The Problem with Afghan Reconstruction
After spending around $40 billion a year, the Americans have realized the futility of their efforts in nation building in Afghanistan. Nothing much has changed in the country during their twenty years trying to tame it. Afghanistan’s people still do not define themselves as Afghans, but rather as Pashtun, Tajik or Uzbek. So it’s time to “liquidate unsound positions” as George F. Kennan said about Vietnam. But why now?
For the first time in the last twenty years, the Americans have a real definitive plan for the future. That’s what the Green New Deal is about. It’s a comprehensive plan in the making. It is not only about climate policy, but also trade, energy, transportation, investment, jobs and growth, and will have wider geopolitical consequences. It’s also a plan for the country’s post virus recovery.
The Infrastructure Bill that was voted on in the Senate a short while ago has allocated $7.5 billion for charging stations for electric vehicles (EVs). That is just a fraction of the $60 billion needed to build the 500,000 stations President Biden has called for. That is why spending $40 billion a year in Afghanistan looked like even more like an extravagance — finally having a plan for the future, the Americans saw more clearly the opportunity price of their forever wars.
But why was the war in Afghanistan futile? Because nation building requires determined nationalists and cannot be done by a foreign power acting on their behalf. Let me tell you my experience in Afghan reconstruction.
I first went to Kabul in 2008. It was the time of Afghanistan-Pakistan-Turkey Summits, when the Americans wanted to hold up Turkey as an example to the fledgling Central Asian countries. After visiting Afghan ministries and talking to officials, I had the impression that the reconstruction process was not on its way.
In all the Afghan agencies, I met with two types of Afghani people. At the top echelons, there were plumb Afghanis in business suits, mostly clean shaven. Then at the lower levels, there were thinner and darker Afghanis in traditional attire. The first group lived in Kabul without their families, the second group lived with their families in Kabul. I later learned that the big guys in the first group had dual citizenship, the latter have only had Afghan passports. The first group had a ticket out, and had already sent their families outside of the country. Only the second group was locked into Afghanistan’s fate.
No wonder that Afghan Central Bank governors connect to meetings from their homes in Virginia, after every administrative collapse in the country. No society based on a national belonging could tolerate that.
The result is that president Ashraf Gani’s administration collapsed far quicker than the Americans anticipated. A country that is governed by individuals who do not see their children’s future in their own country is doomed to fail. You just cannot import administrative capacity from abroad. Nation building is the one project that cannot be outsourced.
While fighting foreign occupiers, our founding fathers in Turkey made sure to disarm independent resistance groups and lead the campaign with one national army. This was done by force at the outset. This lies at the basis of the Turkish nation-state. It is a unified administrative capacity with a plan for a common future. The American founding fathers also knew this, and Abraham Lincoln fought to preserve it when the nation fell into civil war.
The Afghan reconstruction process had no national unity, and the Americans kept trying to make it work anyways. No country, no matter how powerful, can make its own reality. The Americans should have left a long time ago. Still, better late than never.
Originally published at https://www.tepav.org.tr.