Foreign Policy

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.

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  1. …of just about anything agricultural city-Statists do rarely work out.

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      1. Sorry, Mr. Bot, but White Indian Troll doesn’t appreciate anything!

    2. alphabet-using language groups rarely work out

      anti-agriculturalists are really insidious apologists for alphabet using statists!

      projection : what doesn’t it explain?

  2. most of these people didn’t know who we were until we got there… for many in afghanistan, their opinion is extremely worse of America than before. and now they have strong emotional reasons to hate us.

  3. “Indeed, successful nations organically emerge from a shared language, culture, and norms that shape behavior and allow people to spontaneously coordinate their plans.” – My Emphasis.

    I agree with you on most of your immigration pieces, but this is a strong argument against them.

    Could you clarify?

    1. Sorry. “…strong argument against them.” should read, “strong argument against lightly regulated immigration.”

      1. Regulation is inorganic. As immigrants move here, the language, culture, and norms evolve absent a radical heavy-handed govt.

        1. The war-mongerers could argue that liberation is organic as well. And they are merely spurring an evolution in Afghan political philosophy.

          It sounds like reductio ad absurdum, but that’s the world we live in. The reason for the request for clarification is not hair-splitting. Do the Afghans want a central government? If not, who draws the tribal boundaries based on language and culture?

          They were incapable, so the Taliban did it for them based on a U.N. map. Are we obliged, now that we’ve created this mess, to stabilize it and draw a new map? I don’t think so, but some could make that argument, and if they do, demanding language, culture and norms that are universal in Afghanistan as a prerequisite for leaving could mire us there for years.

        2. “As immigrants move here, the language, culture, and norms evolve”

          And you end up with the 3rd world hellhole now known as California.

          1. Oh God just say you’re scared of other countries and be done with it.

            No you get douchebags with too much government power in California, that has nothing to do with a Libertarian open borders society.

            1. Yeah, that’s it. It’s fear. It’s not trying to decipher broken English and bastardized Spanish that’s barely better, or fighting super bugs carried over the border that were eradicated in the US 3 generations ago, or trying to extract liability from the Mexican national who smashes your car because he can’t read his native language, let alone English, and finding out you’re fucked because he legally doesn’t exist. Nope. It’s those damn xenophobes. Just scurred of tacos and tequila.

              You can’t have a libertarian immigration policy in a quasi-socialist welfare state. That’s why we ditched our basically open-immigration policy here in the US when we decided we wanted soft socialism.

              1. Interesting though this debate may be, it splinters from my original discussion about discussing “nationality” as it relates to Afghanistan.

                Perhaps next time I will couch the terms differently.

    2. Also, is a common national language a prerequisite for national cohesion? If so, do you argue for an “English as an official language” position?

  4. The troops are protecting our freedoms!

    1. And … doing it “over there”!

    2. …the very life blood of industrial civilization. Energy resources.…..n_Pipeline

      Want your thermostat set on shiver? No? That’s the quandary we’re in now. It takes lots of violence to keep agricultural city-Statism (civilization) going.

      And no, you’re bullshit about free trade is just that, a bunch of bullshit. The free market has big guns to enforce it.

      Want to deny it? Yeah, my NEA teacher neighbor denies schooling is enforced by violence too.

      1. Here’s the socialist’s favorite gal warmonger. Little difference from any NeoCon’s website. Smart Power ha ha ha.…..ign-policy

        1. …as are all city-Statist political schemes, including yours, Fibertard.

          Hey, maybe you can answer my questions:

          ? Is any white person‘s right an individual or collective right?
          ? Is the right to take a negative or positive right?

          “[The Native Americans] didn’t have any rights to the land … Any white person who brought the element of civilization had the right to take over this continent.”

          ~Ayn Rand, US Military Academy at West Point, March 6, 1974

          1. Someone has an intravenous direct feed from the clinton/obama/soros transfusion blood bank.

            1. Sorry, Fibertard, but you’re as fucking stupid as any Creationist.

              Egalitarianism is evidenced most prominently, by your lack of primate sexual dichromaticism (don’t have a red ass like a babboon) and very low sexual dimorphism, on the level of a penguin. Unless you’re Ferengi or some shit.

