Stephen M. Walt

Why is Afghanistan so hard?

Why is Afghanistan so hard? It’s not difficult to think of reasons: 1) the long-standing divisions among the various tribal/ethnic groups that make up Afghan society, 2) the mountainous, inhospitable terrain, 3) lack of infrastructure, 4) weak governmental institutions and little history of centralized authority, 5) the destructive effects of many years of warfare, 6) ...

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Why is Afghanistan so hard? It’s not difficult to think of reasons: 1) the long-standing divisions among the various tribal/ethnic groups that make up Afghan society, 2) the mountainous, inhospitable terrain, 3) lack of infrastructure, 4) weak governmental institutions and little history of centralized authority, 5) the destructive effects of many years of warfare, 6) endemic corruption, 7) traditional hostility to foreign occupation, etc. … Given all that, it is hardly surprising that outside efforts to rebuild the country and establish a legitimate central government have thus far failed to accomplish very much.

If that weren’t enough, our efforts there are also hampered by some inherent strategic contradictions. In particular, most of the things the United States might do to improve the situation tend to make other aspects of the problem worse. Even if we make progress on one dimension, it tends to set us back in some other way. Here are five reasons why running harder seems to leave us in the same place.

1. If the U.S. does more, others do less.

The United States didn’t want NATO’s help when it first went into Afghanistan in 2002. As one U.S. official put it at the time, “the more allies you have, the more permissions you have to get.” Those days are long past, however, and the Obama administration would love to get more help from its allies. Unfortunately, working with lots of allies creates obvious coordination problems (e.g., the recent airstrike at German instigation that killed a number of Afghan civilians), and public support for the war is visibly waning in Europe (as it is in the United States). Even worse, there is a basic contradiction between the Obama administration’s decision to increase US force levels and its desire to get greater allied assistance. As the well-known theory of collective goods tells us, the more we do, the more that other states will be tempted to “free-ride,” leaving Uncle Sam holding the bag.

2. The more money we put in, the more corrupt Afghanistan will become.

Afghanistan has two main industries: opium growing and international assistance. It also has an endemic problem with corruption. Even if various forms of external assistance do accomplish some worthy tasks, it also tends to reinforce the other dysfunctional behaviors that have plagued the Karzai regime since its inception. In short, even well-intentioned and admirable efforts to help the Afghan people in concrete ways may not leave us in a better position overall.

3. If we keep telling the Afghans that we are “here to stay,” they may believe us.



And some of them won’t like it.

We are often told that we need to persuade the Afghan people that we will stay long enough to “finish the job,” and that we aren’t going to leave precipitously. But anything we do to convince them that we intend to stay for a long time inevitably makes us look like a foreign occupier with ulterior motives. Thus, efforts to make our commitment look more credible also makes it look more sinister to some Afghans, and make it easier for the Taliban to recruit sympathizers.

4. The more prestige we commit, the less leverage we have.

This is an old story: increasing the U.S. commitment makes us more dependent on whoever we are currently backing (whether in Afghanistan or Pakistan), which in turn gives us less leverage over their conduct.  Increasing troop levels makes us more dependent on supply lines through Pakistan, which makes it harder to press the Pakistani government to go after al Qaeda or undertake other reforms. Doubling down in Afghanistan also ties us more firmly to the Karzai government, despite the reliable reports of widespread fraud in the recent election. Once we decide that a client regime “cannot be allowed to fail,” our ability to influence its conduct evaporates quickly. Once again, trying to do more achieves less than we expect.

5. The paradox of publicity.

President Obama has defended his policies by declaring it a “war of necessity,” thereby highlighting the importance of the conflict. That’s a necessary step in a democracy, but it inevitably draws more public attention to the conflict and places a premium on showing significant progress within a reasonable amount of time. After eight years, public support is going to wane if clear positive signs aren’t forthcoming, which means the Taliban can play for time and tailor their efforts toward U.S. public opinion.

It’s possible that clever leadership can overcome or mitigate each of these tensions, but it won’t be easy. And these (and other) contradictions might help us understand why the current effort in Afghanistan is likely to fail, even if we devote a lot more resources to it and even if the people in charge do their best.

SHAH MARAI/AFP/Getty Images

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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