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June 27, 2007



[Given that the support of the tribe is essential for your mission, what do you do? ]

Demonstrate (not uncritical) solidarity with the soldier, condemn the actions of the village boys and assert the rights of the young woman.

In related news, I am off to eat some solidarity, condemnation and assertion for my lunch, though I may also have a sandwich to fill in the gaps.


Given that the support of the tribe is essential for your mission, what do you do?

I think the DS solution would be: Let them get on with the stoning, and don't get in the way. It's not your job to be rampaging around the place asserting civil rights. You've got a mission to carry out.

To take an analogous example: if I was a British officer in 1943, over in Mississippi on some convoy or lend-lease-related duty, I'd keep my mouth shut about the natives' habit of lynching black people, and I certainly wouldn't try to interfere.


Off point, I've never believed very much in this Anbar model lark. I reckon the real effect at work here is that, as per Kagan's original surge plan, 2 brigades were moved from Anbar down to Baghdad, leaving a token presence. They 're not winning in Anbar - they just left.

Further, I don't think there is a trend towards tribes; it's just that that's where the war is.

This was brought to you by Null Hypothesis Watch Ltd.

BTW: my answer to your question is "take cover". I think you'll find that after stoning, the usual practice is to haul out the 23mm ZSU flak gun from under your bed and let off a few thousand rounds at the stars, and what goes up must come down.


I suspect that there is another option for the idealistic young lieutenant, which involves offering to marry the lass and paying a handsome bride price.

It may require conversion to Islam, but that's relatively easy to arrange.


Dan, that's inspired.

I should point out that marrying local girls is a time-hallowed tradition of imperialists (goes all the way back to Alexander the Great, who pacified Afghanistan in just that way).


I know somebody did back in the beginning in Iraq. Perhaps not enough. Concentration in time, space, and chicks, right?


"two wives you may have in the army dear -
but one's too many for me!

and the drums are goin' a ratatatat
and the fifes they loudly play

so fare thee well Polly me dear,
I must be gone away!"


I've a neater, sweeter maiden in a cleaner, greener land!..

Christ, this thread is going to turn into a mawkish Kiplingfest if you're not careful

Dan Hardie

Btw, anybody here apart from Alex prepared to say whether they are for or against a continued deployment of British troops to Afghanistan?

Instead of any discussion of this we're still on 'Eustonians: ridiculous people! Wrong on Iraq!' Which they are, and saying which is a lot easier and a lot less important than starting some kind of debate on whether this country should continue to fight a war in Afghanistan.

My view, for the tiny amount that it's worth: we should stay in Afghanistan if it's feasible to have military operations which don't rely on huge amounts of air and artillery support (good for killing civilians) and if it's possible to have some kind of non-Taliban (or ex-Taliban, realistically) political authority in Helmand that is going to be acceptable to the majority of Pashtuns.

Drugs policy seems as confused as hell too, and I would devoutly oppose any damnfool idea of going out and forcibly burning poppy crops- which will inevitably lead to the local farmers taking up arms. Buy their opium stocks or subsidise the growing of alternate crops or both, but killing peasants because they want to grow something that westerners will consume is obscene. It's very obvious from Christina Lamb's reporting of Afghanistan from last year that both General Richards and the 3 Para battlegroup thought this was a mad idea and simply didn't do it, but it's the kind of 'anti-narcotics' idiocy that appeals to the US and to various international bureaucracies. Lamb was also pretty scathing about the DfID aid people in Helmand and their failure to get money to the Afghans who needed it, but this sounds like a matter that could be fixed with a change in personnel and operational policy.

What I'm saying- again, for the tiny amount this is worth- seems to be a more detailed version of what Dsquared said: that he didn't feel well-informed enough to express a view right now. This view strikes me as intelligent and honest, but also not one that can be held indefinitely, since it's quite clear that UK troops are there, are killing and being killed, and that there will be serious consequences whether they go or stay.


[Which they are, and saying which is a lot easier and a lot less important than starting some kind of debate on whether this country should continue to fight a war in Afghanistan]

I haven't learned anything worthwhile in the meantime, but I'd note that although slagging off the Eustonauts is intrinsically less important than having a debate about Afghanistan, the fact that it's both easier and more likely to have a definite and favourable outcome should not be dismissed entirely. I feel a trite analogy with the question of Afghanistan versus Iraq coming on, somebody slap me.


btw, is Afghanistan an all-or-nothing question? As in, is a "mayor of Kabul" strategy, completely abandoning Helmand, even a possibility? Kabul is 10% of the population of Afghanistan, and I would guess a much higher proportion of that part of the population whose lives were very significantly altered by the Taliban's presence. I don't even have a map of the country in my head, although I dimly remember that Helmand is pretty important for the pipeline interests.

