The Logic of Retrospection

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by Joshua Foust on 7/16/2012 · 1 comment

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.


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This post was written by...

– author of 1849 posts on Registan.net.

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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{ 1 comment }

RScott July 17, 2012 at 1:45 pm

To understand the real differences between Taliban times and times since 9/11, you must consider the differences in the amounts of money spent in development aid by foreigners during the two periods. The Taliban had basically no tax base and very little foreign aid building schools all over the place. Yes, the Swedish Committe or one of those Scandinavian groups did have a school program in Ghazni (sp) of some 100 schools for both boys and girls, not mixed and one of the Afghan NGOs had a technical training school there…things we never hear about. But basically there was no foreign aid pouring in as it did after 9/11. Makes a difference…at least in the numbers of schools and students.
The Salang tunnel was built, I think, during the 60s when we and the Soviets were competing to see who could do the most…effectively. For example, the Soviets were building an irrigation system in Nangahar…which included hauling in some of the top soil, while we were helping build the central Helmand irrigation system that helps produce some 60% of the worlds opium.

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