Afghanistan – Now What?

The Afghan economy has been growing rapidly for over the
last five years.[1] Security
over the past few years has been deteriorating almost as fast. I no longer
think it is possible to “win,” the “war” in Afghanistan by any reasonable
definition of what winning might mean.

As General McChrystal has rightly said, one of the essential
components of “winning” is a credible and minimally effective government for
NATO forces to support. Even doubling or tripling NATO forces to 400,000 or
600,000 would fall far short of what is needed to provide reasonable security
throughout Afghanistan, if they are not supported and assisted by the vast
majority of Afghans. I think that the General’s counterinsurgency strategy is
broadly right (though success or failure is always in the details), but the
conditions he lists as essential do not exist and are falling further and
further short by the day (the run off of Presidential election is now likely to
involve just one candidate—making even more transparent what was already a

To defeat the Taliban (there are hardly any Al Qaeda left in
Afghanistan) most Afghans must side with and assist the alternative to the
Taliban. But the Kabul government of President Karzai is as much the enemy to
many Afghans as is the Taliban. Recent electoral developments hold out almost
no hope that this will change in the foreseeable future. If this assessment is
correct, NATO’s best course is to pull back (perhaps to assist Afghan police defend
the major cities) now rather than later. We should cut our losses and prepare
our departure.

Those of us at the IMF preparing in November and December
2001 for the aftermath of the NATO invasion of Afghanistan were dismayed that
the conference in Bonn Germany in December 2001 that produced the Agreement on Provisional Arrangements in
Afghanistan Pending the Re-Establishment of Permanent Government Institutions,
to impose a centralized political structure on Afghanistan. Rather than
building on existing traditions of village and tribal governance, the West
imposed a “strong” centralized structure on what have become an unwilling
people. The level of corruption increased significantly under this structure.
For example, villagers cannot rely on fair and honest resolution of disputes
from the often corrupt officials appointed by the Karzai government for its own
political purposes. The Taliban often offer what these people need even if they
also bring with them a narrow and sever version of Sharia law (canonical interpretations
of the teachings of the Koran). Many villagers turn to the Taliban as the
lesser of evils. How can we expect our solders, however honorable and brave, to
“win” the support of the Afghan people in these circumstances (i.e., as
defenders of the Karzai government)?

Plans to establish and train a large Afghan Army seem to be
cut from the same mold. Who are the invaders the Army is to fight? The Taliban
are Afghans. The Afghan government will NEVER be able to finance such a large
Army. Afghanistan needs well trained and honest policemen more than solders. We
should stop disarming villagers and allow them to defend themselves from the
Taliban insurgents. Unlike an Army, village militia can return to producing
things when they do not need to fight. What we have been trying to do in
Afghanistan reflects big governments trying to impose big government approaches
on a country with a long history of more decentralized village and tribal
structures. If we want to support “modernizers,” we should at least try to
build up from the people rather than trying to cram something down on them from
the top. Most Afghans are illiterate. Let’s train teachers. We have built a lot
of classrooms but there are not nearly enough teachers to use them. The statist
mentality is hard to keep in check. Our superb military is a reflection of and
an instrument of that mentality. We need to use it more sparingly and

Our mission in Afghanistan has expanded dramatically from
our initial goal of degrading Al Qaeda and punishing the Taliban government
that harbored them. Our current mission, still under review by President Obama,
has become unrealistic and far too costly to serve American interests. Those of
us who want to help the Afghan people, and it is a goal the international
community should accept, should do so without the intervention of foreign

David Ignatius, whose opinions I highly respect, presents
the opposite case in "On
the War’s Front Lines"
, The
Washington Post
, Oct 30, 2009,  

[1] Robert B.
Zoellick, "What
We Can Achieve in Afghanistan"
, The
Washington Post,
October 30, 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 – Now What?”

  1. It would be interesting to learn about the progress made by the numerous IMF missions toward establishing functional systems and procedures for central bank monetary operations (and by others on behalf of treasury fiscal controls, for that matter); – within the famework of the current centralized/regional political environment. Moreover how would this these regimes operate, under your suggested withdrawal scenario. if there is stability only in the major cities and the balance of the country is tribally controlled ? I do agree that US forces should leave as soon as possible – Western ways cannot be successfully transplanted by NATO et al within the Islamic culture of the Middle East.

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