I suppose the argument against would be that a non-state in the rest of Afghanistan would allow the Al-Qaeda training camps to be rebuilt, but how serious a danger is this, given all that we've learned about terrorism in the last six years?


Btw, anybody here apart from Alex prepared to say whether they are for or against a continued deployment of British troops to Afghanistan?

I was against the war in the first place and it's not like anything has happened recently to alter that view.



You raise a good question. Unfortunately, there isn't a good answer to it.

As far as I can see, we're in Afghanistan because of a series of counter-terrorism and aviation security failures by the US on its own soil. Part of the outcome of having-to-be-in-Afghanistan is that we destroyed the "government". Whilst few would shed a tear for the Taliban, we do seem to have turned them into a be-turbaned version of Obi Wan Kenobi.

Now there are some perfectly "decent" arguments for doing the Taliban in, but the flip side of the "decent" equation is that there needs to be an "investment" of diplomatic, political, monetary and military resources commensurate with the task of re-building Afghanistan. My guess is that we're under-resourcing this by at least a factor of 5.

Obviously, the strategic thinkers and doers in Whitehall and Washington have never really been that serious about Afghanistan, as it has been a box that needed to be ticked before the serious business could commence.

Unless we're ( ie US, UN, neighbours, Nato ) prepared to make the committment, then all we're doing is getting sucked into the entropy trap - which is indeed what is currently happening.

It might have been politically possible to allocate the necessary resources to start the process of getting Afghanistan to function in 2002 and 2003 - but this option would have precluded doing Iraq.

Now it strikes me that the road to Kabul goes through Pakistan - and no one really has a clue as to how to walk that path.

So we're left in the position of "faffing about" fighting an insurgency in the Pashtun areas that can continue indefinitely, that has broadly secure rear areas in the Pakistan tribal agencies, that has the financial means to sustain itself, and in the process, we're nudging Pakistan further down the road to state failure.

Given the umbilical connection - on personal levels - between Pakistan and the UK, I'd argue that we're likely to get bitten in the arse on the home front a few more times before Gord or whoever realise that whilst the US has no over-riding strategic interests in Afghanistan, the UK, arguably, does.

Dan Hardie

Dan, Alex Harrowell was convinced that you and I were the same person and reading a comment like that I can see why: I can't see anything to disagree with. I do think that Blair's failure to get a decent reconstruction programme in place in Afghan' was probably his single worst act, worse even than the invasion of Iraq. As you note, the neglect of Afghan' stemmed from the Mesopotamian adventure, and it's horrifying to remember how often one heard the Hitchensian argument 'oh, but those people who say they care about Afghanistan and not Iraq are just appeasers, etc'...

And I agree with everything you say about Pakistan. Where do you get the 'factor of five' for development underfunding in Afghanistan? Recommended, btw, on Afghan subjects is Rory Stewart's 'The Places in between'.

Good question from Dsquared. My guess is that whilst at least some of the Taliban footsoldiers are currently just Pashtuns who don't want foreign soldiers on their soil- and would not therefore march on Kabul if NATO pulled out of the Pashtun provinces- the Taliban leadership did successfully conquer Kabul last time round, and there's no reason to think that they won't want to do so again: particularly since if they are getting backing from the wider Sunni extremist world, or from the hardliners in the ISI, who also want to see Karzai and all Westerners ejected from Kabul.

It's a horrible war and it could get worse, but it's very likely that a decent reconstruction policy in 2002 would have prevented all this. Blair's neglect of Afghanistan has been criminal, which is why I do think we should all give Brown a very hard time until he comes up with a decent Afghan policy.


hmmm, Kabul is pretty defensible though isn't it - the post-Russian government managed to hold on to it for three years against the mujahideen after the Russians left. Enclave strategies did pretty badly in Vietnam I admit, but the main problem there was that they fostered a learned helplessness in the Vietnamese government (as in, support was meant to be gradually withdrawn as things got better, creating a big incentive to make sure that things didn't get better) and AFAICS with respect to the Karzai government, that boat sailed quite some time ago.

btw, from an economic development point of view, I'd be very suspicious of a) quantified underfunding factors and b) the general presumption that more resources would have helped or will help. Semi-nomadic animal husbandry is a notorious bottomless pit when it comes to development projects.

