October 07, 2011

Afghanistan: Ten Years in a Dead End Street

Writing about web page http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-south-asia-15209793

Marking ten years since the coalition invasion of Afghanistan, former U.S. commander Stanley McChrystal has said that the U.S. and its NATO allies are only a little better than half way towards reaching their war goals. He added:

Most of us -- me included -- had a very superficial understanding of the situation and history [of Afghanistan], and we had a frighteningly simplistic view of recent history, the last 50 years.

Respectfully, I disagree. The problem was not a lack of understanding specifically of Afghanistan's history, or of recent history. The problem was a lack of history in general. They did not understand how our modern world has been created.

The most basic acquaintance with European history since the tenth century would have told them two things.

  • Democracy cannot be built overnight. It is a long, long process. A successful democracy depends on the rule of law. The rule of law comes first. Without the rule of law, electoral competition leads swiftly to chaos.
  • A society based on patronage and rent sharing -- the kind of state that Afghans had before it was destroyed by a communist coup d'état and Soviet intervention -- can be more stable, more prosperous, and provide more rights than one based on chaos and looting. In fact, the right kind of patronage and rent sharing can foster the rule of law.

Based on ignorance of these two simple things, coalition policies in Afghanistan have been set up to fail from the word Go. We have failed to achieve our goals because the goals were fundamentally misconceived. Tens of thousands of troops and civilians have paid for this with their lives. The immense damage that has been done in Afghanistan and neighbouring countries will persist for decades.

Twenty/twenty hindsight? No. The first time I wrote this was on December 4, 2001. (I updated it on January 9, 2002, and expanded on it in 2009 on July 18 and August 30, and on January 1, 2010.)

I'll be modest about this -- I should be. I have made few predictions that have stood the test of time. Actually I have made few predictions, period. Not having to have a crystal ball is one of the good things about studying history.

I am not saying: Look, I got it right. I'm saying: Look, even I got it right. Why couldn't they?

Maybe because they didn't know the right kind of history.


- One comment Not publicly viewable

  1. Robert

    Mark

    Don’t be modest. Congratulations on your foresight! And (for reasons which you will appreciate) I entirely agree about the importance of the rule of law in underpinning democracy. Have you read the late Tom Bingham’s book (The Rule of Law)?

    09 Oct 2011, 22:08


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I am a professor in the Department of Economics at the University of Warwick. I am also a research associate of Warwick’s Centre on Competitive Advantage in the Global Economy, and of the Centre for Russian, European, and Eurasian Studies at the University of Birmingham. My research is on Russian and international economic history; I am interested in economic aspects of bureaucracy, dictatorship, defence, and warfare. My most recent book is One Day We Will Live Without Fear: Everyday Lives Under the Soviet Police State (Hoover Institution Press, 2016).



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