A lot of people are offering commentaries on why and how the United States failed in Afghanistan. Yet the more important question that few are asking is "Where the United States failed."
This blog post argues that how and why the US failed in Afghanistan are questions of secondary importance. Instead what we should be discussing is where the failure occured.
The latest one is in this week’s Economist where Henry Kissinger echoes the common argument that Washington’s attempt to turn the country into a modern democracy was an over-ambitious, unachievable goal. Apart from the purely military strategic post-mortem, the popular thing to do now if you are an academic or analyst anywhere in the world is to explain — as Daron Acemoglu does here — why “nation-building failed in Afghanistan.”
This narrative plays well to a self-flagellating America and a Washington establishment that does not want to acknowledge it blind spots. But it is both conceptually inaccurate and tangential to the main issue.
What’s the main issue? Hold on, I’ll come to it. Let me clear up the conceptual cobwebs first.
As I tweeted, external powers can do “nation-building” only by provoking native resistance to their domination.
The United States was not engaged in nation-building in Afghanistan. What it has been doing since it overthrew Mullah Omar’s Islamic emirate in 2002 is accurately described as state-building. A nation is a large collective of people who have something in common because they believe they do. A country is a geographical region. A state is a political entity that governs a country and the people that live on it. Since 1945, the norm is that nations are entitled to have their own states, and new states often try to construct their own nations, but it’s not necessary for the nations and states to be congruent. I could explain further but then this would turn into my GCPP class, which you are encouraged to sign-up for.
Anyway, the point is that the US was building a state: with a constitution, representative government, institutions, armed forces and suchlike. Contrary to what the critics say now, this state — officially called the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan — significantly improved the lot of ordinary Afghans. Per Capita GDP rose from $191 in 2002 to $642 in 2012 on the back of foreign aid, before dropping to $500 or thereabouts after aid flows fell. More than half the population was engaged in agriculture in 2002, as compared to less than a quarter today. Services contribute to 40% of the economy. Total fertility rate dropped from 7.5 births per woman to less than 4 in 2019. Infant mortality, one of the best indicators of human development fell from the Taliban-era figure of 85% to around 50% today. Secondary school enrolment rose from nearly zero during the Taliban era to over 50% today.
Sure, this was achieved on the back of Washington’s aid dollars, but that’s the point! The trillion dollars of US taxpayer money achieved all this even after lining the pockets of various shady characters around the world. I’m not carrying a can for the US government’s propaganda division, but this does not look like failure to me. Most of the figures I cited in the paragraph above are from Financial Times which notes that “As a result, Afghan people now live nearly 10 years longer than they did two decades ago.” Now it is true that the Afghan state’s security forces crumbled in the face of a relentless, Pakistan-China-Russia-Iran-backed insurgency. But the human development achievements remain. The Taliban can now reverse these gains, but the credit for that achievement will belong to them and their sponsors.
So no, state-building didn not fail. It was not allowed to succeed because state security failed. And that’s linked to the main issue. Again, bear with me a little longer, I’ll come to it soon.
Whatever Kissinger may say in hindsight, was it wrong for the United States to engage in state-building? Let’s go back to 2002. US troops and the Northern Alliance have just overthrown the Taliban regime. Should the US declare mission accomplished, pack up and leave? How would that stop Pakistan from promptly sending the Taliban back, who would in turn promptly resume their relationship with al Qaeda and the global jihadist project. Remember Bill Clinton ordered cruise missile strikes on an al Qaeda base in Khost in 1998 in retaliation for an attack on US embassies in Africa. That didn’t stop Osama bin Laden from executing the 9/11 attacks. No, if the US wanted to prevent future attacks, it was necessary to ensure that a favourable regime was in place in Kabul.
If the United States had to create a new state in Afghanistan, what kind of a state ought it to have been? It is easy to cite fashionable political-sciency arguments and hold that to be durable, the new state ought to be something that would reflect Afghan society. One problem with these arguments is that they ignore the values of those building the state. The United States could not have built a state that was not a modern democracy. No consequential part of its society would have condoned a non-modern non-democratic regime. For to do so would be to accept that America’s own foundational values are not exemplary and that the desire for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness is not universal. That is why Japan, Philippines and Germany are modern democracies, and not states whose institutions are deeply rooted in their ancient traditions and social structures.
Therefore the post-9/11 response required the United States to construct a regime in Afghanistan that would protect Washington’s security interests, and that regime had to be as close to a modern democracy as possible. Like South Vietnam. This is not to say that the US has not toppled democracies or propped up dictators in the pursuit of its interests. Rather, that its dominant impulse is to promote liberal democracy around the world.
Now let’s come to the main point. And that is related to Washington’s legitimate determination to punish the perpetrators of 9/11 and deter future attacks on its soil.
Was the US right to invade Afghanistan, overthrow the Taliban and consequently engage in state-building? No, it was not. America focused on the wrong country. It chose the wrong enemy. Two wrong enemies, if you include Iraq.
The political economy of US foreign policy does not favour the open reckoning of the role of its allies. See this ProPublica report from January 2020.
The George W Bush administration might have achieved its punitive and deterrence objectives far more effectively and efficiently had it focused on Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. More than the illiterate ragtag hillbillies around Mullah Omar, it was the Pakistani military-jihadi complex, in connivance with then-dominant members of the Saudi security establishment that were responsible for terrorist attacks on New York and Washington. As General Pervez Musharraf, the then Pakistani dictator, wrote in his memoirs, he cut a deal with the Americans after being threatened of being bombed back to the Stone Age. He got a good deal. The United States didn’t. Many of us pointed this out even in 2002, but were swept aside as we were motivated by ‘India’s traditional rivalry with Pakistan.’
Had the United States decided to weaken the military-jihadi complex to the point that Pakistani democracy could re-emerge, it would have solved the entire Af-Pak problem. Instead, the Bush administration declared Pakistan a major non-NATO ally, coddled Musharraf and the army establishment and gave them a lot of money.
They lined their pockets, periodically anointed some poor sod as a ‘top al Qaeda leader’ before handing him to the Americans, hid Osama bin Laden in Abbotabad, sheltered the Taliban in Quetta and generally went about undermining US efforts in Afghanistan. That’s where the US failed. For years the Americans failed to see that the Pakistanis were taking it for a ride.
My 2011 piece in WSJ called for the US to cut Pakistan loose.
Not until the later part of Barack Obama’s second term did they realise their mistake. Donald Trump was the first US president to see Pakistan’s perfidy clearly and act accordingly. But by then Pakistan had completely switched sides and signed up on its long-time ally China’s project to challenge America’s global dominance.
Washington’s attempt to build a modern democracy in Afghanistan did not fail because Afghan society was not accepting of it. Given time, support and nourishment, the Afghanistan could well have emerged as a modern democracy. If that project is now in grave peril, it is because Pakistan frustrated it at every stage and Washington did not stop it from doing so.
That is why it is tedious to see some of America’s finest policy analysts — many of who I respect and some who are my friends — beat up everyone from American presidents, generals and diplomats to Afghan warlords, officials and soldiers for the situation the United States finds itself in today.
The United States picked the wrong enemy. And even twenty years after 9/11 it still can’t beat up the real culprits. That, ultimately, is where the United States failed.
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