Dan Hardie

'hmmm, Kabul is pretty defensible though isn't it'?

Yes, so long as your idea of an optimal policy is a lot of artillery firing in and out of a densely-populated city.

I'd agree with your points on development, though I wondered if the Other Dan had some stats he was basing his 'factor of five' stuff on. I think that in Afghanistan and a whole lot of other places you're looking at judging development- and stability, which is probably at least as important- by locals who know what they're talking about. Are the roads safer than they were last year? Do we have a food reserves for if the harvest fails? That kind of thing. Implementing a proper set of security and development policies in Afghanistan doesn't strike me as necessarily impossible but it will take nerve and effort and intelligence. And it needs time, which we have been happily squandering since December 2001.


Essentially, we got out of the "mayor of Kabul" problem by pushing PRTs out to the northern and eastern bits of Afghanistan with bags of money, starting in 2004. And it worked rather well (I blug about it a while ago) in bringing the various warlords on side. I would suspect that this is worth hanging on to, especially as doing so is not consuming very much military force.

Up to a point, there's an argument that in the end, whatever central government there is will have to tolerate having part of its territory essentially under the control of Taliban-like militia, under some form of words.

Pipeline? Don't make me laugh.


... glancing at a map (I am currently in the process of promoting myself to armchair general) I see that there's a bloody big copper mine to the immediate east of Kabul, in Logar province which would usefully form the third point of a triangular enclave with Kabul and Jalalabad.

The other idea I am coming up with is "Pipelineistan", but on the face of it this looks wildly unfeasible compared to the amount of resources anyone has to spend on it.

Dan Hardie

I read the pipeline thing years ago, in Ahmed Rashid's 'Taliban', and for once the obvious joke is the aptest one: it's a pipe dream. It works if and only if there's a pre-existing peace in all provinces it travels through, in a country that has been at war, in some regions continuously, since 1978.

Improved roads between villages and towns, towns and provincial capitals, and finally linking provincial capitals with Kabul: now that's a good idea in a country with a lot of farmland which used to be famous for its textiles. It's something that could be energetically pursued in the more peaceful provinces regardless of what's happening elsewhere. It would also funnel benefits down to at least some local communities rather than providing a rent to be disposed of by central government, as per the pipeline. I know that money has been spent on a roads programme but I can't yet give you any useful details. Reading suggestions gratefully received.


Why would Blair have introduced a policy of reconstruction? Who and what would have induced or forced the man to do so? How would such a policy have been compatible with the stated aims of the invasion which did not envisage and could not have proposed a long-term presence?

Who would have been in a position to implement such a policy? Would it have been the locals or the occupiers? If the locals, which ones? If the occupiers, how would the locals have been induced to co-operate? What would have happened had they proven unwilling to do so?

You can surely only operate a successful policy of reconstruction if you have widespread support for that policy among the local population: and yet you will never have widespread support among the local population for a prolonged foreign occupation. It's really hard to think of exceptions to that rule: the examples of postwar Germany and Japan don't really stand up since in either case the locals had been bombed into submission (which we'll assume is a bad idea, I think) rendering resistance essentially impossible and in each case there was a lot of support for the policy implemented, to wit the creation of a modern democratic state that would be friendly to the US. In Afghanistan there is no reason to think that such a situation exists.

For these reasons and a fair number of others it strikes me as pointless to dicsuss this or that change of direction, this or that nuance of policy: you can't have a successful occupation of Afghanistan (even if we were to assume that the reconstruction of Afghanistan was the purpose of the invasion, which plainly it was not). It's broken because it doesn't work.


I think Justin's probably put his finger on it here in that there wasn't really any rational objective behind either the Afghan or the Iraqi ventures, as opposed to rationalizations of essentially magical thinking. We would change their regimes and paint their schools and the natives would bow down in awe and imitate our enlightened ways. There wasn't even a formal programme of exploitation behind it, which would at least have tied the occupations down to theoretically realizable goals and objectives.

We've probably reached the stage now where the existential shock of 9/11 has just about worn off, but it's like trying to convince someone with a blazing hangover that, yes, they did run naked through the streets last night howling at the moon. They're more likely to just walk away and try and forget about it.

There are probably things you can do in Afghanistan, but the precondition for these is changing the basic assumptions behind all the things we've already done, but that creates a kind of crisis of legitimacy here. It's hard enough for a government to acknowledge that it was wrong but much harder for it to acknowledge that it had taken leave of its collective senses.

