Powerful insights about our war in Afghanistan, part 1

We slid into the Iraq rapidly and unknowingly, our way greased by lies.  Not so in Afghanistan.  Our first invasion was in response to 9-11, a fast and bloodless (as such things go) overthrow of al Qaeda’s allies.  An object lesson to our enemies, it might even have resulted in a better regime.  If we had withdrawn our army, sent them some checks and well wishes (along with threats of death from the sky should al Qaeda re-establish camps), who knows what might have happened?

Instead we attempted nation-building.  A usually unsuccessful endeavor, it was grossly under-funded and under-planned.  Years later we pour even more resources into it, further exhausting our treasury and our military.  Unlike Iraq, we have had wise and eloquent warnings about our folly.  Such as this article, which I strongly recommend reading in full.  This excerpt does not capture a fraction of its brilliant insights.


When we are not presented with a dystopian vision, we are encouraged to be implausibly optimistic. ‘There can be only one winner: democracy and a strong Afghan state,’ Gordon Brown predicted in his most recent speech on the subject. Obama and Brown rely on a hypnotising policy language which can – and perhaps will – be applied as easily to Somalia or Yemen as Afghanistan. It misleads us in several respects simultaneously: minimising differences between cultures, exaggerating our fears, aggrandising our ambitions, inflating a sense of moral obligations and power, and confusing our goals. All these attitudes are aspects of a single worldview and create an almost irresistible illusion.

It conjures nightmares of ‘failed states’ and ‘global extremism’, offers the remedies of ‘state-building’ and ‘counter-insurgency’, and promises a final dream of ‘legitimate, accountable governance’. The path is …

  • broad enough to include Scandinavian humanitarians and American special forces;
  • general enough to be applied to Botswana as easily as to Afghanistan;
  • sinuous and sophisticated enough to draw in policymakers; suggestive enough of crude moral imperatives to attract the Daily Mail;
  • and almost too abstract to be defined or refuted.

It papers over the weakness of the international community: our lack of knowledge, power and legitimacy.
It conceals the conflicts between our interests: between giving aid to Afghans and killing terrorists.
It assumes that Afghanistan is predictable.
It is a language that exploits tautologies and negations to suggest inexorable solutions.
It makes our policy seem a moral obligation, makes failure unacceptable, and alternatives inconceivable.

It does this so well that a more moderate, minimalist approach becomes almost impossible to articulate. Afghanistan, however, is the graveyard of predictions.

  • None of the experts in 1988 predicted that the Russian-backed President Najibullah would survive for two and a half years after the Soviet withdrawal.
  • And no one predicted at the beginning of 1994 that the famous commanders of the jihad, Hekmatyar and Masud, then fighting a civil war in the centre of Kabul, could be swept aside by an unknown group of madrassah students called the Taliban.
  • Or that the Taliban would, in a few months, conquer 90 per cent of the country, eliminate much corruption, restore security on the roads and host al-Qaida.

About the author

Rory Stewart is the Ryan Family Professor of Human Rights and Director of the Carr Center on Human Rights Policy at Harvard.


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Post about our military theory :

  1. The 2 most devastating 4GW attacks on America, and the roots of FM 3-24, 19 March 2008
  2. A key to the power of FM 3-24, the new COIN manual, 20 March 2008
  3. Dark origins of the new COIN manual, FM 3-24, 23 March 2008
  4. Insights about modern war from the NIC’s 2020 Project, 11 April 2008
  5. How often do insurgents win? How much time does successful COIN require?, 28 May 2008
  6. COIN – a perspective from 23rd century textbooks, 10 June 2008
  7. A lesson in war-mongering: “Maritime Strategy in an Age of Blood and Belief”, 8 July 2008
  8. Is COIN the graduate level of military hubris?, 30 July 2008
  9. The War Nerd shows how simple 4GW theory can be, 22 January 2009
  10. The US Army brings us back to the future, returning to WWI’s “cult of the offense”, 13 February 2009
  11. Important reading for every American who wishes to understand our foreign wars, 7 April 2009
  12. A joust between two schools of American military theory, 19 May 2009
  13. James Bond is not just our hero, but the model for our geopolitical strategy, 18 May 2009
  14. The trinity of modern warfare at work in Afghanistan, 13 July 2009

13 thoughts on “Powerful insights about our war in Afghanistan, part 1”

  1. By way of comparison, read Europe Has No Exit Strategy in the Balkans, in which Europe’s problems in developing the Balkans under far more favorable circumstances are detailed.

