World Affairs Journal Online

Our Destabilizing Fetish for 'Stability' in Afghanistan

I’m frankly tired of writing about Ahmed Wali Karzai, the brother of Afghan President Hamid Karzai. One of the reasons, in fact, that I’m tired of writing about Afghanistan is that it so often involves writing about horrible people and how the US has empowered them. So AWK’s slaying on July 12th is interesting to me more for the chance it offers to discuss a fatal error in American strategy, one that goes far beyond the Afghan war.

What’s important for the US and Afghanistan going forward is the trope of destabilization that has occurred in a lot of discussion, both professional and popular, of the slaying of Kandahar’s Al Capone. We hear that with the elimination of one powerbroker, Kandahar will be less stable. This theme also occurs in analysis of the revolutions of the Arab Spring. If Saleh or Assad falls, the pundits wonder, will Yemen or Syria be less stable?

The assumptions embedded in these discussions are, to me, part of the reason the US is committing foreign policy suicide in any number of countries. In fact, Afghanistan is just about the only country where American policymakers don’t think that a broad array of competing factions and dissenting opinions is dangerous.

We are making a terrible intellectual mistake. Stability is what happens when everything else works—when you have free markets and free people. It’s the political equivalent of happiness, which Aristotle astutely pointed out is the result, not the goal, of a life well lived. Live virtuously and actively and you may end up happy, if you have good luck. The same more or less goes for nations with respect to stability.

In Afghanistan, we’ve compounded this philosophical mistake by pouring in huge amounts of American money, often badly monitored. We’ve increased the spoils and raised the stakes in a society that lacks the rule of law and has lost much of its traditional cohesion. Small wonder that violence has relentlessly increased, with hundreds of tribal elders murdered just in Kandahar in recent years in conflicts exacerbated by competition for American contracting and security money.

The US has snatched defeat from the jaws of victory in Afghanistan, rewarding the worst people in Afghanistan, discouraging most people with any sense from entering public life, and increasing violence in just about every area of the country. What’s worse, our military and political leadership has been relentlessly dishonest about the situation, claiming imaginary successes as violence relentlessly grows.

General David Petraeus’s comment on Ahmed Wali Karzai’s killing was a triumph of hypocrisy: “President Karzai is working to create a stronger, more secure Afghanistan, and for such a tragic event to happen to someone within his own family is unfathomable.”

As Petraeus knows full well, those who live by the sword die by the sword. Ahmed Wali Karzai’s killing—like those of the hundreds of local elders murdered under his reign in Kandahar—is far from “unfathomable.” It is the predictable result of a struggle for money and power that we have foolishly stoked. And nothing the general, or anyone else in our government, has said gives hope that we will end our destabilizing quest for “stability.”