“Collateral Damage?” What?

by Joshua Foust on 4/15/2008

Over at Passport, David Bosco wonders if Web Editor Blake Hounshell’s argument for Iraq’s permanent failure also applies to Afghanistan.

But what is it that Blake would have us do in Afghanistan? If Iraq’s political prospects are poor, Afghanistan’s must be considered even worse. Afghanistan doesn’t have oil (yet), but it is one of the world’s least developed countries, with infrastructure decimated by a quarter century of war and no history of effective governance. Why then spend billions and risk hundreds of lives propping up a doomed democratic government?

On Blake’s logic, it’s hard to see the rationale. Commandos and Predator drones can wage the “real fight” against the al Qaeda luminaries in the Pakistani hinterlands with or without an effective central government. Is Blake then willing to jettison the doomed Afghan nation-building project? And, if not, why not?

These questions are overly general and not really applicable upon closer inspection. Afghanistan most certainly has a history of “effective governance,” though it ended in 1979 and was not intuitive to a Western mindset. That the country was deliberately fractured by the Soviet Union and the U.S. is immaterial to that history. This leads to the next point: the political situation in Afghanistan is not analogous to the political situation in Iraq. Neither is the security one. And the argument against relying on commandos and air strikes, if not sufficiently answered by Bill Clinton’s failed policies in the late 90’s, is well deflected by Tom Englehardt’s writing on the dangers of an over-reliance on air power (a constant theme in my critiques of the Afghanistan campaign).

Further, this point ignores one of the fundamental objectives of a successful counterinsurgency: expanding the legitimacy of the central government. The thrust of my complaints against the West’s Afghanistan policies, from the way foreign aid is administered to opium eradication, is that it degrades the legitimacy of the Karzai government. Bulldozing poppy fields while failing to provide alternatives for income leads to a Nangarhar situation, in which not only did an eradication effort fail miserably—the province saw a 285% increase in cultivation in 2007, and is now lumped with Uruzgan, Helmand, and Kandahar as a center for growing, processing, and smuggling—it nearly collapsed the rural economy (and has resulted in the curious case of a warlord being named Afghanistan’s Person of the Year).

Similarly, the consistent effort to either publicly snub Karzai’s efforts and policy preferences or quietly undermine them—including on opium, but also through the administration of aid projects outside the government’s purview and mostly through foreign overseers—has continuously undercut the perception of Kabul as the political center of the country. In other words: the West has given normal citizens in Afghanistan no reason to have faith in their government, and plenty to think it will all fall apart again when they pick up their bags and fly home.

As for the reasons the Afghanistan campaign remains important and worth pursuing… well, we’ve discussed this before. The points really do not need rehashing yet again. Like many other critics of our purpose there, Bosco seems unable to admit that Afghanistan is unique: its history demonstrates not only the gravity of another withdrawal but the failure of alternatives like Predator bombings; its political situation is unique; its cultural issues are extremely complex; and its economy is inextricably linked to the social economy of both Europe and the U.S. These factors (and many more) make Afghanistan an exception worth fighting for, and not the penultimate example of Democratization theory Bosco seems to want it to be.


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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from Registan.net. His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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