    Among many other points the article states:

    Both Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo are dominated by a greedy, irresponsible elite that only too often crosses the line into organized crime, as anyone who asks around in the region is likely to hear

    For details about Balkan organized crime, read this overview of the Albanian mafia, which is powerful throughout the Balkans and Kosovo in particular. It states:

    The 15 Albanian families are beginning to become the most powerful criminal organizations you have never heard about. These are among the world’s most innovative syndicates. The Albanian traffickers have become Europe’s preeminent heroin traffickers as well as major cocaine traffickers. They have in house money laundering system and political connections that most criminal organizations only dream about. They are also among the underworld’s most connected outfits and the majority of their bosses and operatives remain unknown to law enforcement.

    It also states:

    The Kosovo War played a key role in the rise of the Albanian mafia throughout Europe. Traditionally, heroin had been transported to Western Europe from Turkey via Serbia, Croatia and Slovenia. This route had closed as a result of the war and Albanian gangs found themselves in an ideal position to guarantee safe routes through the war zone, at first only assisting other criminal groups but eventually growing powerful enough to take over on their own.

    In conclusion, if you like Kosovo, you are going to love Afghanistan.

  2. Indian Investor

    Here’s another illustrative excerpt:

    “This is not a plan: it is a description of what we have not got. Our approach is short-term; it has struggled to develop Afghan capacity, resolve regional issues or overcome civilian-military divisions; it has struggled to respect Afghan sovereignty or local values; it has failed to implement international standards of democracy, government and human rights; and it has failed to set clear and realistic objectives with clear metrics of success. Why do we believe that describing what we do not have should constitute a plan on how to get it? ”

    Why indeed?

  3. Indian Investor

    Empires rarely acknowledge their true purpose, and these artful essays purporting to define what’s thought of as the “United States Policy in Other Regions” are pure political fiction. In history, you come across people who belong to the Empire, yet they flounder along when they fail to see its real purpose; and go by the stated propaganda, ingoring the vested interests at play behind the scenes. Here’s an excerpt from the British Empire’s ‘The Report of 1873’ written by Sir Charles Trevelyan

    “Give them the raising and spending of their own money, and the motive will be supplied, and life and reality will be imparted to the whole system.All would act under a real personal responsibility under the eye of those who would be familiar with all the details, and would have the strongest possible interest in maintaining a vigilant control over them. And it would be a school of Self-Government for the whole of India – the longest step yet taken towards teaching its 200,000,000 of people to govern themselves, which is the end and object of our connection with that country”
    — “The Economic History of India” (Volume 2 – In the Victorian Age 1837-1900), by Romesh Dutt, C.I.E; originally published in December 1903 by Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd. in London.

    Sir Charles Trevelyan, in 1873, was advocating increased representation for Natives in the government – and the stated official purpose of the British Government, even at the time, was to “teach its people to govern themselves”.

    What a lark!
    Fabius Maximus replies: Thanks for this great quote. Trevelyan’s actions during the great famines in Ireland and Scotland certainly taught those subjects (those that lived) a lesson in governing. He wrote that the Famine was a “mechanism for reducing surplus population”. He believed the Irish famine had a rational cause:

    “The judgement of God sent the calamity to teach the Irish a lesson, that calamity must not be too much mitigated. …The real evil with which we have to contend is not the physical evil of the Famine, but the moral evil of the selfish, perverse and turbulent character of the people”. (source)

  4. If we have any hope of resuming our career as a self-governing Republic we need to work for a constitutional convention that will work to restore the balance in our system, undo the terrible mischief initiated by Lyndon Johnson, stop all federal funding to education == that might lead to closing down half the “political witchcraft” departments and scores of law schools preparing federal bureaucrats for jobs waiting to be created for them. We are running out of time. We need to end the one party system that is ruining America.
    Fabius Maximus replies: This makes zero sense to me. A people that cannot run our current constitutional machinery — lackkng even the wit and motivation to use the power tool of elections — has no chance of success at the far more complex tast of constitution-making. If you hope for a deus ex machina solution, why not just hope for the Blue Fairy to solve our problems and be done with it?