And still has. Blair to Palestine. Jesus fucking wept...


I don't even think there was that rationalisation, bearing in mind that "changing Afghanistan" wasn't the stated or (as far as anyone can see) the true reason behind the invasion. It was stated that it was to try and recover the people responsible for 9/11, destroy their camps and remove their backers: as far as it goes I've no reason to disbelieve that. No doubt the keenness to display American power may have played a role, though it's not a necessary thesis. But Rebuilding Afghanistan weren't nothing to do with it.

It was understandable in the way that Iraq most certainly wasn't, which I think is why many people who are deeply opposed to the Iraq occupation are sympathetic to the one in Afghanistan. But just because a decision is understandable doesn't mean it's not wrong and stupid.


I've just done a check back on some of the metrics with regards to the levels of hostility to the foreign presence in Afghanistan - the 2002-2004 period resulted in just a touch fewer than 100 combat related coalition forces deaths in 36 months - ie the current going rate for a month in Iraq. I suspect that if the level of violence in Iraq was 3% of the current level, it would be deemed a "catastrophic success" rather than a catastrophuck.

Since spring 2005 the level of violence has sky-rocketed to the extent that Afghanistan is, for MoD forces, arguably twice as lethal as Basra ( although the last few months there suggest that the "quiet" Basra period is over ).

My conclusion from this is that there was a substantive opportunity in the 2002-2004 period to do something positive if an appropriate level of resources had been allocated. Obviously this would have required a serious plan and the political will to implement it - no such thing seems to have existed outside the area of Iranian influence.

In the end it reminds me of Rumsfeld's reported comments that there weren't any good targets in Afghanistan; and it emphasises that few understood the perils of strategic blowback into Pakistan - which is precisely what has happened.

Dan Hardie

So, Jamie, to clarify matters, do you support:

a)the immediate withdrawal of all British troops, the acceptance of all and any consequences up to and including a Taliban reconquest of some non-Pashtun areas and the prompt ending of all UK government aid to Afghanistan on the grounds that it is useless?

b)the immediate withdrawal of all British trops, but the continuation of governmental aid to Afghanistan in the hope that development policies - which you believe to have been completely irrational and ineffective so far- can be reformed?

c) no definite policy whatsoever, as that would make it harder for you to produce apocalyptic but vague rhetoric which is so lacking in specific detail that it can never be tested against subsequent events?


I think you'd need far more than a low level of violence to get something substantial done in a military occupation (unless you're building an empire and are expecting to be there indefinitely). You need the support of the people whose lands you are occupying, and that's something you're unlikely to get - you can get acquiescence for a time, but that's very far from support. Because it still leave the question as to "who", as well as "what". If the locals can and will do it - why (they will ask) are you there? If they can't and won't - how are you going to get it done?

Secondly, in order for this "something positive" to be done I think it would have required something more than "political will". It would have required the appreciation that there was a project underway, not just an Osama-hunting expedition but a whole munificient Rebuilding. There's nothing to suggest that anybody had that in mind, not even the neo-cons - who at any rate wouldn't have accepted a democratic Afghan government that wasn't pro-US (unlikely) and pro-Israel (inconceivable).

So to me there wasn't an opportunity of any kind - it's really a fantasy on more than one level. In reality the US and NATO forces weren't ever going to do much more than hang around hunting jihadis while pissing off ever wider sections of the population and giving time for their armed adversaries to get their act together. Hence the current quagmire, but there wasn't really an alternative. Save withdrawal.


Dan H: the thing is, I don't really know whether we should withdraw or not, or what we would accomplish by staying or what the endgame is actually meant to be. I don't think you can actually defeat the Taliban while they have safe areas in Pakistan and in national interest terms, stopping Pakistan becoming a completely failed state is what the objective should be. Maybe it's better to encourage the export of jihadists to southern Afghanistan to be killed by NATO forces, or maybe you're just inviting blowback, I don't know. Generally, you can extrapolate good or bad outcomes from either staying or going.

"no definite policy whatsoever, as that would make it harder for you to produce apocalyptic but vague rhetoric"

Dan, no definite policy is what we're ACTUALLY GETTING and this needs acknowledging. It's nothing to do with my rhetoric, except inasmuch as I was trying to explain, to myself as much as anyone else, why this should be. Gordon didn't take stock and appoint General Smith to SecDef; he shrugged and let dismal Des keep the job, except he made it part time.

