The Perils of Staying in Afghanistan

The best-laid plans of military occupiers rarely work out.


Neoconservative advocates of muscular nation building are portraying last weekend's killing spree in Kandahar province as an anomalous act of a deranged individual that holds no broader lessons. They worry that the Obama administration will run for the exit door even before 2014, cutting short the time we have to bring stability, good government, and Nike shoes to this ravaged land. But the truth is that this grisly event is emblematic of the perils of nation building.

This episode, in which a U.S. soldier allegedly barged into the homes of sleeping villagers and murdered 16 people, 11 of them women and children, is fraying America's relationship with the Afghan people. Coming on the heels of other incidents involving U.S. soldiers urinating on Taliban corpses and burning the Koran, it is generating rage in Afghanistan, especially since the soldier belonged to a unit meant to protect the village from Taliban insurgents. Now the Taliban is condemning the killings as the work of "sick-minded American savages." Anti-American protests are spreading apace with many Afghans demanding "jihad" to get us out of their country.

Intervention supporters, however, are undeterred. In a total non sequitur, a Wall Street Journal editorial implied that setting a date certain for withdrawal had something to do with the U.S. soldier going mad. Commentary's Max Boot has declared that "unleashing an American psychopath on innocent villagers" is an acceptable risk to free Afghanistan of the Taliban menace—never mind what the Afghans think. Meanwhile, Senator Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican and habitual nation builder, has averred that if we "push through these things (like the killing spree)" then "we can win this thing, we can get this right."

But to do nation building "right," especially in Afghanistan, would require divine, not human, intervention. Ordinary mortals, no matter how well-intentioned, are bedeviled with three problems that inevitably doom such efforts: The knowledge problem; the incentive problem; and the will problem.

General Stanley McChrystal, who was forced to resign after his intemperate remarks about Vice President Joe Biden to Rolling Stone, famously boasted after President Obama authorized the surge that all would be hunky-dory in Afghanistan. "We've got a government in a box, ready to roll in," he declared.

This is the remark that should have got McChrystal fired. It betrays a common fallacy, namely that nation-building is synonymous with erecting a government. However, political economist Ludwig von Mises pointed out almost a century ago that government is an outgrowth of a nation—not vice versa. Indeed, successful nations organically emerge from a shared language, culture, and norms that shape behavior and allow people to spontaneously coordinate their plans. Political institutions might formalize some of these rules; however, the vast bulk of them remain tacit, unavailable to the conscious mind.

But foreign occupiers, not privy to such inside knowledge, base their reconstruction plans on their own cultural assumptions, inevitably producing a clash of civilizations. For example, having demonized sharia—the primary source of law and order in Afghanistan's clan-based culture—Western occupiers are unable to draw guidance from it when writing the rules for the Afghan government. The result is not good government, but mayhem and conflict.

What's more, the success of reconstruction plans depends on adequately dealing with the "incentive problem"—namely, giving diverse local interest groups incentives to align their plans with the grand central designs of foreign powers. The United States might be interested in erecting a multi-ethnic regime with equal representation for minority clans. But Pashtuns (the largest Afghani tribe, compromising 42 percent of the population) have little incentive to share power with the Tajiks who constitute 27 percent—much less other smaller tribes. Conversely, minority tribes can hardly put their survival in the hands of the Pashtuns, to whom the murderous Taliban belongs. Each group faces an existential threat from the other and there is likely no amount of foreign aid that can persuade them to bury the hatchet for some abstract greater good.

Another reason that the best-laid plans of occupiers rarely work out is the "will problem." Nation-building is a very different exercise from military intervention. It is one thing for soldiers to subordinate their personal will and judgment to a commanding officer for a limited duration when the collective goal is commonly understood. It is quite another to do so for an open-ended mission with ill-defined ends. It is inevitable that when soldiers spend months and years in the field, they will form their own opinions of what the problems are and how to solve them, getting disenchanted when the top brass diverges. Large corporations have difficulty keeping their employees in sync with their broader aims instead of breaking into competing groups, each with its own ideas for handling situations.

The unprovoked murderous rampage by the soldier is the sign of a mind that simply snapped. This might be shocking, but what's surprising is that more soldiers have not gone rogue and taken matters into their own hands in other ways, given that we've been in Afghanistan for a decade. This testifies to the high-degree of professionalism of the American army. But everything has its limits. And the series of recent incidents might suggest that we are approaching ours.

Hence, contrary to the fulminations of neoconservative interventionists, it won't be a tragedy if the administration accelerates the timetable for pulling out of Afghanistan. In fact, by doing so, it might avert more tragedies in the making.

Shikha Dalmia is a Reason Foundation senior analyst and a columnist for The Daily.