This would be a big mistake. It would be impossible to find a better person. There are bed rock basic reasons why U.S. policy in Afghanistan has failed, and they have nothing to do with the competence of General John Nicholson. They have to do with the nature of government.
There have been many conceptions of government. Originally, the headmen of the tribes would get together and talk. In Afghanistan, this is called a jirga. Sometime in the distant past, the most impressive headman was distinguished as someone special. It took till the 18th century for Afghanistan to acquire a king with the domain of the modern political map.
The above has nothing to do with modern theories of government. The bare-bones boiled-down essence of modern government is just a few things:
- Raise revenue by taxation.
- Use at least some of the taxes to provide services.
- Facilitate commerce.
- The services provided justify the taxes enough for popular acquiescence.
You can add all the bells and whistles. But it’s the irreducible minimum. Anything less, and it becomes a protection racket.
Afghanistan has no legitimate economy. Mullah Omar’s gang used to joke that the country couldn’t even make glass. The only trade is underground, opium, immune to civil taxes. But opium makes money for the Taliban. Indirectly, they can tax it, by shaking down the farmers.
The services that the government can afford to provide are negligible. In areas of high population density, a government can provide a lot of low-tech service, like waste disposal, food distribution and utilities. But Afghanistan is mostly rural, so these possibilities do not exist outside the cities. Since the only current export product Afghanistan is opium, the opportunities to facilitate commerce are dwarfed by illegal alternatives.
So the model of the Kabul government, representing all our good intentions, is not organic in Afghanistan. Because it is not organic, it cannot displace the Taliban, replacing them with itself. The Taliban is organic, so it can grow, occupy space, and displace the government.
This is not a value judgment. The Kabul government has many positive aspects. It is inclusive, the factions attempt to work together, and it has had a peaceful transition of power. But it is not organic.
The current situation is not remotely the result of military incompetence. The U.S. military is the best in the world, and has performed very well in Afghanistan. So the possible improvement gained by change of command is negligible.
During World War I, someone, possibly Will Rogers, came up with a solution to the German submarine menace. He said, “Boil the oceans, and the submarines will come to the surface.” When asked, “How do you boil the oceans?”, he replied, ‘That’s your problem.”
Here, the equivalent of boiling is to transform Afghan society. The Soviets tried this, and failed. But what happens to Pakistan as part of China’s Silk Road project bears watching. China is a highly ordered society. Pakistan, though not a failing state, is a poorly functioning one. Maybe China will make things better. Maybe Pakistan will become a debt slave. Check back in 20 years.
The only reason we stay in Afghanistan is to prevent it from becoming a terrorist haven. This is a very good reason. But it seems to have indefinite cost and duration. So what can we do? Ideally, we would give away the problem, to countries of the region. This would not be a quick fix, but neither is a 16-year conflict without an exit strategy.
The secular aspects of Afghan culture are more influenced by India than Pakistan. Both China and India stand to benefit from Afghan minerals. But while the Wakhan Corridor connects Afghanistan to China, India has no common border. But China is hampered by starkly different ethnicity.
Let’s consider how the future may solve the Afghanistan problem, with a “future history”, twenty years hence:
- The impact of Silk Road on Pakistan is highly positive, unshackling a nation from violent domestic conflict, with some hybridization of culture.
- Pakistan’s energies redirect in more creative, entrepreneurial ways.
- Since Pakistan’s ethnicity blends well in Afghanistan, Pakistan and China cooperate to jointly exploit Afghanistan’s mineral resources.
- Social development flows into Afghanistan from both directions.
This is how a good history reads. There are many others. But how natural it seems, compared to an endless campaign to support civil government, in a land whose principle product is the opium poppy.
Perhaps this future history can inspire.