              Read, Fundie boy.

              Hierarchy in the Forest: The Evolution of Egalitarian Behavior
              by Christopher Boehm
              Harvard University Press

          2. Ok, flippertard, moralizerturd.

          3. OBAMA/KONY 2012 tribal candidates.

            1. Once again, Fibertard shows how absolutely fucking stupid of a Randroid boi he is.

              NON-STATE SOCIETY
              ? Band (egalitarian)
              ? Tribe (egalitarian)
              ? Chiefdom (non-egalitarian (hierarchical) proto-state)

              STATE SOCIETY
              ? Agricultural civilization (hierarchical)


              Learn, shithead.

              1. Tribe/State is enemy of indiVIDual.

                Pissbrain. Always covering for the LifeExtracting Tribe/State.

                1. But shit for brains Creationist/Fibertarian thinks they’re somehow “anti-Life.” Because Ayn Rand told him to blank-out reality. Cool act, there, fundie boy.

                  “Historically, people in non-state societies are relatively autonomous and sovereign. They generate their own subsistence with little or no assistance from outside sources. They bow to no external political leaders.

                  Elman R. Service (1975), Origins of the State and Civilization: The Process of Cultural Evolution. New York: Norton.


              2. And you are a hypocritical moralizing agent of the tax collecting war state. Call Off Your Tired Old Ethics.

                1. The tribe is GOD, what a fucking joke, flippermoralizernaturefakingturd.

                2. not I

              3. the most deadly of isms.

                1. Socialism is disgusting and Europe agrees.

                  Austerity plan motherfuckers, I love it.

                2. You sound as much a raving lunatic for ignoring science as a Jehovah Ayn Rand’s Witness.

  5. It doesn’t help that we go around burning their poppy fields. It’s so absurd that Ron Paul was deamonized by the media for suggesting that our actions might be the root of some aint-american sentiment in the middle east. Conservatives seem to think it’s okay for us to go over their with our $850,000,000,000.00 a year military and fuck with a bunch of dirt-poor tribal villagers, but if they fight back they’re evil insurgent terrorists. The whole neo-conservative american exceptionalism thing makes me want to fucking vomit.

    1. We didn’t go to Afghanistan to mess with their villagers. We went it there to take out the Taliban.

      Do you expect a typical American to shrug his shoulder and say “Well, we deserved it” when Afghans shoot at our soldiers, even if the occupation was unjustified? If Obama justified terrorist acts against the nation by hinting that we started it first, he probably wouldn’t have won in 08.

      You can’t appease radicals with good will gestures. The roots of fanaticism was planted before one or two specific instances of atrocities. If we pull out of the middle east and remain inactive, then Al Qaeda will just find other narratives to radicalize the masses. We’re still in good terms with Israel, and that’s good enough for them.

      1. “…then Al Qaeda will just find other narratives to radicalize the masses.”

        I was under the impression that our military brass meant it when they said Al Queda was functionally disabled.

    2. Ron swings the only immense anti-war cock of any of the candidates. The ReThugs condidates (minus rp) are just funhouse mirror images of Killer ChickenHawk Obama.

  6. If we had been hard-headed gunboat diplomacy types we would, after 9/11, invaded Iraq, Afghanistan, and perhaps one or two other places, taken down their governments, and said “That’s what happens when you piss us off.”and gone home immediately. Nobody would really have been surprised. Everybody would have understood the object lesson (“Don’t wake the sleeping giant. Ever.”). Unfortunately, that would have been politically impossible at home.

    1. that would have been politically impossible at home

      Are you serious?

    2. Why is that? I agree that a punitive expedition (to Afghanistan, at least), would’ve made more sense and been more justifiable than this. . .whatever we’ve been doing.

      1. Not to mention cheaper for both sides and probably easier to make friends afterwards.

        1. That’s right. What’s a few quick bombs among friends?

      2. For the first year, I thought it was a punitive expedition. We hooked up with the opposition in the civil war that has been going on forever, and waged a brilliant campaign – then… turned it into a shitty Boy Scout expedition.

