It may seem strange to profess mild confidence in Afghanistan’s future even as the Koran-burning riots and slayings continue. But it is precisely the archaism of the country that may be its best hope.
While Americans of my neocon stripe, as well as many Afghans, warn that Afghanistan is in danger of collapse when we withdraw our forces, I am more inclined to say that the country will muddle through, and indeed improve in some respects, despite our grave mistakes in politico-military strategy.
The best outcome would have been for the US to scale down its military presence after 2003, instead of ramping it up. But we decided that if there were more Taliban attacks, this meant that we needed more troops. And we followed this line of reasoning all the way down the line to the surge of 2009. Instead of leading to a safer Afghanistan, this strategy has led to a more dangerous one.
After a certain point, troops functioned more as an irritant than a calmant. Consider the same analogy in community policing. As the “broken windows theory” that led to New York’s turnaround suggests, communities need a certain level of police presence. But few of us would argue that doubling the current level of cops in New York would make the city safer or a better place to live. Still less would increasing their number tenfold.
The American military brass has committed intellectual suicide on this point, with very few voices speaking against troop increases even as empirical evidence suggested they just don’t work. (Retired General Douglas Lute, President Obama’s nominee for the new head of the European command and head of NATO, is one of them, if Bob Woodward’s account is correct.)
Our military had a theoretic basis for its stubbornness. This was the beguiling doctrine of counterinsurgency, which implies that vast numbers of troops and police are needed to bring enough security to an area so that the population can safely turn against the insurgents. It will probably take decades for us to figure out precisely why this theory doesn’t work—I’ve published my two cents’ worth in many places—but the key point is that it doesn’t.
Few Americans, least of all the brave men and women who have served there, now believe Afghanistan is susceptible to quick change. Afghanistan’s Pashtun belt has a peculiarly dysfunctional, but cohesive, culture—sustained by an illiteracy that is nearly a cultural value. Southern Afghanistan is going to look more like the year 1300 than the year 2012, no matter what we do or how much we spend.
But this doesn’t mean the country will fall under the domain of the Taliban or into another civil war.
The saving factors are Afghanistan’s regionalism and its largely traditional culture. Northern Afghanistan fought the Taliban till the last, and much of Afghanistan’s now-numerous and well-equipped army is composed of northerners. It is unlikely that, in the event of a north-south war, the south would win. In the ’90s, it was the southerners who had the weapons, from Pakistan. Now the northerners do, from us.
Culture is crucial here too. One of the reasons Afghanistan is so resistant to change, and so frustrating for Americans working there, is the cultural preference for stasis. It’s a culture of sitting and talking but ultimately doing nothing, a place where it is always safer for a leader to be less active than more.
What will happen after we leave Afghanistan? A lot less than we think. More like entropy, or a regression to the mean, than like a civil war. A slow drift to regionalism, with the increasing irrelevance of the Karzai kleptocracy we have empowered. On the plus side, IED attacks and other terrorist violence will decrease dramatically. So will corruption; without US backing, corrupt officials will be removed by local consensus or the time-tested remedy of assassination. Afghans are natural capitalists and they will continue to create businesses and try to improve the lot of their families.
On the minus side, many of the buildings and institutions we have set up will begin a slow decay, only to be reborn perhaps decades later, when the culture catches up to the necessary level. And I am worried about a phenomenon almost never discussed by Afghans or Americans: the economic and social effects of Afghanistan’s high birth rate, which shows no signs of slowing.
I visited Afghanistan 18 times since May 2002, and I am too saddened by our failure of strategic thinking there to look forward to my next visit. The Koran-burning riots add to my dismay—both because of the incredible stupidity of the American action that led to them and the incredible stupidity of the Afghan reaction. But I suspect that if I return, say, in 2017, I will find not chaos but a developing country that is muddling through as it always has.