3D in Afghanistan – Part Three: “A Future So Brilliant”

The third “D” in the West’s three “oughts” of counter-insurgency (to go along with “democracy” and “defence”) is development.  Western c-i strategists argue that a massive influx of aid to help build infrastructure will help wean Afghans away from the static, even destructive, program of the insurgents.    Given the chance to live a more modern and comfortable existence Afghans will eschew war and join the peaceful family of democratic nations.

An important question is whether such a program could be achieved given that Afghanistan has gone through 30 years of near continuous war, during which time the country has been bombed back to the stone age.  Even a plan along the magnitude of the Marshall Plan may not suffice as the same building blocks that existed in post-war Europe are absent in Afghanistan.  Keep in mind that this is a country where literacy hovers around 10 percent and there is almost no infrastructure outside of major urban centers.  Any attempt to bring Afghanistan up to a level comparable to a Western model would take a generation.

Ignoring the feasibility of the strategy it is worth evaluating whether the goal of “modernizing” Afghanistan is desirable at all.  Like the security issue, the fact that all of Afghanistan’s newfound infrastructure is essentially stamped “made in the USA (substitute any NATO ally as applicable)” raises doubts about the legitimacy of the central government.  Even if ordinary Afghans participate in the construction of schools and irrigation systems, it is clear who is directing each operation and who is footing the bill – and it isn’t Kabul.  Unless these projects are taken over by the central government, Afghan’s loyalty will be placed on outsiders rather than the central government.

That is of course if Western strategists are correct in assuming that Afghans are as malleable as they seem to believe.

These assumptions, the malleability of the citizenry and the allure of economic progress, form the basis of a political-economic model at the heart of Western counter-insurgency strategy since the end of the Second World War: Modernization theory.  This theory holds that economic and political development progresses along a universal set of progressive stages, and that the risk of social upheaval increases as a country moves from one stage to the next.  Adhering to this theory, the West has seen itself as having reached an end point after navigating the stages of development, therefore the West is well placed to guide traditional societies using lessons drawn from their own history. The implications of applying historical conclusions to analogous situations are staggering.  Generalizations, about Western history and Afghan history, are inevitably made when it is the intricacies that make all the difference.

The end result is that Western strategists tend to question how resources are distributed among the three “oughts” of counter-insurgency (good government, security, and development) rather than considering whether the model itself is flawed.  The c-i campaign then either fails because of this failure to reevaluate the situation, or succeeds because of extraneous factor and analysts attempt to reapply the same formula to the next unique insurgency.  The debates surrounding surrounding counter-insurgency strategy thus become cyclical.

I realize this all sounds incredibly pessimistic (not to mention derivative).  I do believe that there is some hope for an Afghanistan at peace for the first time in 30 years – the United States/NATO strategy might simply stall that eventuality because of its failure to accurately appraise the unique situation on the ground.

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