  5. Indian Investor

    FM, My point in that quote was that Empires rarely disclose their true nature and purpose; the British Empire rested largely on various devices to manipulate people’s unknowing trust – highly credible false promises, diplomatic tricks, and the success of the Divide and Rule policy – at least as far as India was concerned. IMHO, this is best illustrated through excerpts from Her Majesty’s Proclamation under the (August 1958) Act for the better Government of India:


    Victoria, by the grace of God, of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, and of the Colonies and Dependencies thereof in Europe,Asia,Africa,America and Australasia, Queen, Defender of the Faith…

    We hereby announce to the Native Princes of India that all treaties and engagements made with them by or under the authority of the Honourable East India Company are by us accepted, and will be scrupulously maintained, and we look for like observance on their part.

    We desire no extension of our present territorial possessions; and while we permit no aggression upon our dominions or our rights to be attempted with impunity, we shall sanction no encroachment on those of others. We shall respect the rights, dignity and honour of Native Princes as our own; and we desire that they, as well as our own subjects, should enjoy that prosperity and that social advancement which can only be secured by internal peace and good government.

    We hold ourselves bound to the Natives of our Indian territories by the same obligations of duty which bind us to all our other subjects, and those obligations, by the blessing of Almighty God, we shall faithfully and conscientiously fulfil.

    Firmly relying ourselves on the truth of Christianity, and acknowledging with gratitude the solace of religion we disclaim alike the right and desire to impose our convictions on any of our subjects. We declare it to be our royal will and pleasure that none be anywise favoured, none molested or disquieted, by reason of their religious faith and observances, but that all shall alike enjoy the equal and impartial protection of the law; and we do strictly charge and enjoin all those who may be in authority under us that they abstain from all interference with the religious belief or worship of any of our subjects on pain of our highest displeasure…

    We know and respect, the feelings of attachment with which the Natives of India regard the land inherited by them from their ancestors, and we desire to protect them in all rights connected therewith, subject to the equitable demands of the state; and we will that generally, in framing and administering the law, due regard be paid to the ancient rights, usages, and customs of India.

    Fabius Maximus replies: You were quite clear, and I agree. My point was despite the pretty words, the actions of colonial powers reveal their true intent.

    For powerful examples of this I recommend reading “The Good Empire – Should we pick up where the British left off?“, Vivek Chibber, Boston Review, February/March 2005.

  6. Duncan: not only did the Kosovo war result in a more corrupt, less governable, poorer former Yugoslavia, the pretexts for invasion (ethnic cleansing, mass graves) were phony in the first place. What possible objectives, other than pique at the survival of an independent-minded Milosevic, could we and our European buddies have had in mind?

    The LRB article is particularly eloquent in demonstrating that official statements, especially in times of war, are ideology at best, wish fulfillment at worst, and in no way real military strategy. For most countries, with a minimum of wealth, tools like the IMF and World Bank are adequate for collapsing their economies and changing regimes, but for very poor countries, like Afghanistan, only the military will do.

  7. Indian Investor

    In August 1858, Queen Victoria, Defender of the Faith, relying firmly on the truth of Christianity, holding herselves bound, by the blessings of Almighty God, by the same obligations that bound herselves to herselves’ all other subjects, said all these wonderfully false things about how the Native Princes and Natives would be treated, what their rights were going to be, etc. Does Her Majesty Queen Victoria mention anywhere that her main objective was to plunder India of all her wealth;take even the proceeds of her soil; impoverish those Natives beyond any possibility of imagination; tax them to starvation; and use both their money and their bodies in the service of Her Royal Campaigns in Afghanistan, Abyssinia,Egypt and Burma?
    Fabius Maximus replies: She intended to mention those things, but the networks would only give her 45 minutes airtime.

  8. Did we plunder India of her wealth ? I’m just ignorant on this , and its the sort of thing you cant pluck an e-bite off Wikipedia .I had assumed the relationship was one of trade , rather than theft . Like China/UK until recently – a market for cheap goods actually sustains an economy for the supplier . Disillusion me .
    Fabius Maximus replies: I suggest you read the Vivek Chibber article excepted in this post, to see the attitude of the British rulers towards their Indian subjects. Read any analysis of the economics of colonialism for more about the economic “benefits” of colonialism in India.

  9. Indian Investor

    Anna – what a question! Let me provide you with some data from the same book backing my assertion that the British Empire “Taxed Indians to starvation”.Take the 1877 Madras famine as a case study. (There are many other more terrible case studies such as this one).

    How many people died in the Madras famine?

    On January 22, 1878, a Select Commitee under the chairmanship of Lord George Hamilton went into the question of proposals for expenditure on irrigation versus Railways. In his reply to Question 2204 of the Committee proceedings, Sir Arthur Cotton said “I am afraid we must reckon that out of the 40 millions affected by the famine in Madras, Mysore, Hyderabad and Bombay, 4 or 5 millions have perished, after spending 120 millions on railways besides incurring a debt of 50 millions sterling”
    So one authoritative guide we have is that “some 4 or 5 million” Indians “perished” in that famine – meaning that they starved to death.

    What caused the Madras famine of 1877? Was it an environmental disaster? Was it a major decline in agricultural output? What was the British Empire’s policy in India, before, during and after the famine?

  10. Indian Investor

    Land Settlements in Madras. According to a table titled “Land Revenue in Madras, Excluding Malabar and South Canara” from the Madras Board of Revenue’s resolution No. 542, dated December 16,1900, Appendix 1: In 1861 Occupied Area in Acres was 15,800,000 and by 1875 that had changed to 19,200,000. The ‘Gross Demand’ went from GBP 3,290,000 in 1861 to GBP 3,940,000 in 1875.
    And here’s Romesh Dutt’s commentary on the assessment, followed by a more authoritative quote from Sir Louis Mallet, the then Under Secretary of State for India.

    “It will appear from these figures that the area under cultivation, as well as gross State-demand on the land, increased about 20 per cent in fifteen years. But these figures do not indicate correctly the pressure of the Land Tax. In the first place, the new lands brought under cultivation were poorer in fertility and produce than the lands which were already under the plough in 1860, and the increase in production therefore was not 20 per cent, and scarcely came to half of that. In the second place the price of the produce was lower at the end of the fifteen years than at its commencement and what the cultivators actually got was therefore less for each grace than it was before. (me: there’s a footnote showing a price decline of 21% over that period)”…

    “Individual cultivators were never allowed a chance of proving what total produce they obtained from their fields, what the expenses of their cultivation were, and what nett income remained to them. It was often assumed, in a general way, that one-third of the total produce should cover the cost of cultivation. It was assumed that 28s. covered the cost of cultivating an acre of good land, and 12 s was all that was allowed for cultivating an acre of ordinary arenaceous sandy soil. Every cultivator in Madras knew, and Englishmen with any experience of the Province knew, that this inadequate…” {me: there’s another footnote quoting letters from English Landlords in India to Collectors, attesting to this}

    “It was on such inaccurate calculations, made collectively for vast areas of the country, that the Government assessment was based. It was then proclaimed to the puzzled cultivator, who often found that the assessment really swept away the greater portion of the nett income from his field. But he had no right of appeal to any independent tribunal, he must either pay the assessed tax or quit his ancestral field.”

    And here’s a quote from Sir Louis Mallet, Under Secretary of State for India in his minute dated February 03, 1875:

    “One is tempted to ask if rent – economic rent, pure and simple – is alone to be taxed: why, instead of the costly, cumbrous, capricious, and when all is said, most ineffectual settlement system, we cannot leave the assessments to take care of themselves, and, take whatever percentage on the rental of the land we want, wherever we find it. I can only propose that the answer would be, that, in truth the 50 per cent of the nett produce has been a mere paper instruction, a fiction which has had very little to do with the actual facts of the administration, and that in practice the rates levied have often absorbed the whole rental, and not infrequently, I suspect, encroached on profits also.”

