Nation Building in Afghanistan

Ambassador Crocker rightly calls the American role in “rebuilding” Afghanistan, “complicated.”  “I-served-in-Afghanistan-no-its-not-another-Vietnam”  I first met Ambassador Crocker in January 2002 when he was servicing as America’s chargé d’affaires to Afghanistan. We met in the American Embassy that had just been reopened after a decade or so of abandonment.  A decade’s worth of dust still covered the embassy floor several inches deep. Its newly returning employees were sleeping in cots along the hallways.

Following al-Qaeda’ 9/11 attacks in the U.S., I supported NATO’s UN sanctioned attack on Afghanistan’s Taliban regime as a necessary measure to deprive al-Qaeda of its sanctuary there. I wept when we abandoned that objective unfinished in order to pursue another war in Iraq, which I strongly opposed. The Washington Post just published Defense Department documents evaluating America’s 18-year war in Afghanistan and finding it a costly failure. https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/2019/investigations/afghanistan-papers/afghanistan-war-nation-building/

“Former defense secretary Jim Mattis defended American efforts to rebuild Afghanistan as part of the 18-year-old U.S. war there, saying Friday that ‘we had to try to do something in nation-building, as much as some people condemn it, and we probably weren’t that good at it.’  Speaking to journalists at The Washington Post, he cited an increase in the number of Afghan women who are educated, the development of Afghan diplomats and the inoculation of civilians against disease.

“Mattis, who oversaw the war as the four-star head of U.S. Central Command from 2010 to 2013, said violence in Afghanistan is ‘so heartbreaking that it can blind you to the progress,’ and he acknowledged that the United States made a strategic mistake by not paying enough attention to the country as the administration of George W. Bush launched the war in Iraq in 2003.  ‘That we didn’t do things right, I mean, I’m an example of it,’ Mattis said, recalling that as a one-star general, he was pulled out of Afghanistan in the spring of 2002, promoted and told to prepare for war in Iraq.

“’I was dumbfounded,’ he said. ‘But we took our eye off of there.’” “Mattis-Afghanistan-papers-we-probably-werent-that-good-nation-building”

But should we have remained as military occupiers and then as peace guarantors for another 18 years and counting?  I have spent a lot of time in Afghanistan over those 18 years, most intensively as a member of the IMF team addressing the Kabul Bank scandal from 2010-14 (22 visits after that first one in January, 2002).   “The Kabulbank Scandal–Part I” Cayman Financial Review, January 2015  “The Kabulbank Scandal–Part-II” Cayman Financial Review, April 2015  “The Kabulbank scandal–Part-III” Cayman Financial Review, July 2015

I have worked with many wonderful, mainly young, patriotic Afghans and have grown to care a great deal about their conditions and their future. We (the U.S., IMF, World Bank, EU) have a lot to teach them about the institutions of capitalism and they have been very eager to learn. However, the United States has rarely been very good at “building” modern nations that it conquered militarily.  Our Generals and Ambassadors, who rotate in and out every two to three years, rarely understand the cultures and histories they are trying to deal with.  With our military on the ground it is too easy to attempt to impose our institutions on societies unfamiliar with them without more patiently growing more modern institutions from what is in place that are thus better adapted to their traditions and thus more likely to function successfully.

Nation building at the point of a gun has not and is unlikely ever to work for us or for them. https://wcoats.blog/2009/11/16/afghan-national-army/https://wcoats.blog/2012/10/23/our-unsupportable-empire/.

My hope for the future of Afghanistan rests with its young, dedicated and increasingly well-educated young people. Our advice can be valuable, especially if filtered and adapted by Afghans themselves. After centuries of relative isolation, the modern world of the Internet, offers them the knowledge of the world. We need to get our troops and our billions of corrupting dollars out of their way.

About wcoats

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 most recent book is One Currency for Bosnia: Creating the Central Bank of Bosnia and Herzegovina. 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.
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3 Responses to Nation Building in Afghanistan

  1. Joe Cobb says:

    Not to quarrel with your hope for the young people of Afghanistan, but do you think any process like that is likely to happen “in a democratic method”? Too many voters, particularly in rural area, are conservative and more likely to vote for the ‘Old’ against the young, Westernized younger voters and intellectuals.
    Inasmuch as “democratic method” is the test for 21st century legitimacy, it is hard to see the young people achieving much unless they are fundamentalist in faith.

  2. Bob Gregorio says:

    Thought provoking. Without yet reviewing the referenced links, for me the jury is not out on how much of a presence the US should have to help prevent another 9-11.

    • Joe Cobb says:

      “How much”? and “the jury is not out”?
      Curious, are you closer to Zero or an increase?
      Ambivalence for another people’s future, which might not be favorable to our way of life?
      Confession of ignorance about what might “help” is understandable. I do.

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