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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.

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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