Afghanistan – What Now?

Between January 2002 and September of this year I have
visited Afghanistan nine times to provide technical assistances to its central
bank. I do so because I have training and experience that can help monetary
authorities reorient their operations to function within and to help promote
the development of market economies. I believe that working to help make the
world a better place is also a gift to myself and to my children and
grandchildren. I believe that healthier, happier, freer people and nations
contribute to a safer and more prosperous America as well. So what do I think
about U.S. policies in Afghanistan?

1.            Democracy,
human dignity, and well-being are almost never promoted by war, though it has
often been necessary to defend them by fighting aggressors.[1]
The massive efforts by the developed democracies and international
organizations such as the IMF and the World Bank to help the former Soviet
Republics and former captive nations of Central and Eastern Europe transform
into democratic, market economies, has largely succeeded spectacularly because
military force was not involved. These countries owned their reform process and
built the domestic support needed to make it work. The countries in these areas
I have worked in as an employee of the IMF (Bulgaria, Croatia, Czech Republic,
Hungary, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Slovakia and Serbia) have enjoyed
varying degrees of success. But they are in a different class than the post
conflict countries I have worked in (Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo,
Afghanistan, and Iraq). Of these, Bosnia was the only one in which foreign
“conquerors” never ruled. Nation building in Bosnia may still fail but at least
has a reasonable prospect of success.

2.            America’s
large military size with 700 bases in over 120 countries weakens our security.
It does so by sapping our economic strength, which is the foundation of our
security and influence in the world, by encouraging our allies and friends
abroad to a free ride under the American security umbrella, and by tempting us
into foolish and costly adventures. Even our NATO allies refuse to carry their
share of the burden in Afghanistan. Sock it to rich Uncle Sam; he can afford
it. It reminds me of the short sighted attitude of those who think we can pay
for more government by socking it to the wealthy (who already pay for far more
than their share of it).

3.            Elective
wars are almost always unwise and reduce our security. It is broadly agreed
that Iraq exemplifies this point. But what about Afghanistan, which President
Obama called "a war of necessity"? The world supported our attack on
Afghanistan after its Taliban government refused to turn over Osama Bin Laden.
In my opinion and the opinion of many others, attacking Afghanistan with the
goal of capturing or killing Bin Laden after the attacks on the United State on
September 11, 2001 was an appropriate response at the time. We foolishly turned
to Iraq and failed to achieve our objective in Afghanistan. The Taliban have
returned and strengthened. What should we do now?

4.            I
am humbled by the difficulty of the policy choices in Afghanistan. Subjugation
by foreign troops is very unpromising now as it has always been (ask the Brits
and the Russians). Watching pictures of 19-year-old American boys and girls
smash down doors of village huts in the rugged mountains of Afghanistan turns
my stomach. We should have tried to help Afghanistan rebuild via the
well-established methods of international assistance and left our solders at
home. But that is not what we did and here we are again in a mess that is
sapping our nation’s energy and credibility. General McChrystal’s “integrated
counterinsurgency strategy focused on protecting the Afghan population,
building up the Afghan national security forces and improving Afghan
governance…,”[2] seems the
most promising approach to me if there is a credible government in Afghanistan
to work with. Unfortunately there isn’t. President Obama is right, in my view,
to carefully review our options with a view to matching the necessary resources
to attainable goals that the American public and our international partners are
willing to support. I am concerned that the President has already promised too
much (no troop reductions in the near term).

