Charles Kenny thinks Afghanistan has never been better:
Nonetheless, the answer to “was it worth it” is yes. For all the waste, corruption, and death, Afghanistan is a much better place to live than it was 10 years ago, and the international community can take a considerable part of the credit for that.
This is an interesting take, with some interesting assumptions behind it: has Afghanistan improved all that much since 2001, and has that improvement been because of the international community or despite the international community? This is worth digging into systematically.
First, the country remains considerably more peaceful and united than it has been for most of the past 40 years. The 1990s saw battle deaths in Afghanistan average around 9,000 a year, according to World Bank data. From 2003 to 2008, though, despite an uptick of violence in the last few years, that average was down to below 3,000 deaths.
This is pretty clever (and arbirary!) time span delimiting. He is including the worst period of fighting in the 1990s — basically the 1994-1997 timeframe — to assemble an average fatality. This is unreliable anyway because we have no idea how many people really died, though most estimates have the battle for Kabul in the mid-90s killing around 50,000 people, which would surely spike that number higher. Against this backdrop, Kenny chooses to build a post-2001 average out ofthe least active period of fighting, excluding the last three years which have seen the worst combat of the last ten years. It is a fundamentally unfair comparison.
Despite that, if battle fatalities were the same in a limited intervention as a civil war, then something would be seriously wrong. Looking at the World Bank Data Kenny cites reveals just how dishonest this formulation really is:
By Kenny’s own logical construct, the 1990s were better for Afghanistan than every before, because fewer people died than during the war with the Soviet Union. See that dip in the late 90s? As the Taliban conquered new swaths of territory, battle deaths actually dropped, because there was little or no fighting there. Or, we could say that current data (the World Bank does not include anything post-2008) is still just as bad, violence-wise, as the late 1990s. To say this means things are better for the country is fundamentally dishonest.
But let’s look at other data, as well. The Brookings Index, for example, shows on page 10 that over the past year, insurgent deaths are way way way up, as are assassinations in and around Kandahar. NATO troop deaths are up. ANSF deaths are up over the last year. And civilian deaths are way higher than in 2007. You just cannot overemphasize how dishonest it is to rely on data from before 2008. Sigh, what else does Kenny say?
Still, militant attacks were down by more than a quarter in the three months to September this year over the same period last year. Asia Foundation polling suggests people feel more secure, support for the government is up, and more than two-thirds of the country reports no sympathy for the Taliban.
Kenny links to a story about NATO’s own assessment of violence to justify this. The problem is, we know NATO uses dishonest accounting methods to give the impression that violence is lower, whereas independent assessments have indicated that violence is in fact much higher. Kenny has to at least account for the vast difference in accounting methods if he’s to make the case that violence is lower (and this ignores the ridiculous crutch of using the Asia Foundation surveys, as if they have every captured Afghan opinion accurately—that is, unless you really do believe the Afghan National Police really do have like a 75% approval rating).
The economy is also in better shape than it was 10 years ago. According to World Bank data, GDP per capita climbed from $569 to $879 between 2002 and 2008, a rate of growth that suggests average incomes might have doubled over the course of the decade since the fall of the Taliban. The World Bank suggests that as the troops leave and aid flows diminish, GDP growth rates may slow from around 9 percent to 5 or 6 percent. Nonetheless, rising average incomes suggest at least some Afghans are living life a little further away from absolute destitution. One positive sign: 71 percent of Afghan households have a mobile phone.
The growth in mobile phone ownership is remarkable. But again, Kenny is relying on data that is three years old. Afghanistan is a different place in 2011 than it was in 2008, and the amount of foreign expenditure is an order of magnitude different. A recent Senate Foreign Relations Committee report estimated that Afghanistan’s GDP is 97% dependent on foreign aid, which implies a much more substantial crash than three-year old World Bank data would suggest. To repeat: relying on old data to make an argument for optimism is just dishonest. Kenny is making the case for being optimistic about Afghanistan in 2008 (which, granted, I was), but not in 2011. He needs to use data from today, not from three years ago.
Anyway, this is turning long in the tooth. You all know what I mean with this criticism. You can select data that shows anything; but without context, understanding, and above all else honesty about the limitations of said data, all you wind up doing is breathless cheerleading. Kenny admits the cost for all this progress he cites has been “high,” but doesn’t actually follow through that line of thought to its logical conclusion: would Afghanistan have been better off with less international community-funded corruption, less invasive troop presence, and less heavy-handed foreign meddling in Afghan politics?
That, ultimately, is the question. Things in much of the country really are not good, and leaving the internet data archives (and even Kabul!) can show that to anyone brave enough to look for it. If the international community had spent $100 billion on development over ten years and accomplished nothing, that would be shocking. So it’s no surprise that some things have improved. What Kenny should be asking isn’t, did we get anything for our vast expenditure, but have the improvements been worth the cost? And could another policy have achieved the same or more at less cost?
Those are the kinds of questions aid and development boosters don’t like to answer. I wish they would.