Dan Hardie

Yes, I agree that no definite policy is precisely what we're getting, agree strongly on Pakistan and agree with you rather vehemently on the Des Browne part-time appointment. I think my comment was undeservedly brutal towards you, so apologies for that. It would be great, although deeply improbable, if comment could prod the political leadership into deciding whether we are actually in Afghanistan for a reason, or if our presence just there as a particularly lethal form of bureaucratic self-justification: 'Fulfilling NATO's mandate'...

I do think that leftish journalists and bloggers have rather been avoiding comment on Afghanistan as mutually congratulate themselves on having been right on Iraq. To rehash an old discussion, I think Brown's instincts will be to draw down troop numbers in both countries, but not actually to zero, hoping to curry favour with the electorate whilst placating Bush.


Development's a red herring here. I don't know of any precedents anywhere that would suggest that any development effort at all would have been able to materially shift the dial in Afghanistan between 2002-2004, no matter how much you poured into it. There wasn't an economy there, and at least one of those years had a drought. I'm also sceptical of the roadbuilding plan; these things are regularly tried in Africa, and what causes them to fall apart is that fundamentally, the stuff that's using the roads doesn't have a high enough value density to make it worth anyone's while maintaining the road. The big problem about planning development is that everything's chicken and egg; every stage seems to need to come before every other stage.

I just don't think this is fundamentally a development problem at this point; it's a security problem. I don't see what interest is really being served by having a load of people in Helmand, and there doesn't seem to be a plan to use their presence their to achieve anything. So I'm coming round to the anti- position on keeping the troops doing what they're currently doing; some other plan is needed.

The only alternatives I can come up with are:

1) a big "surge" to really have a solid go at re-establishing the 2002 situation. Can't happen, would require military resources from the Americans that they don't have.

2) an enclave strategy; looking at a map and some news reports (and awarding myself a battlefield promotion to armchair colonel) I think this could be a bit better than mayor-of-Kabul. A corridor going Jalalabad-Kabul-Kunduz looks like it could be feasibly maintained, and would be quite a useful thing to have; you get a big chunk of the population, the lion's share of the mineral deposits and a usable trade road from Turkmenistan to Pakistan. The enclave so described would be borderline economically viable and could start building the foundations of a proper state, with the ultimate aim to get the territory back.

3. An expanded version of the above would be "Roadistan", which would be the enclave above, plus enough force to render safe the other big trade road through Kandahar. This would leave British troops in Helmand, but give them a definite objective (to protect the road reconstruction effort); albeit that it would probably involve more violence as they would be more tied down geographically.

ex any of these plans, to be honest the plan of gradual withdrawal but not to zero is probably as good as we're going to get, as there is still basically a substantial geopolitical interest in maintaining good terms with the Americans.


you get a big chunk of the population, the lion's share of the mineral deposits and a usable trade road from Turkmenistan to Pakistan.

And would that chunk of the population get the lion's share of the lion's share?

It's really odd how the reaction of the population to foreign occupation seems to be overlooked in this debate. It's not just about what "we" might do, it's about how "they" will react, and "they" doesn't mean the Taliban.


A Eff A I See Tee, the territory contained in the enclave I'm proposing here is (or has been reasonably recently) pretty peaceful. There is support for one of the banned Islamist parties in the province that has the coppoer mine in it, but the western corridor of Afghanistan looks governable, according to my armchair intelligence function, to whom I have just awarded another medal. I don't think it's too ridiculous to suggest that the Taliban were unpopular.

I wouldn't be too amazed at this; after all, the South Vietnamese state was genuinely pro-American; the Vietcong were oddballs, terrorists and not really very popular at all outside a fairly small region of the Mekong Delta. The trouble I suppose is that the Vietnamese analogy shows what the problem is with enclave strategies; they're very vulnerable to dying of boredom, as domestic political support drains away in the foreign partner. But there's no equivalent of the NVA in Afghanistan and Pakistan doesn't work very well as a China-equivalent either.


I don't think it's too ridiculous to suggest that the Taliban were unpopular.

It'd have thought it was axiomatic, but if you're going to have an occupation it has to have a lot more going for it than that. For instance, it has to have local supporters of the occupation who are genuinely popular - rather than a bunch of gangsters, as in South Vietnam. (Northern Alliance? I think not.) You also have to bear in mind that people don't really like outsiders coming in and drawing big lines across the middle of their country and manning them with checkpoints: whether it's temporary, or permanent as part of a political partition as in Vietnam.

