Wednesday 18 Jul 2018 | 20:49 | SYDNEY
Wednesday 18 Jul 2018 | 20:49 | SYDNEY

Our immodest Afghanistan project


Sam Roggeveen


This post is part of the Afghanistan debate thread. To read other posts in this debate, click here.

4 August 2009 11:17

This post is part of the Afghanistan debate thread. To read other posts in this debate, click here.

It seems Jim Molan and I have been talking past each other. In his latest post, Jim says that, 'given that the probability of leaving seems to me to be very low, most of our brain power should be directed at how to proceed.' That means Jim wants to talk mostly about questions of 'how', whereas I remain stubbornly attached to discussing the 'why'.

Jim is probably right to say that it is too late to have the 'why' debate, because the die is cast. But good arguments can change minds and eventually change policy, so here are two points that summarise my scepticism about the Afghanistan operation, one specific and another general.

First, it is a misallocation of resources. This is particularly the case if you want to argue that our presence in Afghanistan is primarily about reducing the threat of terrorism — given the variety of lawless places from which an al Qaeda attack could spring, there is little justification for expending so many resources on denying them just one. As Stephen Biddle argues in his guarded defence of the Afghanistan mission: 

If the current Afghan government collapsed and were replaced with a neo-Taliban regime, or if the Taliban were able to secure political control over some major contiguous fraction of Afghan territory, then perhaps al-Qaeda could re-establish a real haven there. But the risk that al-Qaeda might succeed in doing this isn’t much different than the same happening in a wide range of weak states throughout the world, from Yemen to Somalia to Djibouti to Eritrea to Sudan to the Philippines to Uzbekistan, or even parts of Latin America or southern Africa. And of course Iraq and Pakistan could soon host regimes willing to put the state’s resources behind al-Qaeda if their current leaderships collapse under pressure.

Many of these countries, especially Iraq and Pakistan, could offer al-Qaeda better havens than Afghanistan ever did. Iraq and Pakistan are richer and far better connected to the outside world than technologically primitive, landlocked Afghanistan...Thus it is still important to deny al-Qaeda sanctuary on the Afghan side of the Durand Line. But the intrinsic importance of doing so is no greater than that of denying sanctuary in many other potential havens—and probably smaller than many. We clearly cannot afford to wage protracted warfare with multiple brigades of American ground forces simply to deny al-Qaeda access to every possible safe haven. We would run out of brigades long before bin Laden ran out of prospective sanctuaries.

But even if the terrorist threat from Afghanistan demands some level of continued military response, it's not clear why we have chosen this particular kind, with its heavy emphasis on nation-building and counter-insurgency. The 2001 defeat of the Taliban and al Qaeda's expulsion from Afghanistan was achieved mainly with the use of air power, special forces and local proxies. If our primary aim is to deny al Qaeda and the Taliban the opportunity to restore their pre-October 2001 status in Afghanistan, why can't that be done with similar tools? 

Second, the task we have set ourselves in Afghanistan is simply too big. This is actually a broader point that goes to political philosophy rather than specific strategic considerations. NY Times columnist David Brooks wrote a piece in February about what he termed 'epistemological modesty'. He was writing about the US economy and health care reform, but his argument is equally valid here: 

The political history of the 20th century is the history of social-engineering projects executed by well-intentioned people that began well and ended badly. There were big errors like communism, but also lesser ones, like a Vietnam War designed by the best and the brightest, urban renewal efforts that decimated neighborhoods, welfare policies that had the unintended effect of weakening families and development programs that left a string of white elephant projects across the world.

These experiences drove me toward the crooked timber school of public philosophy: Michael Oakeshott, Isaiah Berlin, Edward Banfield, Reinhold Niebuhr, Friedrich Hayek, Clinton Rossiter and George Orwell. These writers — some left, some right — had a sense of epistemological modesty. They knew how little we can know. They understood that we are strangers to ourselves and society is an immeasurably complex organism. They tended to be skeptical of technocratic, rationalist planning and suspicious of schemes to reorganize society from the top down.

If our own societies are so 'immeasurably complex', and we manage to reform them only incrementally, fitfully and with regular setbacks, what kind of hubris makes us think we can entirely rebuild the political, economic and social institutions of a country we know next to nothing about?