        I’m shocked that this is the first time. The Infantry has been over used for a decade now. A soldier on his forth deployment (a year long each) snapped. If Obama gets his way – cutting out a third of our Infantry Brigades, AND staying in Afghanistan – it will happen again. Morale is in the shitter.

        1. I thought the same thing in the beginning. And I think it was true then. Crush the Taliban, make sure there’s someone not the Taliban running things, then leave.

        2. Nation building is the biggest crock of shit ever invented, with the possible exception of ‘we need to go deeper into debt in order to get out of debt’.

          8000 dead Americans and God knows how many Afghans and Iraqis because we did not go in, kick the dictators/thugs out and then EXIT STAGE RIGHT.

          If the thugs return that is NOT our problem.

        3. Morale is in the shitter.

          The lyrics may have changed but the songs we forgot in Vietnam still sound the same…

      3. Answering both “Nancy Pelosi” and “Pro Libertate”

        The plan I outlined would have taken the kind of attention to Machiavelli and von Clausewitz that the American People, bless their black, flabby little hearts, shy away from. The Left would have had an even bigger hissy-catfit than the one they threw, and they would have been joined by all the nitwits who think we can remake the world in a kinder, gentler image without straight out ruling it. It just wasn’t in the cards.

        Gunboat diplomacy is messy, amoral, and almost always works. Unfortunately, we no longer have the stomach for it.

  7. 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.

    But they have no problem portraying the Fort Hood shootings as part of an “Evil Islamist Plot”.

    1. Well sure. When someone who belongs to a Bad Group? does something wrong, it’s an inevitable result of their having belonged to that group.

      When Good People? do something wrong, it’s merely indicitive of the malfunctioning of that one unit, and in no way reflects upon the Greater Good? that the Good People? are agents of.

      1. Quit abusing Unicode fucker

        1. Unicode fucking good.

    2. I dunno, did the as-yet-to-be-named-shooter run around screaming “Deus Vult!” as he shot the villagers?

    3. But they aren’t. Diversity and having a rainbow military is more important to them than a Muslim shooting up an army post.

  8. “That’s what happens when you piss us off.”and gone home immediately.

    Then what happens?

    1. Then anyone thinking of waging war against the U.S. has a decision to make.

      1. I’m sure they are afraid with OweBlamer the Obsequious in the Oval Office.

    2. The object lesson has been made. The grave of the previous ‘leader’ who punched us in the shin is what I what I call ‘an attention getter.’

      1. That lesson has not been made clear. Hell, we are *this close* from the American Empire falling apart just as the Soviet Union did when *it* invaded Afghanistan and fought an insurgency willing to do anything it took to win.

        1. The Soviets were even worse at nation building than we are.

    3. The next king of Shittistan doesn’t let the pyscho arabs launch an attack on America from his country because he doesn’t want to lose his head.

  9. The biggest mistake Reagan made was arming the Taliban against the Soviets. The Russians were imperfect, but the Taliban is evil.

    1. Imperfect? Now that’s rather harsh.

    2. Russians are very imperfect. The Soviets were truly evil. And the Taliban didn’t exist until 1994.

      1. It depends if you want to glorify man or sacrifice man for God.

    3. I don’t know. In retrospect, the Russians were fucking stupid and the Americans even stupider back then. Did Clinton, Bush or Obama learn one little thing from past history? Fuck no which puts them all in the Stupid Bin of History.

      1. I suspect, before Alexander, many have failed to take Afghanistan. To take a country, it has to be worth something.

      2. The various White Houses (along with their future successors) may or may not have learned the lesson of staying out of Afghanistan but companies like Colt, Boeing, etc. learned that never ending war means never ending profits!

    4. *sigh*

      Reagan didn’t arm the fucking Taliban.

      The Afghan resistance was split into two major camps. There was the native Afghans, organized in tribes and fighting for their own homes and land. They were funded and armed by the Pakistanis and the USA.

      The foreign volunteers from the Islamic world were funded by Saudi money for the most part, and this is where the Taliban and Al Qaeda grow from.

