Where the Afghanistan effort broke down

September 26, 2011

This is a response to Rory Stewart’s book excerpt “My uphill battle against the Afghanistan intervention.” David Rohde’s response can be read here.

By Anne-Marie Slaughter
The views expressed are her own.

This fall I am teaching a big introductory course to the first-year Masters of Public Affairs students at the Woodrow Wilson School called Politics and Public Policy. The focus of the first lecture, delivered by one of my colleagues, as the necessary intersection of good policy, good politics, and good practice. In other words, the best policy in the world doesn’t make any difference if it is not politically feasible; conversely, what is politically feasible may not be worth doing if it is not at least better policy than the status quo. And even where good policy is politically feasible, it must also be implementable – not just in theory, but in practice.

The intersection of these three circles came to mind as I read Rory Stewart’s achingly honest and thoughtful account of his experience in Afghanistan. For a long time I was convinced that the NATO intervention in Afghanistan could be successful at building a functioning Afghan government that would provide basic services to its citizens. My views were largely shaped by my regular conversations with my long-time friend Sarah Chayes, who lived in Kandahar for much of past decade running first a dairy cooperative and then a soap and fragrance business with Afghans. We were failing, in her view, because of the high NATO tolerance for the cancerous corruption that was sucking the life out of the country, starting at the top. Her book Punishment of Virtue tells the tale, describing how Afghans genuinely committed to rebuilding their country have been systematically driven out or killed by their compatriots who are profiting from the enormous in-flux of money and opportunity that inevitably accompanies large-scale Western intervention in a poor country. She thought, and I agreed, that the U.S. had had an opportunity to help rebuild a very different Afghanistan immediately after the invasion, and that it was still possible to empower the good guys if we were really willing to take on the bad guys profiting at the local, regional, and national level.

Over the past two years, I have reluctantly changed my mind. I have come to believe that where the problem is a predatory state, which the very presence of massive Western resources tends to fuel, it is essentially impossible for outsiders to spur or even effectively support a process of reform from within when we are a big part of the problem by being there in the first place. Stewart makes the argument succinctly and effectively: “the international community necessarily [lacks] the knowledge, the power, and the legitimacy to engage with politics at a local provincial level.”

I would add a much more personal dimension, one that is consistent with a 21st century focus on social actors and social relations as well as on governments and inter-governmental relations. The “international community” does not engage with Afghans. Individual men and women (mostly men) do. Those individuals — diplomats, soldiers, development professionals – develop personal relationships with Afghan officials at the national, provincial, and local level. They have to work together on common programs; moreover, the Americans or Europeans are doing their best to cultivate personal relationship in part to garner exactly the knowledge they know they lack. But once those relationships are established, how exactly is a general or a captain, an ambassador or a political counselor, a USAID Mission Director or a field development expert supposed to turn to his or her Afghan counterparts and interlocutors and explain that they should really stop taking bribes and looting the funds intended for their fellow Afghans? And once the denial is issued, as of course it must be, then what?  Accuse him or her of lying? The problems that are most central cannot even be talked about honestly. They are always someone else’s fault. But if they cannot be acknowledged, they cannot be resolved.

It is at this micro-level that policies must actually be implemented. And it is at this level that I conclude state-building military interventions are much more likely to fail than to succeed. The interventions that I count as successes – albeit highly qualified ones – are East Timor, Kosovo, and now Libya. All were launched in the face of crimes against humanity on a scale sufficient to shock the global conscience. All were relatively short. And all were marked by a relatively light military footprint on the part of the interveners – only air power in the cases of Kosovo and Libya, limited Australian troops on the ground in the case of East Timor – aimed primarily at stopping the superior force and creating a safe space for a process of national self-determination to take place (albeit under close international supervision). Foreign combat forces deployed over years rather than months tend to generate their own antibodies.

In short, I would defend the Responsibility to Protect, the U.N. doctrine that allows the international community to intervene to protect a population where its government has manifestly failed to do so, instead committing genocide, ethnic cleansing, crimes against humanity, or grave and systematic war crimes against them. But protecting a population from a murderous government is not the same thing as occupying a territory militarily and building a new government to protect them, even if the line is likely to prove hard to draw. The best policy and politics in the world cannot overcome impossible practice.

PHOTO: An Afghan woman sits in a handcart as her relative pushes it on the outskirts of Kabul September 20, 2011. REUTERS/Omar Sobhani

One comment

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Three quick points:

(1) You may have set the bar too high in defining success. Progress made counts for something, even if the historical deficit of millennia cannot be entirely paid.

(2) Too much of these analyses seem to me to have a political subtext, carefully distinguishing the Bush intervention from the Obama. But when the state in question is the worst kind, an entrenched totalitarian type, won’t the military footprint of necessity be larger? Otherwise, Bad becomes Good.

(3) Was the Civil War a successful intervention? Certainly not in the short term. In the long term, probably yes.

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