5.            I
am glad that I don’t have to decide our policy going forward. My heart is with
the wonderful Afghan people I have met. I hope that they will have better lives
in the future. It is impossible not to be moved by the plea for continued
American support by a very courageous Afghan woman in today’s Washington Post.[3]
My heart goes out to all abused people in the world (in Sudan, Somalia,
Uzbekistan, Palestine, Iran, Zimbabwe, etc.), but I am not willing to sacrifice
American boys and girls to fight their battles and their governments. I must
think of my own country’s well-being and security first. Plus, the track record
of actually improving the well being of others via war is not very good.
President Obama’s policy review maximizes our leverage with the ineffective and
corrupt Karzai government.[4]
In my opinion we should use this leverage to demand that Karzai appoint an
interim government of honest and competent technocrats until a run off election
can be properly organized and held in the spring. If Afghanistan does not have
a government that deserves international support, McChrystal’s strategy, as he
himself proclaims, will not succeed no matter how many American lives we
sacrifice trying. In that case, we had better accept that fact and adjust our
strategy accordingly (perhaps along the lines proposed by the Vice President)
sooner rather than later.

[1] Whether necessary or not in
the broader scheme of things, the so-called “war on terrorism” has, like all
wars, reduced our liberties.

[2] Ike Skelton and Joe
Lieberman, "Don’t
Settle for Stalemate in Afghanistan"
,  The Washington Post,
October 18, 2009. This article is typical in my opinion of the mindless babble
for war and more war.

[3] Wazhma Frogh, "Risking
a Rights Disaster"
, The
Washington Post
, October 18, 2009.

[4] Jim Hoagland, "Obama’s
Afghan Squeeze Play"
, The
Washington Post
, October 18, 2009.

Author: Warren Coats

I specialize in advising central banks on monetary policy and the development of the capacity to formulate and implement monetary policy.  I joined the International Monetary Fund in 1975 from which I retired in 2003 as Assistant Director of the Monetary and Financial Systems Department. While at the IMF I led or participated in missions to the central banks of over twenty countries (including Afghanistan, Bosnia, Croatia, Egypt, Iraq, Israel, Kazakhstan, Kenya, Kosovo, Kyrgystan, Moldova, Serbia, Turkey, West Bank and Gaza Strip, and Zimbabwe) and was seconded as a visiting economist to the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System (1979-80), and to the World Bank's World Development Report team in 1989.  After retirement from the IMF I was a member of the Board of the Cayman Islands Monetary Authority from 2003-10 and of the editorial board of the Cayman Financial Review from 2010-2017.  Prior to joining the IMF I was Assistant Prof of Economics at UVa from 1970-75.  I am currently a fellow of Johns Hopkins Krieger School of Arts and Sciences, Institute for Applied Economics, Global Health, and the Study of Business Enterprise.  In March 2019 Central Banking Journal awarded me for my “Outstanding Contribution for Capacity Building.”  My recent books are One Currency for Bosnia: Creating the Central Bank of Bosnia and Herzegovina; My Travels in the Former Soviet Union; My Travels to Afghanistan; My Travels to Jerusalem; and My Travels to Baghdad. I have a BA in Economics from the UC Berkeley and a PhD in Economics from the University of Chicago. My dissertation committee was chaired by Milton Friedman and included Robert J. Gordon.

One thought on “Afghanistan – What Now?”

  1. Today President Karzai has agreed to a run off in two weeks. This is encouraging. A more sobering assessment is given by Ivan Eland: “In Vietnam, the United States gradually escalated to more than a half million troops, but this was not enough to beat a North Vietnamese/Viet Cong force of only 100,000. The bad news is that Vietnam was a much smaller country in population and area than is Afghanistan. Even the Army’s new field manual on guerrilla warfare says that 20 to 25 occupation forces are needed per one thousand inhabitants…. This would necessitate an occupation force of 640,000 to 800,000 to have a good chance of winning…. With an added 40,000 [solders, the U.S. and its NATO allies will have] only a paltry 140,000. The motto for counterinsurgency war should be either commit enough forces to win early or get out. After eight long years of a lackadaisical effort, another 40,000 committed this late won’t even lift the Obama administration out of the halfhearted category. The U.S. should cut its losses, withdraw from Afghanistan, and concentrate on pressuring al-Qaeda in Pakistan with a smaller military footprint—so as not to stir up more anti-U.S. Islamists than we are neutralizing.”

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