So when you do this, what will happen is that fairly soon things will start to kick off in a small way and then they'll escalate in a big way. To talk of "governable" doesn't really ask - for how long? What happens when things change?

It's quite conceivable that part of Afghanistan could be held, for some time, due to the enormous difference in firepower available to the two sides and the fact that everybody in Kabul is afraid of the Taliban. But it's not a rebuilding strategy and it's not even a security strategy, it's a putting-yourself-somewhere-you-oughtn't-to-have-and-then-wondering-what-to-do-next strategy. And one way or another it will end in defeat.


Not all of the South Vietnamese government were gangsters by any means; the Americans just decided to systematically back those who were. Even Thieu himself wasn't as black as he'd been painted. South Vietnam could have been a viable state; after all, drawing a line across Korea and manning it with checkpoints didn't turn out too bad for the American bit.


Well, it was a vicious dictatorship for around forty years, setting it up cost a couple of million lives and the partition is still resented by the Koreans, so as success stories go I'd have thought it were a purely relative one.


"I don't think it's too ridiculous to suggest that the Taliban were unpopular."

This sort of gets us back to the original topic. When the talibs burn a school down and kill the teachers because they educate women, this is immediately interpreted as a Horrible Thing, which it is, and an example of Why We Fight.

But - as well as demonstrating that they can impose their writ - they may do it because it wins them the approval of many people in the local population. There's quite a large constituency in China that thinks the Tiananmen massacre was a terrible shame but on the whole the right thing to do. It's not beyond comprehension that your average upstanding Pahstun might think the same thing about the school burners.

The point about political warfare is that you're over here, your enemy is over there and the population is in the middle. In Pashtun Afghanistan the taliban are already closer to the local population through language, culture and religion while on the other hand there are obvious questions about the existential legitimacy of foreign forces in the area. Given that moral relativism is the first principle of successful counterinsurgency, this means you have a hell of a lot of ground to make up and also raises questions about what practices you're prepared to tolerate to make up that ground, and if you're not, whether you should simply leave and let everybody get on with it. The third alternative might involve simply declaring war on most of the local population.

Now if you look at the Taliban's basic project, it involves merging the various customary laws and practices of the Pashtunwallia into a severe form of Islamic law - a form of modernisation, in a way, because a pre-requisite to modernisation is having everyone live under the same set of laws. The obvious counter to that is to encourage particularism and tradition - to be more feudal and obscurantist, in effect, than the Taliban.


I have now officially promoted myself to armchair general in the Afghanistan campaign and will be holding a short passing-out parade at a wine bar of my choice imminently. If you have a look at the Wikipedia map of the Pashtun population, then you see my enclave doesn't have very much majority-Pashtun territory in it; just the southeastern corner that I need in order to maintain the Peshawar-Jalalabad-Kabul section of my transit road (this corner is also where the poppy fields are, so I'm guessing that the Pashtun locals aren't very Talib-friendly.)

So my Vietnam analogy (which I freely admit is the source of most of this analysis, and my only defence is that it's a bit better than bloody 1933) might hold up a bit better, in that North Vietnamese communism can also be shoehorned into your model, while the South Vietnamese map quite nicely onto that segment of the Afghani population which did seem to welcome us in 2002, as Dan Non-Hardie points out above.

Of course, the analogy to Vietnam isn't exactly felicitous for the stay-the-course idea. I am still drifting in the direction of give-up-go-home as a strategy for Afghanistan, and trying to refine the enclave strategy has certainly completely soured me on the idea of staying in Helmand. I think that the original purpose of trying to hold Helmand was something like "Roadistan", because the Yanks are actually trying to build a highway Kabul-Kandahar. But it's just not going to happen ex a massive injection of military resources, the kind that would be really noticeable in the annual budget round.

Dan Hardie

Dsquared: 'I don't know of any precedents anywhere that would suggest that any development effort at all would have been able to materially shift the dial in Afghanistan between 2002-2004, no matter how much you poured into it.'

There are cases of largely destroyed economies (Uganda when Museveni took over, Sierra Leone when the RUF were defeated) and at least one totally destroyed economy (Cambodia when the Vietnamese threw out Pol Pot) recovering somewhat in the aftermath of external military intervention.

I'd also note that Cambodia is perhaps the one post-45 country I can think of where there really was 'no economy'- as Dsquared says, in my view erroneously, of post-Taliban Afghanistan. Pol Pot's Kampuchea killed people for the smallest private transaction.

