eighty-ninth—tied with Iran and Lebanon—for “the rise of factionalized elites” does not suggest a broad basis for building effective coalitions in support of a systematic nation-building effort. Indeed, only ten nation-building states rank worse.That poor showing among Afghan elites is reinforced by recent electoral politics there. Even if the election itself was entirely free and fair, the existence of eighty legally recognized political parties suggests that Afghans still identify more with traditional or charismatic leaders and the differences among them than as members of a more inclusive community. That reflects the broader reality of a more fragmented population than conventional wisdom suggests and makes development of a common view of legitimate governance rooted in a “modern” sovereign-state difficult. That does not mean that many citizens of Afghanistan do not identify themselves as “Afghans.” But the fundamental political issue is whether that identity engenders a sense of primary loyalty among a critical mass of them.

If the existence of a primary Afghan national identity is important for its nation-building efforts to succeed, so is a minimal level of economic and financial viability. How does Afghanistan measure up along those dimensions? Here we turn to the relevant group of thirty-seven countries among the OECD’s “unofficial” list of forty-seven economically “fragile” states.

The CIA claims that Afghanistan’s economy “has improved significantly since the fall of the Taliban regime in 2001” and attributes most of that improvement to “the infusion of international assistance, the recovery of the agricultural sector, and service sector growth.” With respect to foreign assistance, the international community has pledged more than $57 billion since 2002. Afghanistan’s level of CPA on a per capita basis ($43.63) during the two year 2005 and 2006 period was the sixth highest among the OECD’s forty-seven “fragile” states. That level of CPA financing during those two years equaled the country’s expenditure budget for 2008—certainly an unsustainable level for more than a very few more years. Nonetheless, even at those elevated levels, CPA provided the equivalent of only 41 percent of the approximate $100 per capita that flows into Afghanistan from the opium trade. It is in that context that prospects for suppressing poppy production by substituting other crops must be realistically assessed. Given that reliance on external aid, current levels of domestic Government revenue are extremely low at $31.34 per capita; equal to only 4.5% of the Country’s low per capita GDP (purchasing power parity) of $700; and produces a per capita budget deficit of $63.74. Although Afghanistan places in the upper half of the forty-seven fragile states with respect to domestic revenues as share of GDP, its per capita share of GDP is a full 36.8 points below Zimbabwe’s 41.3 percent—which itself ranks dead last with respect to per capita GDP (ppp).

The CIA also acknowledges that Afghanistan remains “extremely poor. . . . probably tak[ing] the remainder of the decade and continuing donor aid and attention to significantly raise [its] living standards from [what is] current[ly] . . . among the lowest in the world.” Indeed, 53 percent of the Afghan population is estimated to be living below its own specified poverty line. Finally, Afghanistan ranks eighteenth of twenty-four fragile states with respect to relative income inequality—only six other countries exhibit more unequal distributions of wealth. Those economic development rankings place Afghanistan firmly in the company of Burundi, the Central African Republic, Congo (Kinshasa), Guinea-Bissau, Iraq, Niger, Pakistan and Zimbabwe.

The failure of economic development interventions aimed primarily at improving public services often destroys more sustainable non-formal safety nets substantially faster than new externally financed programs can replace them. But worse, when employed to win hearts and minds, it is almost impossible to ensure that material benefits accrue only to those who cooperate with the state—the “free rider” problem is almost insurmountable. Further, elite capture of disproportionate benefits among nation-building states is almost universal. And even if by some chance insurgents actually did initially take to the field because they were not happy with the level of services provided by governments—and that is almost certainly not the case for most of them—it does not take long before combat solidifies hostile views that are not ameliorated by subsequent service improvements. As I argued previously on this website, “Individuals do not simply offer loyalty to the most effective provider of public goods and services. For many people, who provides things and how they are provided [still] matter.”

A serious review of our Afghanistan strategy and General McChrystal’s recommendations for tactical changes should include parallel assessments of other nation-building states that have socio-economic profiles similar to Afghanistan, share the broad outlines of its nation-building record, but are not engaged in an active insurgency. Would we likely be able to dramatically turn-around the nation-building record in those countries within the twelve to twenty-four month time-frame considered critical by McChrystal with the non-military resources he requested? America’s status as an economic, military, and political superpower does not necessarily—or even often—translate into predominant political power at local levels. Indeed, the Achilles’ heel of American military and economic—and hence political—power at local levels has been increasingly demonstrated by our failure to achieve our objectives when the conflict is between nations within their shared sovereign-state boundaries rather than directly between the whole of one state against another. That does not bode well for the ultimate success of General McChrystal’s “new” approach to our continuing effort in Afghanistan.

The content above was saved on the old Morss Global Finance website, just in case anyone was looking for it (with the help of
This entry was posted in Economic Development, Emerging Markets, Other. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *