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January 03, 2013

Fighting For Us — But Against Whom?

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On 21 December Britain's prime minister, deputy prime minister, and leader of the opposition broadcast their Christmas messages to our troopsin Afghanistan and elsewhere. On Boxing Day Prince Charles, whose son Prince Harry is serving in Afghanistan, added his pennyworth.

These messages were notably similar. One after another, they worked the themes of courage, risk, danger, sacrifice, distance from home, and separation from family at Christmas.

Remarkable, also, was what they left out. According to our political leaders the threat confronting our troops is nameless and faceless. If we believe them, it is like an Atlantic storm or an airborne virus, a natural hazard that arises suddenly from nowhere and needs no explanation. Nick Clegg, the deputy prime minister mentioned an "invisible threat." Only Prince Charles referred to anonymous "insurgents." Cameron and Miliband did not mention an enemy at all.

In this postmodern age we struggle, it seems, to acknowledge that enemies face us who hate us and would like to kill us. They hate, specifically, our democracy, our traditions of political and religious toleration, our freedom of speech and association. They hate science, education, and public health. They hate women, particularly when educated and independent of men. These enemies do not hide their identity: they call themselves Al Qaeda and the Taliban.

Naming the enemy is only a start. Many questions then arise that do not have obvious answers. If enemies exist, should we go out into the world to find them, or wait until they come to us? Should we aim for victory or for a negotiated peace? Must we always be enemies or can we find common ground? These are questions on which reasonable people will differ. But we cannot put these questions clearly if we do not acknowledge that there is an enemy.

If our leaders cannot bring themselves to mention the enemy when they address the soldiers who risk their lives for us and for the families who must live with those risks, it is hardly surprising that most civilians at home are confused and doubtful of our armed forces' mission overseas. If there is no enemy, why have we put our soldiers in harm's way?

October 25, 2012

Afghanistan: Tragedy, History, and Foresight

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The House of Commons International Development Committee has reported this morning that:

The future of Afghanistan is uncertain [...] The UK Government may have to recognise that a viable state may not be achievable in Afghanistan.

Is this depressing judgement realistic? It depends partly what you mean by a viable state. Afghanistan had a monarchy until the king was overthrown by a coup in 1973; this was followed by a communist insurrection in 1978. Although not a clean, non-corrupt democracy, the Afghan state was viable at least until 1973. Although some terrible things have happened between then and now, history suggests that a viable state in Afghanistan is not an impossible aspiration.

What the British government means by a viable state is more ambitious than this, however. It is expressed, for example, in DFID targets for popular approval, electoral turnout, spending capacity, and civil service reform. In other words, our own government's goal for Afghanistan is not just a viable state but a stable, clean, non-corrupt democracy.

A stable, clean, non-corrupt democracy: This is what the parliamentary report says will not happen in Afghanistan. For anyone who knows a little history, it is laying claim to the bleeding obvious.

I don't mean just that it is obvious now, after ten years of blood spilt and treasure lost. It was obvious beforehand. Here are things I wrote in 2001 on December 4, updated in 2002 on January 9, and in 2009 on July 18 and August 30, in 2010 on January 1, and in 2011 on October 27. It may seem like I'm bragging, but I'm not. I'm sure I've been wrong about lots of things. I'm not an expert on counter-insurgency and I've never been to Central Asia. I'm saying that even an idiot like me could work this one out.

Even an idiot is helped by knowing a little history. The history I know tells me three things.

  • In the past it took hundreds of years to build and agree the rules of the game that we call democracy. Maybe we can compress that a bit, perhaps to within a generation or two. But we cannot shorten it to less than the lifetime of a Westminster government. Note: I am not giving this as a reason to do nothing. On the contrary, a long time horizon is a reason to start immediately! But it is also a reason to set realistic goals, not goals that are so unrealistic that they destroy our chance of ever meeting them.
  • Modern liberal capitalism and competitive democracies did not emerge from nothing, by an act of will. They resulted from a long historical evolution. This evolution was not steady and it was not non-violent. But there were staging posts. Many of those staging posts fell short of what we would today consider to be democracy, but they still offered more rights to the citizens than existed before.
  • In the world today some societies are so weakened that they cannot choose democracy over non-democracy or clean government over corruption. The best they can hope for is a fairly corrupt, not-very-democratic government that offers stability and shares some of the spoils through basic public goods such as highways, policing, and education. Of course, many societies should work for more: Russia and China for example. But some societies are in such a bad state to begin with that the only alternative to a fairly corrupt, not-very-democratic government is civil war. It's a matter of judgement which places belong in this category, but Afghanistan is one.

In other words, living under what I once called "the right kind of feudalism" Afghan citizens would have only limited rights but they would still have more rights and make more progress than under any feasible alternative. There would still be a loot chain, but a stable loot chain can be consistent with modest prosperity and confer benefits compared with a perpetual struggle of each against all.

Setting the wrong goals for Western involvement in Afghanistan has left a trail of blood and broken promises. There will be more of this before we're through. But the roots of a viable state for Afghanistan must be found in the history of Afghanistan, and nowhere else.

October 07, 2011

Afghanistan: Ten Years in a Dead End Street

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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.

January 01, 2010

Afghanistan: The Realm of Possibility

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According to an analyst cited by Simon Tisdall, writing in The Guardian (Dec. 18, 2009), "Corruption goes to the heart of what comprises the Afghan 'state'." Lorenzo Delesgues, director of Integrity Watch, is quoted to the effect that "50 cents in every $1 of foreign aid is lost to corrupt or fraudulent practices" and "up to 90 cents for some USAid programmes."

Peter Galbraith, former United Nations deputy envoy to Afghanistan, criticizing the recent Afghan election as fraudulent, wrote in The Observer (Dec. 20, 2009): "This is a country in which it is impossible to monitor corruption."

In other words, the Afghan state is a loot chain; corruption is everywhere and everything. Sounds bad, doesn't it? But, if that is the reality, it needs to be acknowledged. The question then is: How?

Is it possible to build an Afghan state that is secure, clean, transparent, and accountable, all at the same time? I don't think so. In fact, I think a secure state in Afghanistan today cannot be those other things as well, no matter how desirable is the combination in principle.

More generally, our Afghanistan policy seems to have two objectives. One is to build the capacity of the Afghan state. We have to do this or we will never be able to leave. The other is to build a state that is free of corruption, based on democracy and accountability. My point is that these two goals are in fundamental conflict.

Many will argue that there should be no conflict between building state capacity and clean government. Often they will be right. In many contexts, democracy and state capacity go together. In most of Europe from the seventeenth century onwards, for example, nation states became became increasingly accountable to society, public opinion, political representation, and the courts. Public servants became markedly less venal. The more limits governments accepted on their executive powers at home, the more effective they became in raising taxes and pursuing commercial advantage abroad. So, clean government and state capacity went hand in hand.

To repeat, under the conditions that held in Europe in relatively modern times, there is no contradiction between developing clean government and state capacity. But this is not true in all circumstances.

At a minimum, there must be a public opinion led by middle-class political actors that are interested in holding government to account; in fact, more interested in that than in fighting for a share of the loot chain from governmental corruption and patronage. This is something that has never existed yet in Afghanistan and, while it could exist some day, will be brought into being only very slowly, in the course of decades or centuries, not years or months. To build our foreign and military policy something that not only does not exist, but is outside the realm of possibility, is reckless folly that has already cost the lives of many brave soldiers and innocent civilians.

Without such a public opinion and middle class political elite, the battle against corruption in Afghanistan can have only one end. It will steadily wash away the domestic foundations of the same government that is supposedly our ally, leaving it utterly dependent on external support and, without that support, at the mercy of our deadliest enemies.

If there is a conflict between secure government and clean government, which should come first? In my view there is no question: security must come first. Remember, we are not talking about the security provided by a welfare state or a well stocked freezer. We are talking about the security that comes from not expecting to be killed tomorrow. Human society survived and developed for its first twenty thousand years without clean government. Without security, in contrast, there is no possibility of improvement because all efforts must go into bare survival. Without security, there is only barbarism.

Writing in Prospect Magazine (December 2009), Alex de Waal makes the case better than I can -- so, I recommend that you follow this link and read it. The only viable Afghan government that will secure the lives of its own citizens and the border regions with Pakistan, de Waal writes, will be one based on patronage and revenue sharing. In historical perspective it is a form of government that would once have been called "feudal," which is why I wrote on a previous occasion that what Afghanistan needs is the right kind of feudalism.

Today we would call this form of government venal or corrupt, and it is true that it is not the best kind of social order that has been devised so far, at least from the point of view of advancing human development. But in some contexts it is the best that is attainable. A patronage state is better by far than anarchy or civil war. For Afghanistan and its Pakistan border, these are the real alternatives -- not representative democracy and clean government.

If any form of government can stabilize this troubled region, it will take the form not of a centralized constitutional democracy but of a federated patchwork quilt of baronies based on local rent extraction and rent sharing, in which the barons (whom journalists call "warlords" but there is no real difference between them and the feudal princes of Europe's early middle ages) have found more profit in promoting and taxing trade and interchange than in warfare. Each will keep terrorists and bandits out of their own manors because the latter threaten their revenues, not because they believe in human rights or the rule of law.

In such a society there will be only limited freedom of speech, unequal justice, and routine side payments for normal access to government. Dark things will continue to happen. Bribes and taxes will fund the loot chain. They will go to support the consumption of the barons and to pay off their supporters, as well as to roads and schools. Roads and schools will be built because they promote taxable activity, not because they benefit the whole society. On the whole, however, ordinary people will not be routinely killed in order to spread fear and overturn the established order; the region will cease to spread terror and terrorists across the world. A modicum of prosperity will return. 

It is not much to hope for, but compared with the alternatives it is a worthy goal. Above all, this goal is worthy because it is feasible. We should not spend a drop of our soldiers' blood on any goal that is outside the realm of possibility.

August 30, 2009

Build Democracy — Very Slowly

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The people of Afghanistan have just voted in elections based on universal adult suffrage. All adults were entitled to vote, regardless of gender or property. So, that makes Afghanistan a democracy -- right?

By such standards, most democracies are less than a century old. Universal adult suffrage did not come to the U.K. until 1926 -- or to France until after World War II. Until then, they were less democratic than Afghanistan is today -- right?


Here's a problem. If you looked at Britain or France a hundred years ago, you would most likely conclude they were more stable, with more smoothly functioning political systems, and a wider selection of rights and better life chances for nearly everyone, including those not entitled to vote at the time, such as women, than Afghanistan today.

In fact, that could well have been true of England for much (not all) of the last 800 years. Why 800 years? Well, King John signed Magna Charta in 1215. Magna Charta limited the powers of the king over his subjects. It even enshrined their right to revolt against him, if he did not keep to the agreement he had signed. It also legislated discrimination against women and Jews. As soon as he could, John renounced it, plunging the country into civil war. Despite such imperfections, it is a convenient moment from which to date the beginning of England's long march to democracy. It is also a reminder that the full consequences of such events may not be obvious at the time, or for many years after.

To get from Magna Charta to today's parliamentary democracy took many steps. Civil wars curbed royal absolutism, so that the King stepped back from governing. As parliament became more important, the growing value of a seat in parliament led to increased corruption and cronyism. Popular pressure, including the threat of revolt, gradually extended the franchise, making the buying of votes more difficult. Politicians learned to play rules of democracy such as "Lose gracefully; hope to win again next time" and "Win, but don't crush the losers; next time, it could be you." The whole thing took centuries, and of course it is still going on. There were many steps back. So far, at least, we have avoided the trap of "One person, one vote, one time."

The single most important feature of the rise of democracy in the West is how late in the day we came to "free and fair" elections. But if elections came last, what came first? The answer seems to be that the process began with formal limitation of the powers of the government. The starting point, not of democracy itself, but of the process that led to democracy, was the principle that no one is above the law, even the King.

When this principle is not in force, then the government is above the law. In a state governed by laws, the law defines what is a crime, and the courts decide who is guilty on the evidence. Anyone can be tried, high or low, even the government. If the government is above the law, in contrast, the authorities can imprison people first, then decide what they are guilty of. Evidence is not necessary; if appearances matter, the police can always extract a confession. 

In a tidy world, democracies would be those countries that hold elections. Autocracies and dictatorships would be those countries where there are no elections and the government is above the law. But in our untidy world, you can have both at once -- the government above the law, and elections. This tends to happen in two kinds of country. Since they happen to be neighbours, we'll call one Pakistan and the other Afghanistan. The world has many more examples of both.

  • In Pakistan there have been elections from time to time when the military is not in power, but the elections don't matter much. This is because the military is in power, even when it appears not be in power. In Pakistan the army controls nuclear weapons, military deployments, and intelligence activities independently of the government. It also has huge economic interests; according to Military Inc.: Inside Pakistan's Military Economyby Ayesha Siddiqa (Pluto Press, 2007), the army disposes of one third of Pakistan's heavy industries and 6-7 per cent of private sector assets. These economic interests free the army from dependence on the civilian government's budgetary allocations. As a result, the elected government cannot tell the army what to do. In short, elections do not make Pakistan a proper democracy.
  • Afghanistan has been a failing state since its monarchy was overthrown. (Pakistan may become one, but not yet.) In Afghanistan there are elections because of external pressure. Because of this pressure, the government depends on the outcome of the elections to continue in office. As a result, the elections really do decide who will govern Afghanistan -- at least this time round. In the short term, the prize of winning is great, because Afghanistan has only a weak constitution. Traditional restraints on central government have been eroded by decades of civil war. Being in power means you can do pretty much what you want, provided you control the territory. In the long term, however, the gain from winning is very uncertain. Maybe it just means being first in the firing line when the Americans withdraw.

What happens when you have elections and the government can do anything it wants, but only in the very short term? Several things: First, it is crucial to win the election. Second, it is crucial to win this time -- not next time, because there may never be another time. Don't settle for the chance to be the loyal opposition; bribe, threaten, do whatever you have to do to bring in the votes. Third, once you win, grab everything you can as quickly as you can. Forget about building the future. There isn't time. This argument is made by Paul Collier in Wars, Guns, and Votes: Democracy in Dangerous Places (The Bodley Head, 2009).

For such a country, elections are not the place where democracy begins. In fact, for any country, they seem to be the finishing touch on the democratic edifice. The foundations include a stable constitution (written or unwritten), and enough checks on the short-term freedom of action of politicians that they have no option but to play for the long term and cooperate in the games of politics and economics. Society benefits most when politicians see their greatest profit from promoting the steady, long-run growth of commerce and public goods such as roads and education. These things must be in place before democracy presents the electorate with real choices, choices that correspond to true social preferences.

Now that I've mentioned preferences, let's dwell on them for a moment. A virtue of democracy is supposed to be that democratic governments are constrained by the preferences of the median voter. It sets the game up in such a way that each party must compete for the middle ground. A government gets elected if it gets 50% of the vote plus 1. If you range the voters from left to right by their tax-and-spend preferences, for example, then the programme that captures the vote of the middle guy plus all the votes to the right (or left) will win. What the voters have to do is inspect their preferences and vote accordingly.

But when the government can do anything it likes, preferences have little traction. For one thing, parties are not bound by their promises. All parties may promise to be "clean" -- but everyone knows that as soon as they take office they will grab what they can, reward their supporters with part of the proceeds and pocket the rest. Instead, voters must set their preferences aside and make their choices strategically. For the most part this likely to mean ethnically or tribally: If the candidate gets in that is from the other group, what will happen to my group, and so to me? Better vote for my guy than their guy, however dirty. If I can, vote twice or three times, and stop the others from voting at all, unless I can trust them to vote my way. Once my guy is in, join the loot chain. Forget getting an education or doing business. And so on.

What really matters in a country like Afghanistan is not that elections have taken place. What matters is that its rulers, not just the government in Kabul but also the warlords and provincial rulers, need to start treating the country like a place with a future, and the citizens of Afghanistan as people who should not be killed, imprisoned, or plundered without legal process. That is what Magna Charta was all about. What Afganistan needs right now is not so much elections as a Magna Charta to which the government in Kabul and the warlords in the provinces all subscribe. This would be a bigger step forward than elections in which people vote on tribal lines, or are too scared to vote at all. The reason is that it would refocus the rulers away from what they can grab immediately from each other and from their citizens to the longer term benefits they can extract from investing in the economy and in simple things like roads and schools. 

I can see some important objections to this line of argument. In fact, I agree with most of them in advance. 

  • Aren't you playing into the hands of oppressive dictators and exploitative elites?

Yes, it can do this. The problem in Afghanistan -- but not only there -- is that the alternative to oppressive dictators and exploitative elites right now is not democracy. It is, at best, a reasonably law-governed state in which traditional, unelected rulers see a common interest in promoting education, roads, trade, and tourism because they will get a bigger cut from the profits in the long run. They will protect the property rights of the poor as well as the rich, so that the poor will become less poor and will pay taxes and rents. This is why I wrote a while back that what Afghanistan needs is the right kind of feudalism.

It is a risk, however, that if we don't promote instant democracy ourselves, we may end up colluding with rulers who will never be ready for elections. They will oppose elections, not because society is unprepared, but because they are against elections on principle, because they prefer unaccountable power and wealth. In fact, it is not a risk -- it is a certainty.

  • Aren't you undervaluing the thirst for democracy in the Middle East, from Iran to Afghanistan? Haven't these people got a right to decide their own future?

Yes, this is also a risk. Millions of people in countries that don't have democracy want to have a say in their own future. However, it is worth bearing in mind that wanting a say in your own future is not always the same as wanting democracy. Democracy creates losers as well as winners. It's easy to be a democrat when you win.

To have a true thirst for democracy, you have to prefer democracy, even when you lose. In some countries, many people are in favour of democracy only when they win. This is not a reason to be against elections, and generally it should not be up to us to decide whether other countries have elections. Where possible we should leave it to the citizens of those countries to work their processes out, just as the English worked theirs out.

  • So where is our ethical foreign policy?

The first ethic of foreign policy should be not to do harm. Often the best way of avoiding harm is to leave a country alone. We couldn't leave Afghanistan alone because people in that country attacked our ally, the United States, on 9/11. Taking that starting point as given, however, we have probably done Afghanistan -- and ourselves -- a lot of harm by having the wrong objectives.

In each country there is a limited number of ways of doing good, and an infinite number of ways of doing harm. There is going to be a different recipe for doing good in every country, and we can't decide what that is on general principles. However, I think we should generally support the rule of law in other countries, provided the government is subject to the law like the citizens, and we should support the people that struggle to see the law observed and make the government accountable to the courts. This is where all rights spring from, including eventually the right to vote.

  • You can't mean that every law deserves to be upheld? Some laws are disgusting or oppressive.

I agree. The laws in apartheid South Africa, for example, were obviously unjust and did not place the white government under the same restraints as the black population. The laws deserves our support where it creates checks and balances, limits the powers of the government, and gives the citizens redress against oppressive government behaviour in the courts.

At the same time, even in a law-governed country, the law will not always prescribe all the rights we think should be available in our country. In England, Magna Charta did not treat men and women the same, or Christians and Jews. Despite this, it was an improvement on what existed before, because it put the King under legal restraint, and authorized the use of force against him if he violated that restraint.

  • According to you the Afghans will have to wait 800 years before they can have democracy -- that's ridiculous!

I agree. But I am not saying the Afghans must wait 800 years. Some of the reasons why it took such a long time to establish democracy in western Europe do not have to be repeated. One is that the Europeans did not know where they were going. If you know where you are going, that must save a few hundred years. Another is that there was a lot of resistance and backtracking. If you are strong enough to go in a straight line to democracy and quickly overcome resistance, that ought to save a lot of time too. At the same time a straight line is not a short cut. There are still important reasons why democracy cannot be established overnight from a standing start.

Why can't we build democracy overnight? Democracy rests on the idea of moral equality. This means that you are entitled to the same consideration as me, even if I disagree with you, and even if I do not know you. It is the idea associated with Voltaire, who is supposed to have said "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it." Not all regions of this world have this idea in their culture. Without it, checks and balances are always at risk of being overturned, and minorities are at risk of suppression.

Put another way, democracy rests on expectations. The winners have a right to expect the losers to go into loyal opposition. The losers have a right to expect to be allowed to live and fight again another day. In many countries the history of power is a story of all-or-nothing, victory-or-death. This history determines the expectations of the contenders for power. Democracy requires them to unlearn this history and learn to expect restraint and trust instead. This takes time -- possibly, more than one generation.

Building commitment to democracy also takes time because democracy can be a disappointing experience. One person's vote is rarely, if ever decisive. Elections rarely, if ever, produce fundamental change in either governance or the conditions of life. Even in stable, long-lived democracies, most elected representatives turn out to be disappointingly human. The main benefits of democracy arrive over decades and centuries, because the requirement of periodic re-election enforces checks and balances; whoever is in power, they are restrained from acting in oppressive or confiscatory ways by knowing that eventually they must face the electorate. This is another reason why building support for a working democracy takes time.

Historical short cuts to democracy are few and far between. The only ones I can think of arise from merging sovereignties, when a society that lacks democratic institutions and traditions borrows them from a democratic neighbour. Something like this seems to have happened in Bulgaria and Romania as they joined the European Union, but it is still a puzzle -- according to "Explaining Democratic Success as an Analytical Challege: Why are Romania and Bulgaria in the EU?" by Venelin Ganev, in NewsNet (News of the American Association for the Advancement of Slavic Studies) 48:4 (2008). Moreover, this cannot help those emerging democracies that have seceded from or are in conflict with their neighbours.

It takes a long time to build a democracy. There are risks in being guided too closely by this; the risk is that we end up doing too little to encourage it. But there are also risks in the short cuts. In Afghanistan, we face huge moral hazards as a country, and our troops are facing deadly physical ones. I fear these are greater than the dangers that would have arisen if we had adopted a more cautious approach, better tailored to the realities of that country.

July 18, 2009

Afghanistan's Future Lies in the Past

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A few days ago Nicholas Watt, chief political correspondent of The Guardian, reported Lord Ashdown in the following terms:

In remarks likely to fuel the debate about the future of the war, Ashdown accused Britain and other European countries of setting "ludicrously ambitious targets" of attempting to turn Afghanistan into a fully democratic and progressive nation.

I thought to myself: Of course, Ashdown's right. Then, I recalled a short paper that I wrote and circulated more than 7 years ago (my first draft was dated 4 December 2001), when blogs were in their infancy (and years before I started one). Anyway, no one noticed what I had to say at the time, that's for sure.

My argument was simple: For Afghanistan, real democracy (and real capitalism) was going to be a step too far. If not democratic capitalism, what should we aim for? My answer was: For a country like Afghanistan, even feudalism would be a step forward -- as long as it was of the right kind.

This is a very general argument. It is about our goals, more than the strategy or tactics required to achieve them, or the value and costs of doing so. I don't have a clue about important details like whether we should have fortified bases in Helmand or even whether we are currently winning or losing.

Still, I believe the merit of my general argument has, if anything, been strengthened in the years since 2001. If nothing else, Paddy Ashdown agrees! So, I decided to reprint it. Starting here is the full text, exactly as I revised it on 9 January 2002.

What Afghanistan Needs is the Right Kind of Feudalism

Afghan warlords have been meeting in Germany to try to agree their country’s future. This future looks bleak. Afghanistan lies ruined by decades of foreign intervention and civil war. Its territory is being redivided among heavily armed rival warlords with dreadful records of human rights abuses based on ethnic and religious factions that hate and mistrust each other. How, under these conditions, can Afghanistan’s economy be rebuilt? How can purpose and prosperity be returned to its people?

It might be thought that what Afghanistan needs is a powerful dose of democracy and liberal capitalism. This isn’t going to happen, at least not for a century or so. For a start, take democracy. We think of democracy as “majority rule”. But majority rule by itself is not enough. It’s also important that the majority doesn’t rule by exterminating minorities. In a democracy, minorities have rights that cannot be overriden: rights of free speech, criticism, and opposition. In Afghanistan there are many minorities, but there is also too much hatred and there are too many guns for any minority to be sure of these protections.

Then take capitalism. For a capitalist market economy to work ownership rights must be taken for granted most of the time. Business grinds to a halt if you have to spend all your time guarding your property with guns, or paying lawyers or bribing officials to get what you’re due. If warlords, thieves, or bureaucrats take a cut too frequently, economic life will slow down or come to a near stop. Too much of a cut and the only activity that’s left is when people grow their own food and then hide it until they can eat it. Afghanistan has already come to this.

Feudalism is the best that Afghans can hope for right now. Feudalism emerged in Europe from the Dark Ages, when the costs of fighting became so heavy that warlords got together and chose rulers to keep order among them. The result was a more stable form of society in which everyone had prescribed rights and responsibilities and everyone knew their place. In fact, everyone was fixed in place: peasants in their villages, squires in their manors, monks in their monasteries, kings in their courts. The farmer served the noble by providing him with food and labour. The noble served the king by providing him with taxes and men. Kings and nobles provided justice and protected those under them. As a result, economic progress became possible. Feudalism of the right kind proved prosperous and stable, and left monuments of art and culture that are still admired and loved after many centuries.

It’s true that feudalism was an unfree society. People could not choose where to live, what to believe in, whom to serve, or with whom to trade. Peasant revolutionaries saw it as organised robbery. Women and children were subjected to domestic tyranny. Yet it was not the worst of all possible worlds. For what feudalism restricted first of all was the universal freedom of each to rob and kill all others.