  11. Indian Investor

    Anna/FM, since I’m quoting from a book written in 1903 – India was still under colonial rule – the Indian writer, a British educated person writing in London is quite tempered in his language and carefully quotes official British sources and ‘evidence’ from writings and speeches of the Empire’s functionaries to back every assertion.
    The actual facts are easier to under stand when put in a simple direct way – there was a rule that the British Collector should try to assess ONLY(!) 50% of the profits (called a nett produce) of agricultural activity. However, the assessment was entirely left to the discretion of the Collector (Assessing Officer). Also in practice there was Tribunal to appeal to, and no way to debate with the British Collector on the tax payable.

    The British Empire, over a period of several decades, simply Taxed Indian cultivators more than their profits, and impoverished them to such an extent that they could barely survive. Now let’s look at the OTHER things the British Empire did to cause the Madras Famine.
    Fabius Maximus replies: OK, you have established beyond any reasonable doubt the nature of the British colonial rule in India! Now back to the subject at hand, Afghanistan.

  12. Graduate school was nice. Is there some question about benevolent intention of the British rulers of India?

    I am arguing simply FM that we are at the exhaustion point of our political arrangement. The Congress is completely irresponsible, no matter which faction of the one party system is on top. We have a bloated and very dangerous military-industrial cabal that needs to be broken. We are not defending our borders, we have no industrial or trade policies that are sustainable. Our pension systems will collapse in a year or so; cities and states are heading for bankruptcy.

    Do I see a political crisis developing? Is there a solution? We have a mechanism in place. While we amuse ourselves with the bread and circus of Sotomayor etc. we are ignoring real problems. Do I know how we as a people are going to give voice to the need for a real shift in political power? If I did, would I be penning this note here? I am looking for like-minded people, some of whom might have ideas and thoughts of how to initiate the process that will give us the opportunity to have an alternative to a government that thinks running car companies and paying off bankers who have defrauded us is a just, decent and productive economic policy.
    Fabius Maximus: I love reading about political “mechanisms” that can save us. The super-wonderful machinery that runs by itself! If we’re looking for magic solutions, I prefer the Blue Fairy.

    If you are looking for political solutions, I recommend agitating and organizing. At some point in the future a Constitutional convention might become a logical next step. These things take time. For example, American’s struggle against Britain started (arbitrarily) with the Sugar Act of 1864. The Constitution was ratified 24 years later in 1788.

  13. Indian Investor

    In simple words, though the agricultural produce volumes in India were quite strong before, during and after the 1877 Madras famine, the British Empire forced such large volumes of food grain exports from India, and levied such huge agricultural taxes on cultivators, that something like “4 or 5 million” South Indians literally starved to death. Now, in quotes:

    “The export of rice, wheat and other food grains rose from under three millions to nearly eight millions in the nineteen years under review. Such a rise, in a country maintaining its commerical independence, is an indication of prosperity; but the commerce of India was forced and artificial. India had to meet a heavy drain which flowed annually into Great Britain without a direct commercial equivalent…”

    “A great part of the revenues of India is derived from the soil in the shape of the Land Revenue. The Land Revenue is realised, generally from cultivators in Southern India, and from landlords in Northern India who in their turn exact rents from their tenants. Cultivators pay their revenue or their rents by selling a large portion of the produce of their fields, keeping an insufficient stock for their own consumption. Exporting merchants have their agents all over the country to buy what the cultivators are compelled to sell:…”

    “It thus happens that, even on the eve of great famines, the export of food goes on as briskly as ever, because the grain has to be sold to meet a rigid Land Revenue demand. In 1876-77, when India was on the brink of one of the severest famines of the century, she exported a larger quantity of food grains, as will appear from the foregoing table, than she had ever done in any preceding year. And even a province, actually suffering from famine, will continue to export food to an extent which bears some proportion to the amount of the Land Revenue realized from the province during the famine.”

    Fabius Maximus replies: While nominally off-topic, these quotes go to the heart of our neo-colonial strategy. When looking at themselves, the Brits said that they provided good government — defined in western history as in the best interests of the governed. The reality was quite different.

    So it will probably be for the American neo-colonial project in Iraq and esp Afghanistan. Worse, at least the Brits (more precisely, a large number of Brits) made money from the Empire. The gains to America will likely be much smaller and more narrowly distributed.

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