Afghanistan and Nation-Building

On the strength of this weekend Washington Post review by Chris Bray, I’ve just ordered Bing West’s new book on Afghanistan, The Wrong War; I’ll let you know what I think once I’ve read it.  What moved me to order it was this bit in Bray’s review:

Endlessly engaged in euphemism and rhetorical triangulation, American generals and politicians insist on a story in which war isn’t war, and doesn’t center on killing. Official doctrine instead declares that professional warriors are engaged in a nation-building strategy “to serve and secure the population,” a focus that West argues has “transformed the military into a giant Peace Corps.”

Few leaders are spared [in West’s account]. Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, pronounces that “we can’t kill our way to victory” in a counterinsurgency. West’s judgment: “That was political drivel.” He writes that “the senior ranks were determined to sell counterinsurgency as benevolent nation building,” a politically motivated story that promised to minimize domestic opposition.

Later, Bray describes West’s view of the Kabul government:

While American leaders have dithered and fantasized, West charges, Afghan leaders have used the war as a business, enriching themselves through patronage and graft. But the counterinsurgency doctrine that has guided much of the American effort in Afghanistan promotes stabilization for the purpose of establishing legitimate government. “The American goal was to persuade Afghan tribes to support a centrally controlled, deeply corrupt democracy,” West writes. This clash between doctrine and reality builds a trap that recurrently captures its makers.

The soldiers caught in the trap can see it clearly. West quotes a perceptive Army officer, Capt. Matt Golsteyn: “We’re the insurgents here . . . and we’re selling a poor product called the Kabul government.”

I spend time these days with JAG officers at the Army JAG school at UVA, next door to the law school.  They have all spent time in Afghanistan or Iraq or both, sometimes as JAGs and sometimes as officers before going to law school – which tells you something about the length of time the Afghanistan war has been underway, in case we needed reminding.  They and others with whom I talk, at Stanford’s Hoover Institution and other places, are the most compelling engage-intellectuals I know.

They are smart in a way that makes it an embarrassment to watch the twits who inhabit, say, The Social Network – and mostly they didn’t attend fancy schools, partly because they came from a different class background and partly because the fancy schools wouldn’t consider ROTC.  (And kudos to Harvard for reversing course.)  They understand teamwork and hierarchy in a way that shows the limits – weird as this sounds to our elite institutions – of the “free agent,” bits of human capital freely floating to the highest rate of return in the de-racinated market culture that exemplifies the top levels of academia and the students it sends out into the world.

These officers, by contrast, live at the intersection of the two American cultures of “honor” and “consent,” and their philosophy is not libertarianism, but its necessary counterpart, or necessary corollary, for a free people to govern itself.  That philosophy, so far as I can tell from my conversations with our officer corps, is most closely tied to “civic republicanism,” a political philosophy much discussed a couple of decades ago, but which has fallen out of favor in recent years.  (The link between those two, honor and consent, is that once you have given your consent, in the free exercise of your liberty, it is honor that makes you come through, enabling the trust among others that they can rely upon you into the future.  Without this, our much celebrated libertarianism is mere license, externalizing the costs of our choices onto others in society.)

The problem for these officers in Afghanistan,  I’ve come to believe, is that their military culture makes it nearly impossible to say no.  They are given a problem, and they have to come up with a way forward.  Maybe not to solve it, but at least a way forward.  And since questioning the goal is not a seriously available option at their level of command – available to the “intellectual,” but not to the “engaged`” as a form of action – they are stuck with the model.  Which in this case is counterinsurgency through the lens of anthropology as the intellectualism, and nation-building as its form of engagement.

I didn’t and don’t think skipping Afghanistan was ever an option after 9-11; the safe haven had to be ended.  My view, even back then, was the tragic one that Iraq was the optional war but also the most winnable one; Afghanistan the un-optional war but also the un-winnable one.  At this stage, I favor the view most closely associated with Biden in Woodward’s book (remarkably for me) – the real sickness and evil is actually in Pakistan, and it has far greater abilities to spread through to the rest of Asia and the West from Pakistan.

In that case, the problem in Afghanistan is to underake strategic withdrawal under whatever name one likes, while finding a way (most likely ugly and nasty and dependent upon the CIA and proxy forces) to ensure that it is too costly for Al Qaeda to return to the land of the Taliban.  Thence to move to counterterrorism directed against the transnational terrorists wherever they are, with particular attention to isolating Pakistan, which worsens in every way from its religious extremism to political instability.  I understand when all those COIN trained officers, who have all served on the ground in Afghanistan, tell me that you can’t win unless you put boots on the ground.  I’m sure that they’re right – but the answer is, unfortunately, you can’t win anyway. And even if somehow things magically improved in Afghanistan, the rust never sleeps in Pakistan.  The Obama administration is not wrong to be looking for the exit in Afghanistan, so long as it understands that at the covert, or deniable, or proxy level, it will be involved there forever, making it too hard for AQ to return in force.

It’s heartbreaking, if you’ve spent a lot of time and energy over years of your life, figuring out how to deal with the local village elders and try and start development projects and improve governance and send Afghan girls to school, to realize that the institutions that one believes one has started and got off the ground are far more likely to blow away like a Potemkin village.  You have these hard-won skills and these small, on the ground achievements, and it looks like maybe you’ve started something that might someday bear fruit.  You’ve actually done remarkable things, by any ordinary measure.  But then it doesn’t bear fruit, because it isn’t rooted, not culturally or institutionally, and the belief that it will have a life after your funding is gone is illusion.

But it’s not an unusual story, if one looks beyond Afghanistan and indeed beyond war.  It’s actually the oldest story in the world in development work.  In development, we believe we need to develop institutional governance capacities so that the efforts that shelter and take root under those institutions will not be in vain.  No doubt that’s true.  But unfortunately we don’t have a clue how to do that – and even less of a clue how to do that in war.

Mark Steyn says it better and more plainly:

Even if one were in favor of “nation-building”, there is nothing to be said for half-hearted, desultory “nation-building”, which is what America has been doing, at great cost in blood and treasure, for almost a decade now. What do we have to show for a ten-year occupation in the Hindu Kush? Christians on death row for converting from Islam? Taxpayer-funded Viagra to help elderly village headmen rape their child brides?  As often with flotsam and jetsam … from the imperial byways, you’re struck by how much London accomplished with so little. By contrast, we’ve spent a fortune in Afghanistan and have nothing to show for it.

I think the difference is this: When America goes into Afghanistan, it doesn’t think it’s prosecuting American interests. Quite the opposite: Regardless of whether it’s officially UN- or Nato-sanctioned, America goes in as the expeditionary force of “world opinion” or “the global commons”. It doesn’t believe it has a national interest in Afghanistan, and indeed that it would be a kind of transnational faux pas to be seen to have one, so it’s hardly surprising that the “nation” it winds up “building” doesn’t look much like anywhere any American would want to have anything to do with. Even nation-building requires the builder to build it in what he perceives as his national interest – as the British did in India and the Americans in post-war Japan. If you have disinterested, transnational nation-building, you wind up as we have in Kabul.