Maybe post-independence Eritrea would count, or Ethiopia after the overthrow of the Dergue. Scale and the existence of a ruling Party mean that probably we couldn't learn something from the way China recovered from the Cultural Revolution (Jamie K may disagree). East Timor seems like a pretty object lesson in how not to do it. I'll see if there is a literature anywhere that discusses the mechanisms of revival of utterly devastated societies like these.

(I'm not sure that analogies with post-45 Europe get us anywhere useful at all. Parts of Germany were physically wrecked, and casualties had been hideous, but its surviving population were one of the three or four best-educated on the planet. Physical capital was also less entirely devastated than one might imagine: most of the road network, say, was functioning well within months of Hitler's death, and Germany had the best roads in Europe.)

Dan Hardie

(Btw, in the above comment, Germany's surviving post-1945 population was, not were, one of the best-educated on the planet.)

Dsquared: 'There wasn't an economy there (in Afghanistan in 2002-4), and at least one of those years had a drought.'

Hmmm. I don't know if there was a national economy in any meaningful sense: eg a currency accepted anywhere outside the largest cities, or major trade flows between non-contiguous provinces. Certainly there doesn't seem to have been a functioning fiscal system, as the Karzai government was funded by outside donors and doesn't seem to have had a writ that ran much beyond Kabul.

But there were certainly local economies in Afghanistan, and plenty of economic activity. Some of it will have been barter. Some was currency-based: eyewitness accounts of post-Russian invasion, pre-Taliban Afghanistan (eg Jason Elliot, 'An unexpected light'), Taliban Kabul (Saira Shah's documentary and 'The storyteller's daughter') and immediate post-Taliban Afghanistan (Rory Stewart, 'The Places in between') all mention different currencies being used in cities and in some cases being accepted in smaller towns and farmsteads. (I knew Rory and Saira years ago and recommend their books.)

They also give examples of some of the things being traded for money: food, animals, clothing, firewood. I'd guess there was also a trade in farm utensils, and for those with lots of resources, medicine. And even though weapons were being supplied by outside governments and agencies, a lot of farmers or peasants not in organised armies needed weapons for defence, and even if an AK-47 is cheap it uses up bullets like nobody's business: there were some famous regional arms-trading centres. And there was a drugs trade: the Taliban seem to have alternately tolerated and taxed the trade, and then suppressed it (in the hope of getting international recognition, which of course some American and maybe European govt officials were only too eager to offer).

In other words, market mechanisms existed even when the country was in the grip of civil war and/or ruled by nutty theocrats. That could, given some imagination, have been part of the basis for a bottom-up economic reconstruction effort once the Talibs had been overthrown.


I've got a mate who gets a fair sum of money every year from the XXX Family Village Foundation in Hong Kong. When the HKG wanted the clan lands attached to the village for building back in the fifties they decided to treat them as a form of collective private property and transferred their monetary value into a trust, from which all the village clansmen and women and their descendants are entitled to interest. There's a lot of Chinese restaurants in Britain which started with money from sources like that. I wonder how applicable it is generally to transfer tribal patrimony from land into cash. It's handy because the patrimony remains basically intact but people aren't tied to it and the practices that guarantee it in the same way.


hmmm unfortunate hyperbole there perhaps, obviously if there is literally no economy then everyone is starving to death. What I was intending was that there was no economy of the sort that you could reconstruct - the Afghan economy (ex opium) in 2004 was made up of 38% agriculture (which doesn't really need much reconstruction), 24% industry (which is dominated by natural resources where you really can't move the dial all that much in two years) and 38% services (the majority of which is the transit trade, where the development problem is identically the same as the security problem). Ex that, it's basically dried fruit and blankets; individual village-level rug and apricot schemes are probably totally worthwhile in their own terms, but I can't see how the overall failure in Afganistan 02-04 can be blamed on not having enough of them. I'll try and pick up the Stewart book if it's in Waterstones.

Uganda was very different; it's always been an industrial powerhouse of that part of Africa and reconstruction was a matter of getting power back to the factories - Cambodia you might have more of a point with because I don't know much about Cambodia. But Afghanistan is basically a mixture of subsistence agriculture and extractive industries; there's not a capital stock to work with or even replace, so trying to do anything for GDP in any short time is just going to send the price of hotel rooms through the sky (as actually happened IIRC).