      Think of the KMT and CCP fighting the Japanese invaders during WWII, then turning on each other in the Chinese Civil War. You might as well argue the US armed Mao because they supported Chiang Kai Shek.

      The Afghans backed by the US would later become the Northern Alliance and again aid the United States against their more fanatical countrymen in 2001.

      1. Sorry but we did fuck up in the Sino-Japanese war by helping the KMT.

        Interventionism has unintended consequences and helping China had very bad ones. That’s what happens when you don’t mind your own business.

        Also I doubt that most of the people we support are “moderates”. I’m sure there were some crazies in there.

        The US is a great country that needs to defend itself, not worry about other international skirmishes.

        1. The mess in the middle east is directly because of the first the British and then America bungling, one would think it would serve as a good example why not to meddle, yet the continue to do so.

  10. When Afghanistan collapses a few months after we do eventually leave, I hope Karzai doesn’t make it out to enjoy his embezzled millions. I would enjoy watching him get the Mussolini treatment.

  11. Nah, my Paki friends said they’ll provide me with a nice little place that recently became available in Abbottabad.

  12. You know, if one of the candidates came out for immediate withdrawal and non-interventionism he might appeal to a broad swath of Americans. If only…

  13. I like that an endless list of bullshit justifications is made for the Islamic batshit religious wackbags when they break out in an orgy of violence over some burnt paper, but American troops’ motivations are always perfectly clear: they’re bloodthirsty, insatiable baby killers. Fuck you. You can be 100% anti-war without being an apologist for backward fucking primitives and justifying their violence and fanaticism. At least be consistent: you’re ready to string up the assholes picketing funerals and abortion clinics – try and extend that venom to the people who, you know, like, fly fucking planes into buildings? Maybe?

    1. They may be backward primitives, but they are backward primitives that want to be left alone, and we keep *fucking with them*. Think of it as a hornet’s nest, and we just keep sticking our hand in there and swatting a few random hornets for no reason. They have every right to be pissed off with us, and the fact that they are should be no surprise.

      1. No, They are not “backward primitives that want to be left alone”. They are backward primitives that want the wealth and dynamism of the West without any of the social values or cultural baggage that seem to go with it. Now, maybe there is a way to grow as wealthy as the West without being like the West, but we In the West wouldn’t know what it was. They need to A) Suck it up and join the rest of the civilised world OR B) Strike out on their own and quit pestering us for money and then complaining about what comes with it.

      2. Right. Their violence is justified. After all, we went to Afghanistan with no provocation and then just randomly started slaughtering unarmed civilians for the amusement of our murderous pig soldiers, right?

        Granted, whatever reasons we had for invading in the aftermath of 9/11 are wearing thin now 11 years after the fact. But that’s got nothing to do with justifying the violence of religious primitives and then savaging US troops as a marauding gang of bloodthirsty mass murders. An Afghan soldier blows away a dozen US troops and he’s a heroic emblem of the folly of nation building, and his actions are the excusable frustration of an occupied nation. A US soldier on his 4th or 5th deployment, in the aftermath of this violence, blows away a dozen Afghan civilians and his actions are emblematic of the savage brutality of American mercenaries. Again, fuck you. The narrative is bullshit.

        1. Just to be clear, I don’t support continuing the war in Afghanistan. I just don’t like the hard-left anti-war narrative and the constant apologetics on behalf of violent religious fanatics abroad.

    2. This is a not a liberal site, its libertarian, nobody here wants to string up people picketing funerals (unless the occasional liberals who visit).

  14. “The best-laid plans of military occupiers rarely work out.”
    They do work when you treat it as we did in WWII. Not only did we decimate them and any country that they were in with or without permission of the host country. Note that after the war we also taught them the American system for example after WWII we kept prisoners of war here for a year and half teaching them about our system. Just dare to try and keep anybody here once we pull out. That’s probably one reason why we won’t pull out of Afganistan there would probably be cries to release the Gitmo detainies.

  15. It happened once. By definition, that is an anomaly.
    Is this idjit actually claiming that if we stay then it’s going to start happening regularly?

    I’m no neo-con, but good grief, that’s one of the stupidest things I’ve ever heard.

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