What the West needs in Afghanistan: humility

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

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.

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.

That institution, however, deflects focus from the political framework required for long-term change, stability, and prosperity. The military's commendable work in building schools, digging wells, opening healthcare centers, and bolstering local security forces is no substitute for a political agenda that is inevitably messy, complex, and fraught with setbacks and compromise, only progressing as the locals want.

Donor governments don't like this, of course. In a media age, they prefer delivery on things that can be seen and counted rather than dealing with more nebulous and inevitably high-maintenance local and regional political alliances. Problems also arise because the international parties routinely underestimate their opponents, militarily, politically, and in terms of their staying power. It is also because, in their eagerness to help themselves by helping others, they risk appearing not only messianic but imperialistic.

But beyond grandstanding attempts at international gatherings such as the myriad "G summits," today's actors are badly equipped to bring about the sort of integrated political actions required for long-term solutions aimed at transforming failed states.

Among the West's political elite, there are many savvy spinmeisters, but fewer diplomatic dealmakers, the sort who can broker deals with the Taliban, unspeakable publicly until recently, with which the insurgency can more quickly be countered. They are what we most need now – realists who can concede where necessary and link national, regional, and international agendas for action. This holistic approach would be a welcome change from the West's aimless targeting of geographic areas such as Helmand Province in the south, and issues such as poppy-farming. The unintended costs and consequences of such actions help explain why the West has struggled to keep the Afghan people – and its leadership – on its side.

The embedding of foreign bureaucrats within the Afghan government can also make a difference, if they have field experience and the ability to work outside their own department. Such skills have proved few and far between, not least since they should be willing also to put themselves in harm's way, a scarcity of talent compounded by overly quick rotation periods between deployments. But overall Afghanistan needs fewer foreign consultants and more money channeled for projects, especially the long-term drivers of development, such as education. Finally, and most important, it needs to prioritize policies that create jobs and grow the economy.

Unlike Iraq, Afghanistan may be a war of necessity rather than choice, but to date it is a campaign constructed on little more than hope, caricature, and hubris. Since its success or failure depends on how seriously Afghans take each other and the task at hand, a little humility and a little less external enlightenment and direction could work wonders. It would certainly help to take the shine off the imperial reflection and outline a cause worth fighting for – or not.

Greg Mills heads the Brenthurst Foundation, based in Johannesburg, South Africa, which fosters policies to boost Africa's economic performance. He served in 2006 as an adviser to the commander of NATO's International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan. He is currently on leave as a visiting scholar at Cambridge University.

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