The late American historian Mancur Olson put it like this: such rulers are thieves, but a thief who stays in one place and settles down is better than one who plunders and moves on. The reason is that the thief who settles and rules the territory around him has an interest in its prosperity. He protects the people under him in his own self– interest, because they are his assets. To enlarge his own revenues he gives them legal rights and provides them with services to encourage the economic activity that he can tax. Thus as European society was stabilised on feudal lines, dukes and kings built roads and towns, provided schools, and organised trade. They taxed the trade, which was bad, but they prevented others from taxing or robbing it and this at least was good. They spent heavily on armies and navies; they also patronised the arts and sciences. They provided law: the laws were biased in their favour, but at least there were laws, not just the law of the jungle. Even the hereditary character of the lords and monarchy, which now seems laughably antique, had an important function. By agreeing to the hereditary principle, the nobles gave incentives even to a dying ruler to care about the stability and prosperity of the kingdom he would bequeath to his children, and ensured that the ruler’s death would be followed by an orderly succession, not civil war.

It will be a step forward if the Afghan leaders meeting in Bonn can agree upon this kind of society. But they will only do so if their self–interest lies there, so that they recognise the alternatives of unbridled rivalry and civil war without end as worse. The thief who controls a province promotes its prosperity only while he can be sure some other thief will not invade it and drive him out. The Afghan warlords need to agree some rules of mutual self-restraint. Everything must start from this. Otherwise there will be no rules at all and Afghanistan will return to civil war; or a dictator will emerge to restrain the warlords by force, and Afghanistan will have to undergo a new tyranny.

What kind of feudalism? It was important for European countries that their feudalism was of the right kind. The ruler had to accept limits on his power in relation to both the nobility and all citizens. In England the king’s responsibilities were agreed among the nobles and written down in the Magna Charta of 1215 which also set out principles of justice, ownership, and trade. The Magna Charta stopped the king from robbing, imprisoning, and killing without lawful reason. The result was that the English monarchy became more pluralistic than tyrannical. The state and religion, although not fully separate, at least retained separate powers. Women had some rights, although fewer than men. There was a Parliament, although at first it was only for the nobles.

For England the next few centuries included a necessary civil war to cut down the ambitions of the Tudors and Stewarts, and a period in which burgeoning democracy nearly descended into wholesale corruption. There were many colonial wars in which Englishmen behaved badly to the Scots, Irish, Africans, Indians, and others. At the same time they continued to mistreat large numbers of English women and children and also each other. British history has not been a Sunday School picnic. Still today there is enough poverty and discrimination at home that we cannot afford to be complacent. But by global standards Britain has become a relatively prosperous and stable society. If you were born here or can get in, it is a freer place to live than most. Is feudalism really the best that Afghans can hope for? I do not mean that we should silence Afghan democrats when they ask for elections or Afghan women when they demand education and a visible role in society. Part of the deal should be their right to speak and be heard. But we should not blame Afghan rulers who do not deliver this immediately and in full. There are worse things they can do, such as return Afghanistan to a perpetual state of internal warfare.

There are implications for the west. The decisive step in reconstituting Afghanistan is to establish the rights of the rulers, not of the ordinary people. If ordinary Afghans are to gather more rights than they have at present, they will flow at first from the self–interest of the rulers, not from ideals of citizenship and democracy or conventions on human rights. Only a stable division of rights of the rulers will provide this. We shouldn’t expect too much from Afghanistan’s new rulers. The big rewards that the west can offer, such as dollars for reconstruction and development, should be delivered to those that show commitments to peace, to rule that is governed by law, and to separating religion gradually from the state.

As for democracy and a market economy in Afghanistan, these lie in the future. Mancur Olson also wrote that democracy had the best chance to evolve when it was hard for one ruler or group to impose their will on all the others, leading to an absolutist dictatorship. To encourage power-sharing, and make it difficult for new big or little tyrants to emerge, we should distribute aid to projects and communities that cross the boundaries of each warlord’s domain, valley by valley. Perhaps a period of enlightened, pluralistic feudalism may then permit Afghanistan to evolve over the next few centuries into a more decent place for its citizens to live.

This version:  9 January 2002. First draft: 4 December 2001

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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