A couple weeks ago, my Cato colleague, Justin Logan, wrote a post on Rory Stewart’s brilliant article that appeared in the London Review of Books. Justin offered compelling reasons why arguments for nation building, and the concomitant “state failure is a threat to humanity,” are deeply flawed. But I think Stewart’s piece offers arguments that bears emphasis.
Stewart is Chief Executive of The Turquoise Mountain Foundation, a not-for-profit, non-governmental organization based in Kabul. According to Stewart, many policymakers and prominent opinion leaders are prone to:
minimizing differences between cultures, exaggerating our fears, aggrandizing our ambitions, inflating a sense of moral obligations and power, and confusing our goals… [these irresistible illusions] papers over the weakness of the international community: our lack of knowledge, power and legitimacy… 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.
Perhaps Stewart’s most important point:
But Osama bin Laden is still in Pakistan, not Afghanistan. He chooses to be there precisely because Pakistan can be more assertive in its state sovereignty than Afghanistan and restricts US operations. From a narrow (and harsh) US national security perspective, a poor failed state could be easier to handle than a more developed one: Yemen is less threatening than Iran, Somalia than Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan than Pakistan.
The argument that America’s security depends on rebuilding failed states, like Afghanistan, fails partly since terrorists can move to governed spaces. Rather than setting up in weak, ungoverned states, enemies can flourish in strong states because these countries have formally recognized governments with the sovereignty to reject interference in their internal affairs.
Insurgents know they can’t fight a conventional army directly. With a protracted war of attrition, however, they can gradually expand their political and economic influence.
Thus, as we’ve seen in Vietnam, Iraq, and today in Afghanistan, insurgents leave areas where American troops concentrate and then return when those troops deploy elsewhere. And Afghan militants find sanctuary in neighboring, nuclear-armed Pakistan, which is not targeting the original Afghan Taliban.
In fact, Islamabad still supports the original Afghan Taliban that at one time controlled most of Afghanistan. The Swat valley offensives we keep hearing about feature the Pakistanis fighting indigenous Pakistani Taliban groups that have proliferated in response to Islamabad’s alignment with the United States in the so-called “war on terror.”
Honestly, America has no business stopping Pakistan from influencing Afghanistan. Let them have it! As I argue here, “the war’s strategic rationale still remains tenuous. Central Asia holds little intrinsic strategic value to the United States, and America’s security will not necessarily be endangered even if an oppressive regime takes over a contiguous fraction of Afghan territory.”
Sadly, however, bureaucratic inertia and misconceptions of Washington’s moral obligations could trap the United States in Afghanistan for decades. Hopefully, some people in the Obama White House will inform the president that Afghanistan is not a winnable war.