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July 10, 2009



Afghanistan was fairly stable - even successful, by the standards of the era - until the early 70s when the Soviets destabilized, then overthrew the government. There are few left in Afghanistan that remember that time now, of course, but that promising Afghanistan came out of much the same stew they're in now. The Taliban was not representative of Afghan history, being largely a product of outside interference by Wahabbis*. Now that Wahabbi influence is marginalized again, Afghanistan still has to find a way to accommodate retrograde actors like the more conservative Pashtuns, but since these are sectional rather than ideological conflicts there's a basis for compromise. Ironically, a regionally strong Iran could also be a big asset to Afghan stability (by evening the relative power of more liberal Shias in sectional negotiations). Unfortunately we decided not to engage them in this way (though they offered to cooperate) back when we started and had Khatami to talk to. This may have been due to Pakistan's concerns or perhaps because we regarded Iran as too ineluctably hostile to engage in that way, but that was probably a huge missed opportunity.

If the reformists come to power or achieve some minimally-fair accommodation with the conservative clerics, we might be able to embark on that project again. Helping the Americans in their sad Afghanistan quandary (and in the process helping co-confessionals in Afghanistan) would strengthen the hand of reformists more than conservatives and help them to negotiate "victoriously" for Iranian nuclear power without abandoning their nuclear power seeming like a weak climbdown. Sanctions, after all, are going to hurt reformists more than conservatives in the long term, so we want to get rid of those as fast as we can safely do so. Once Iran's economy is doing better, no one will want to risk it by returning to rogue state status.

So we actually still have some decent chances in Afghanistan, and the lack of international opposition helps us as well. We just have to commit a more reasonable set of resources to the task. It's true that more troops won't fix the problem on its own (it would take several hundred thousand for it to work like that) but more troops, better strategy and a better diplomatic environment may well. Since I'm one of those who thinks the price of failure in Afghanistan is potentially extremely high, I fully support our continued engagement.

*The support of which was lazy and rather foolish, but understandable in the context of the cold war, especially since we thought we could safely assume that the nutjobs would continue to hate the explicitly atheist Commies more than the semi-secular Yanks.


I should perhaps make clear that for our purposes, a basically competent authoritarian government (along Iranian or 20th-century Indonesian lines) would be strategically acceptable for our purposes (and probably for most Afghans), though a minimally-stable democracy would of course be better and more durable.

Nathan Smith

I suppose I should learn more about Afghanistan in the 1970s, but I presume that "stable... even successful, by the standards of the era" does not mean that it was free or democratic or enjoyed much higher literacy or industrial development than today. A "basically competent authoritarian government" may indeed be much better than the situation that currently obtains or that obtained a decade ago, both for US interests and for the Afghan people.

But, first, does the end justify the means? Is it right for America to support states which violate our own ideals of freedom and democracy on the basis of a utilitarian calculus? Or should it be a "moral side-constraint" of US foreign policy that we do not set up or materially support such regimes-- or, perhaps less quixotically, that while one should hesitate to overturn established pragmatic policies on moral grounds, one should try to reject any policy changes that involve new steps in the direction of compromise about our notions of political legitimacy?

Second, even if the answer to the abstract "Should Power X support the emergence of an authoritarian regime in preference to anarchy, for its own benefit and that of the subject peoples, when a democratic solution is not feasible?" is in the affirmative, it may be that America, being the country it is, is just incapable of doing this. I strongly suspect that even the material support America gave to authoritarian regimes in the Cold War would be much more difficult to do today, because of the types of pressure groups at home and abroad that have emerged, and because of the character of the people occupying the various government agencies involved. But here we're discussing doing something more difficult: *creating* an authoritarian regime where there is now mostly a power vacuum. The old British imperialists, who were more cynical than we, and also more worldly-wise and in a way more cosmopolitan, and for better *and* for worse less democratic-- their own complex evolutionary history had equipped them with a jumble of notions of political legitimacy in which they believed to some extent sincerely and not just instrumentally, for example they could genuinely revere kings and admire aristocracies-- might have been better suited to this task.

All in all, I have a strong suspicion that Nato vastly overestimates what America can do, *can* not just in the technocratic sense of what could be accomplished by an ideally efficient state with the available resources, but in the political sense of what the real workings of power in the United States will give rise to, in Afghanistan. The war in Iraq was more successful than that in Vietnam because there was a specific personality, George W. Bush, whose ideals fit with those of the American people (though in a way they transcended them) but cut against the habits and compromises of bureaucracies. In Afghanistan that element is withdrawn, and the confusion that calls itself "realism" sets in, leading inexorably towards quagmire.

I should repeat that all this is more a hunch than a hypothesis. But when I hear news stories from the front, they always inspire a similar hunch.


Actually, Vietnam was not a liberal democracy, and indeed was one of those states that violates our ideals. This truth was close to the core of the reason the Vietnam conflict lost support at home and why South Vietnam was as weak as it was.

Nathan is also right in suspecting that the US is highly constrained in terms of what we can do, though the image of the US in Afghanistan is far more material to this fact than the image of Afghanistan in the US. That the US is a democracy isn't really something that impresses local Afghans that much; that our local military forces seem to listen to and support the will of Afghans does impress Afghans (when it happens). We cannot in good conscience merely accede to the locals' wishes even if they didn't conflict with those of neighbors and minorities, however, because some of those wishes would sow the seeds of further anarchy and sometimes amount to heinous crimes. So we have to find some accommodation based on the idea that we have very limited control over the final outcome. Our task is to guide things in the least bad direction we can find, a critical element of which is finding partners whose influence would be a net positive.

The best realism includes ideals in its calculations.

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