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What the West needs in Afghanistan: humility

A failing campaign calls for recalibrated purpose, not a redoubled effort.

By Greg Mills / August 17, 2009

Cambridge, England

As Western military casualties in Afghanistan mount, the troop-contributing nations are blaming common scapegoats: ill-equipped soldiers, not enough helicopters, wrong vehicles, too many constraints on military actions, too little money, and poor leadership.

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Their solutions seem simple: Increase the troops, give them more or different equipment, deliver more local development, even change the military leadership. The result should be fewer casualties and a nation on a path to stability and prosperity.

But if the experience in Afghanistan and other attempts at state-building teach anything, it is of the need to get the strategy and politics right first. At the onset of such missions, the right questions have to be asked: "For what purpose?", "How?", and "How long?" With the Afghan presidential election upcoming on Aug. 20 and Western forces contemplating how best to support local allies, these questions are as relevant today as they were at the start of the mission in 2001.

Today the mission in Afghanistan is failing because the purpose is unclear.

That's not to say that it's a lost cause. But instead of responding with a redoubled effort, how about a healthy dose of humility, a recognition that success will depend on internal Afghan actions rather than external Western ones?

If the West's aim is to prevent the Taliban from taking power again in Afghanistan, then that might be achievable by its current actions. If, however, the aim is to prevent Al Qaeda terrorist acts in the West, then Afghanistan is probably the wrong target for three reasons: (1) Most of the terrorists in that region are "brewed" in Pakistan, (2) acts against the Taliban may incite further Muslim violence against the West, and (3) the greatest terrorist threat to most Western nations is from domestic cells.

And if the aim is to transform Afghanistan from a failed to a functioning state, with standards of governance at least recognizable to Western eyes, it is unlikely to succeed with its current approach.

There are very few examples where postwar reconstruction has worked successfully. Japan and Germany are sometimes cited. But Japan, as author and economist William Easterly points out, does not lend itself to replication since it took annihilation to get the chance to remake it.

In the case of Germany, the allies had a solid foundation of industrial, managerial, and technical proficiency to work with. And through skillful political footwork, they retained bureaucratic talent and popular local support. The Marshall Plan was a successful example of what major aid can achieve, but those war-torn European countries still possessed the skeleton of successful, functioning states. Postconflict peacebuilding is nearly impossible without that structure.

Undeterred, the international formula for fixing failed states from Afghanistan to Sierra Leone is largely the same – a local political solution (often internationally brokered) followed by dollops of aid, often delivered by the only agency willing and capable of operating in such environments: the (foreign) military.