This is How the Theory [War] Ends
Like this: Not with a victory parade, but with a stalemate. A suggestive Times piece on uprisings against Taliban abuses in eastern Afghanistan may point the way to the only realistic route to stability.
The default U.S. version of success—building effective Afghan institutions to which we could “hand off”—has had major problems for a long while. After a decade of virtuous but quixotic efforts, it’s apparent that state structures aren’t coherent enough, that deeply ingrained social and cultural practices chip away at outside efforts to introduce “objective” efficiencies, that burgeoning political dynamics are generating their own centrifugal forces. There are exceptions, but overall Afghan institutions of governance don’t have the revenue, legitimacy or reach to exercise firm control after 2014.
Part of what’s going on is the exhaustion of a theory. The scholar Michael Wesley raised some brilliant points in his 2008 essay, “The State of the Art on the Art of State Building.” Developed-world social engineers tended to see state-building as a more discrete enterprise than nation-building. Such officials tend to see state-building as “strictly limited in scope and technical in nature.” It’s just giving capacities, helping agencies to be able to deliver services, training people in the rudiments of democratic processes.
Yet this is the cardinal error, Wesley suggests, because the complex, interlocking elements of a state-building enterprise cannot isolate itself from the workings of a society. “The intention of remaining aloof from politics while concentrating on technocratic reforms,” he concludes in dispassionate prose, “has proved unrealistic.”
The reason is that state-builders treat the state as the independent variable, “ideally divorced from politics, economics and society.” In the real world of social human beings, technocrats can’t come in and dictate new patterns of life. “Agreement on the nature of the state must arise from existing social forces and understandings, from ‘real interests and clashes of interest.’” Real states, Wesley explains, are seen by their inhabitants as sources of myth, meaning, identity—as “either an existential, or a transcendent, or an immanent truth.” And so “the process of state building can never be simply a technocratic exercise.”
This clear-eyed analysis sheds useful light on so many mistaken paths in Afghanistan. On the effort, not pointless but exhaustively and perhaps pointlessly Sisyphean, to create technocratic ministries on the western model. The proposal to find “islands of good governance”—the “good guys” who would run a town or district or province “the way it is supposed to be run.” The idea that Hamid Karzai’s repeated forays into “playing local warlord” represented an insult to the technocratic ideal rather than a wholly legitimate and in fact necessary strategy for the context. A mindset that every pattern, habit and approach that diverged from the Western good governance ideal was something to be shunned, delegitimized, trained out of existence, even prosecuted.
We tromped into a country and went busily about recreating its state structures, willfully ignoring the politics in which they reposed. This is, one might recall, an insult to conservative principles more than any other: Conservatives remember first and foremost the organic character of society and the danger of social engineering. Human nature will have its revenge on utopian programs, whether at home or abroad.
Advocates of the Current Plan commonly warn that the alternative is chaos, and a Taliban convoy rolling into Kabul. But as the Times article suggests, it need not be so. The situation it describes is messy—and not, to be clear, a re-run of the “Awakening” process in Iraq. It’s not a simple story of townsmen gathering up aged British single-shot rifles to fight off evil Taliban: Hezb-i-Islami is getting into the act, as are other local power players. A government representative may be skimming cash off the Kabul funds being sent to help. And the provinces involved, Ghazni and Langman, want no more meddling from the central government than from the Taliban.
But the model here may be a sustainable one, if not here then at least in theory: A rough stability, generated through a clash of local interests in which the Taliban is one of the weaker players. That is a possible prescription for an Afghanistan post-2014 that does not see a return to power of the insurgency and does not descend into kaleidoscopic violence. Dozens of local standoffs and stalemates, some fought through and some negotiated, could emerge among the dizzying array of interest groups now thick upon the ground, from warlords and regional power brokers (and their militias) to emerging political parties to religious leaders to profiteers to narcos to insurgents to local politicians.
Notice that very few of these groups want Taliban rule. Even in the south, the idea of day-to-day beheadings and baseball-bat destructions of boom-boxes just won’t go over, and less so every year. In the process, most Afghans will be “governed” more or less as they are accustomed to, as they have been for some time. The goal will be first and foremost to prevent a replay of the 1990s—a Hobbesian hell in which the center cannot hold.
In this scenario, the role for the central government isn’t to hold the whole country. It’s to serve as a national power broker, laying out certain red lines—no local civil wars, no ethnic cleansing, no massive crime, etc. Any group that crosses a red line gets smacked, hard, by an army far more powerful than any one warlord’s militia. Kabul also serves as the national mediator, shuttling around the country to settle disputes and dispense favors, to keep things in order. (These concepts parallel to some degree a few of the roles played by the central government during some of the country’s more placid periods before the last several war-torn decades.)
Meantime, investment comes in. Natural resources are developed. More people get more access to education, travel, information. Progress and growth persist. Islands of organic, self-generated state building occur—in cooperation with continued partnership from NGOs and others playing a truly supportive role.
Would this model demand U.S. support for “nasty” people, for warlords, for “corrupt” officials? The question exposes the great dilemma of outside support for state building: You impose Western standards, you ignore local politics; you don’t and you foster resentment by shoveling briefcases full of cash into the pockets of hated local thugs. “We are tired of the government’s corruption, and we are tired of the Taliban’s tortures,” one local official told the Times for its recent story.
There are ways to get around this. Provide some degree of central budget support with as much accountability as possible. Channel some through widely-respected NGOs. But for the most part, simply ratchet down the massive levels of outside aid, which tend to cause immense dislocations inside the societies anyway. Let local politics do its own work and choose just a very tiny number of principles to stand for, and then really, truly stand for them.
None of this is perfect. None of it promises quick results. But is has the strange quality of reflecting the reality of social life as it exists in the real world, and allowing politics to work as an organic process. It reflects no guarantees, but one: It is a guarantee against further magical thinking that will get us nowhere.