Trudy Rubin quotes the outgoing ambassador to Afghanistan:
“When I first got here in January 2002,” [Ryan] Crocker says, “9 percent of Afghans had access to health care. There were 20,000 mobile phones. Now there are 16 million mobile subscribers and more than 60 percent of Afghans live within an hour’s walk of health care.
“The number of students is up to eight million in a decade. We increased life expectancy by a decade in the last nine years. This is not nothing.”
Indeed, it is not nothing. The only problem with noting how many people have an hour’s access to healthcare or use a mobile phone is that it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter how many schools, roads, or hospitals you build if the country remains unstable and unsettled.
As one example, the Soviet invasion in 1979 brought about the wide scale education of women and girls, for example, but very few Afghans wax fondly about the wonderful things the Russians did for Afghanistan.
That is because if a foreigner provides some things to a place but doesn’t leave it well off when it leaves, that foreigner hasn’t really done that place any good.
The Soviets did wonders for Afghan agriculture, public health, education, and infrastructure. They built schools, roads, and hospitals, before and after the invasion, and told the Afghans that they should be grateful for all the development work they were receiving. They built the Salang Tunnel, which revolutionized Afghan infrastructure, travel, and linked the country together. And the Afghans were grateful to the Soviets, sort of.
The Afghans were also angry. Because the Soviets had also brought with them war, devastation, tyranny, forced disappearances, political oppression, and fear.
America’s legacy in Afghanistan is not as bleak as the Soviet Union’s — not even close. But the insistence that America deserves credit for all the good it’s done Afghanistan is empty when thinking of the legacy Afghans have to deal with in the future.
Has the U.S. contributed to Afghanistan’s long-term security, reduced the possibility of long-term conflict, or contributed to the institutions to give Afghanistan long-term stability? It’s really difficult for anyone, even Ambassador Crocker, to make that argument with a straight face.
I’m releasing a new paper this week talking about this sort of thing — of confusing outputs with inputs, mistaking small victories for strategic success, and the short term perspective that results in optimistic analyses that don’t make much sense. Hopefully, it will help clarify some of the stilted thinking that’s kept us from truly understanding the war so far. Stay tuned.