The Skeptics

Contradictions and their Consequences in Afghanistan

The war in Afghanistan is still fraught with contradiction. A prime example of this is ISAF forces working with local leaders to ferret out militants. While an ideal strategy on a conceptual level, it is one that often undermines the authority of the central government coalition leaders endeavor to support. One vivid instance is the recent (but not much talked about) initiative to pay the 400,000-strong Shinwari tribe in the southern portion of eastern Nangarhar province.

In return for the Shinwari tribe’s assistance to oppose the Taliban, senior U.S. military commanders gave tribal elders the power to decide how to spend $1 million in U.S.-funded development projects. But after $167,000 was spent, the effort triggered a host of unintended consequences.

First, because the local military unit only paid some of the Shinwari, other members of the tribe attacked those who received money and weapons from the Americans. As one State Department official sarcastically put it: “Congratulations, you get a pony. Now other tribes are saying, ‘Why don’t I get a pony?’”

A second problem was the concern that similar initiatives would undermine the central government—a central government that is crucial to the U.S. counterinsurgency mission. Indeed, the U.S. Embassy in Kabul disavowed the initiative, and drafted a guidance ordering civilian employees not to get involved in future tribal deals. Nangahar’s Governor Gul Agha Shirzai also voiced that concern. He accused U.S. officials of turning tribal elders into “little governors.”

To bring some semblance of stability to the region, it would make sense for the coalition to move away from focusing solely on the country's national institutions and devote more time to increasing security at the district and provincial levels. Still, this means confronting the imbalance between what Afghanistan is—a complex tapestry of traditional tribal structures and regions that maintain a high degree of autonomy—and what the U.S. wants it to be—a burgeoning nation-state governed centrally from Kabul. Unfortunately, after almost nine years, policy makers have yet to address this contradiction seriously.

I hold fast to economist Fredrick Hayek’s aphorism that, “to plan or organize progress is a contradiction in terms.” Or as Assistant Professor of Economics at West Virginia University Christopher Coyne points out in his book, After War: The Political Economy of Exporting Democracy, "while we know what a successful reconstruction entails, we lack an understanding of how to bring about the desired end."

In short, offering Afghan tribes a greater stake in how their local areas are governed or how development contracts are divvied up certainly makes sense. Nevertheless, even these seemingly benign initiatives can be destabilizing to the local coping mechanisms that hold communities and regions together. In the case of the Shinwari and the dozens of other failures we don't read about everyday, such invasive counterinsurgency initiatives involve shifting existing power structures away from some local power brokers. In this respect, to engage in vastly ambitious large-scale social engineering schemes is not only deeply flawed from a principled standpoint, but when we begin choosing winners and losers, our policies are potentially dangerous.