The discussion is a tribute to the self-critical powers of the U.S. military. The criticisms have distinct categories:
- Combat. Failure to provision adequate helicopters; provisioning the Afghans primarily with Humvees, highly vulnerable to IEDs, instead of the far more durable MRAPs.
- Counterinsurgency. Insufficient language skills and cultural knowledge prohibited the level of influence required to compete with the insurgency.
- Civil affairs, nation building. Absence of political partners sharing Western ideals of government. An unachievable political end state. As Wesley Clark says, the Afghans are “tribal.”
In another place in another time, each of these might have been decisive. In Afghanistan, Wesley Clark comes closest. “Tribal” might say it all about the Afghans. The rest is what we have to say about our own intellectual baggage.
It is said the intervention failed to address what we call corruption. Our Western standards are only partly products of hundreds of years of civil evolution in the modern period. In religious perspective, still strong in the West, corruption is a “sin”, an object to “fight” or “conquer”.
What sounds good on Sundays isn’t so real the rest of the week. Corruption is an iceberg. Blowing the top off with a howitzer simply reveals hidden bulk. In the Afghan tribal system, it’s just business as usual.
Corruption is a characteristic of a social system of exchange. In the West, it was not suppressed by moral force; other causes apply. The Age of Discovery, and the Industrial Revolution required reliable monetary disposition over great distances, and later, in complex finance of vast enterprise. Wealth was leveraged, creating more wealth. Corruption was not conquered; it was out-competed by the benefits of lawful finance.
Theories of counterinsurgency don’t delve this deep. To do so postulates complexities beyond the scope of a military operation. The corruption problem is addressed by proselytizing for the “one true faith.” (Wikipedia, Counterinsurgency) Martin van Creveld writes,
The first, and absolutely indispensable, thing to do is throw overboard 99 percent of the literature on counterinsurgency, counterguerrilla, counterterrorism, and the like. Since most of it was written by the losing side, it is of little value.
Creveld explores many other reasons, not particular to Afghanistan, why counterinsurgency usually fails. This is one more: Afghanistan has no legitimate economy. From Trump Wants to Fire U.S. Commander in Afghanistan,
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.
In the framework of a protection racket, corruption out-competes the alternative. Hence, no political end-point.
Could the U.S. have prevailed? There are a few tricks that could have been tried. British India was a colonial enterprise, while our ethos is raising democracy. The strategies by which the British dominated India may have had utility in pursuit of our lofty goal.
The British conquest of India, which took a couple hundred years, was not mainly by combat. The greater part was the buying-off of the hundreds of princely states. The British raised indigenous forces that, despite occasional rebellions, were instrumental in defense of the entire Empire.
The tiny detail is that the British were the paymasters. A professional Indian soldier had a choice, to serve a princely state, or the British. The princes were slow payers; the Brits paid on time. This inspired astonishing loyalty.
The alternate path:
- Run Afghanistan as if a colony, but absent the element of exploitation.
- Develop the place, with industry complementing natural resources.
- Establish economic conditions where lawful monetary exchange out-competes corruption, and a government is more than a protection racket.
- Hand the keys to government back to Afghans in stages.
This takes a long time. But we didn’t know we had 20 years.