Nearly ten years after the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan, the New York Times’s editorial board attempts to explain how the United States and its allies can bring about “a minimally successful end to the Afghan war.” In reality, the piece offers up a lot of “let’s tough it out” sloganeering and little in the way of actual substance, reflecting the superficial treatment that many in the Beltway provide regarding the problems the coalition confronts. The editorial has many serious flaws, but I will limit myself to three.
The first is the claim that America and its allies can build a legitimate and stable Afghan government alternative to the Taliban. The Times seems undeterred by its own admission that “Afghanistan still lacks a functioning government, Parliament or banking system” even after a decade of war, more than $450 billion spent and over 1,600 American lives lost. Rather than ask its readers whether the creation of a popular and effective Afghan government is beyond the coalition’s ability, the Times—as epitomized by the piece’s title, “The Clock Is Ticking”—seems to assume that Afghanistan can be rebuilt from the bottom up on a timetable acceptable to the West, never mind the Afghans.
This may come across as a trivial critique, but it’s not. We are constantly reminded that Afghanistan needs “a government that Afghans would be willing to fight for,” “a government that won’t implode as soon as American troops are gone” and “one that doesn’t steal its people blind.” Many Americans have come to the understandable conclusion that however desirable or emotionally appealing helping Afghanistan might be, we—as foreigners—cannot “minimize corruption” in the Afghan legal system. We cannot provide Afghans with “universal access to justice with an emphasis on the rights of women.” And we cannot stop Afghan police from “soliciting bribes” or making “petty arrests.”
The second issue with the editorial is that many of its objectives seem intrinsically incompatible. For example, “international donors will need to keep underwriting Afghanistan for years to come” while insisting “what the aid has not built is a stable and viable country.” This, in fact, is the core problem with nation building. Top-down development strategies often deepen a foreign country’s dependence on the international donor community. It should come as little surprise that the nation-building mission in Afghanistan has had little success in creating an economically viable and politically independent Afghan state. As a report by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee concluded recently, donor practices in Afghanistan have created a culture of dependency, distorted labor markets and contributed to insecurity.