Dan Hardie

Jamie, I'd guess that policy is totally inapplicable to modern Afghanistan because

a) there is no domestic local currency which enjoys the country-wide credibility of the Hong Kong currency, and which would therefore be attractive to all Afghan peasants;

b) land is not at a premium in modern-day Afghanistan, in the way it was in post-war Hong Kong (or Singapore), which had very high population densities even in the 1960s, and were the government did need to encourage movements from low value-added land use (agriculture, low density housing) to high value-added land use (first industry and now financial and other services, plus high density housing). Offering dollars for land is not going to solve any pressing problem. And also, since demand for land is low, purchases of land at or near market prices aren't going to give Afghan peasants sizeable nest eggs.

Dan Hardie

'But Afghanistan is basically a mixture of subsistence agriculture and extractive industries'...

Re extractive industries, perhaps the 'natural resource curse' is over-rated as an all-purpose explanation of the woes of underdeveloped countries, but I'd agree that there's always a problem in that they generate rents that are easily grabbed by the most successfully aggressive political player - be that a local magnate or a heavily-armed central government.

But mention 'subsistence agriculture' and you prove the point that there was room for development in Afghanistan. Moving from subsistence agriculture to the production of surpluses raises the living standard of the farmers involved (and of the consumers of farm products) - unless Ricardo and every economic historian ever got everything entirely wrong. Some of the pre-conditions for a move to agricultural trade are security-based (farmers must store harvested crops without fearing their barns will be burned, or go to market without being certain they'll be ambushed.

Some are development-based (the production of surpluses, and sooner or later investment in farm machinery or the hiring of labourers) is hugely encouraged if they believe that there's a local currency that will retain its value: the existence of such a currency makes local markets grow and gives farmers a means of saving.

Some are midway between security and development: Afghanistan is dotted with unexploded mines, bombs and shells: defusing them needs the (technical) skills of military or ex-military men, but deciding which ones get defused first is actually best decided according to the economic priorities of local people. Or at any rate, so I was told by the guy who set up the first and most important anti-landmine charity, Rae McGrath. He was driving trucks for an NGO in Afghanistan in 1991, and - as an ex-Staff Sergeant in the British Army- had been trained in mine countermeasures, so when he was told that local farmland couldn't be used because it was mined, he knew what to do about it. But I remember him telling me 'Deciding which mines to defuse is a development matter': he hired ex-soldiers to train bomb location squads, and defuse the devices, but he hired people who spoke local languages to live in the villages and map which minefields got cleared first.


Irrigation, roads, and warehouses, then, and security...again, I reckon there probably was political space in 2002-2003. But where now?


Is there any reason to suggest that a development plan was on the minds of the occupying forces in 2002-3, let alone that it was on the cards?

Is there any reason to suggest that any time the security and authority of the occupying troops came into conflict with thr wishes and priorities of the local people, the former would not have prevailed? Wouldn't this have led to an enmity which would have made the process essentially unworkable? Moreover, isn't this what always happens when you occupy other people's countries by military force?

Don't you in fact normally have to choose between security and development since a precondition for the latter is that the local people are in charge of their own affairs and that security is therefore out of your hands? Doesn't this tend to suggest that the whole idea is a fantasy and that in fact, what should have been happening in 2002-3 is the withdrawal of the occupying forces?


Don't you in fact normally have to choose between security and development since a precondition for the latter is that the local people are in charge of their own affairs and that security is therefore out of your hands?

No. See: Mozambique, Sierra Leone, etc. This was a broadcast from the Department of Simple Answers to Simple Questions.


Well, from the Department of Simplistic and Inaccurate Answers, perhaps. I'm not aware that Mozambique has been developed by a occupying force claiming to be there only temporarily (who?) and if Sierra Leone has been rebuilt then I must have missed that too.


My point is that there is no choice between security and development - no security, no development.


Well, that's so, no doubt. If you have a war going on then you can forget it. Which surely in the context of Afghanistan would mean "no development until we've defeated the Taliban" which, as that would be a very, very difficult thing to do - and probably not possible without inflaming most of the country - means it's not going to happen.

What would they say, anyway? "We're going to be here ten years" (or thirty, as the chap said the other day)? That wasn't the mandate and there's no reason to think the electorate - or the locals - would wear it. But you either have to stay or go, you can't operate a development plan on the principle of muddling through while fighting a war, intermittent or otherwise, and in a state where it is not clear whose has authority to do what. It takes far more than some temporary state of security in the wake of a military victory.

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