Afghanistan 2021: A quickly made long tragedy

The tragedy for the Afghan people of the Taliban re-taking control of the country in August 2021 is the denouement of a process 20 years in the making. The sudden collapse of the Afghan government and the national security forces over the course of a few days is not a “surprise” to anyone, but was a widely expected outcome by many observers (including the CIA).

There are many many political and humanitarian aspects of the present crisis, but I want to just present my conjecture about the longer run question. How is it that, in 20 years of effort, backed by massive levels of resources, the “international community” (led by the USA obviously but there has been participation in the Afghanistan by other governments (e.g. the UK), aid agencies, multilateral organizations (e.g. World Bank, IMF, ADB), and NATO) has failed so badly in their efforts to create (or even allow to emerge) a capable and legitimate state in Afghanistan? Part and parcel with this question is not just how does one fail after 20 years of effort but also, how does one sustain 20 years of effort while failing?

The Duke of Albany’s last, plaintive, lines of Shakespeare’s King Lear are:

“The weight of this sad time we must obey,
Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.
The oldest have borne most; we that are young
Shall never see so much, nor live so long.”

All of the machinery of the tragedy was set in motion by just the 115th line of the play in which Lear makes the rash decision to cut off Cordelia for having spoken the plain truth rather than flowery lies. That the lives were not spared by last ditch attempts to save them is not the central feature of the tragedy. The events are the long tragic sequelae of the original hubris.

I am a very visual person so I propose this diagram as an aid to understanding the tragedy, for both the USA but much more so the people of Afghanistan, of the US engagement. After the US and its allies threw out the Taliban there were some critical choices. One choice was the extent to which the USA was going to engage in “nation building” and attempt to create a capable and legitimate state before leaving. The USA could have said “We are not in the business of nation-building, we are militarily out of here when our narrow 9/11 related objectives and met, full stop, plan on it.” Or, they could have said “Given the consequences of our regime change we are here with an open-ended commitment until Afghanistan has a capable and legitimate state (on some clear(ish) criteria.” But it was politically expedient, and the height of unconstrained hubris, to say both. The USA said that they were both going to leave only when Afghanistan had a capable and legitimate state and that, don’t worry, that won’t take us very long, we are not making an open ended commitment.

Well, if you announce a distance and a time, you have announced a speed. The USA announced was the equivalent of saying they were going to run a Marathon distance (26.2 miles) in an hour. And when they were told, hey, people having been running Marathons since, well, Marathon, and no one has run one in anything like that time (and it is probably physiologically impossible as no one has run even one single mile at the pace 26.2 would have to be run) the response was some mix of i) hubris that the US military can achieve anything; ii) real or feigned inability to understand that the speed was wildly unrealistic; iii) resignation to political interests setting the goal and timeframe).

Once the hubris of “we are going to build a capable and legitimate state and it is not going to take us that long” was set in motion the tragedy was underway, even if not immediately obvious, as it set in motion three practices that are inimical to building either a capable or a legitimate state.

First, if one is told to do nation building on an unrealistic time deadline one is driven towards tactics and strategies that can at least appear to produce rapid success. This leads inexorably towards what we call “looking like a state” or, after the sociological concept of isomorphism, “isomorphic mimicry.” It is super easy to do things on paper, make constitutions, pass legislation. What is hard to create is capability to implement, a shared sense of nation-hood, a commitment to rule of law.

Filmmakers cannot build space ships or cities but they can create the effective illusion of having done the impossible. Giving people resources and putting pressure on people to do the impossible will not lead to the impossible, it will lead them to create illusions.

A second major flaw that undermines development success is what we call “premature load bearing.” As I type this in August of 2021 I just had surgical repair of my ruptured Achilles tendon. My leg is in a hard, non-weightbearing cast for two weeks. If I took that cast off on the second day after surgery and tried to run around I would immediately undo whatever benefit the surgery had been.

Asking political and governance mechanisms to do too much, too soon, with too little merely creates repeated failures.

A third common flaw in development efforts is to “cocoon” projects from the normal channels of implementation. If one feels very strongly that something needs to be done and one knows that the existing national mechanisms are to weak to do it, there is a temptation to bring in foreign contractors and import the capability. Given the resources and capabilities of American government and contracting firms, of course many things can be done quickly. But this usually not just does not build capability, it both undermines the building of national capability and does not improve a government’s legitimacy. Moreover, this gets done at costs that are astronomical relative to what the national government could ever hope to afford. At one point great claims were being made about the improvements in the health sector and health outcomes in Afghanistan. Even if we grant those were major and important gains, since it was being done by American contractors it meant an Afghan doctor could make many-fold more income working as a driver for the health project than he could as a doctor in a regular government clinic. Back of the envelope calculations were that the cost per person of the health system exceeded not just the potential total government expenditure per person but total post-withdrawal GDP per capita.

Figure 2 illustrates the dynamic in which the rash, overambitious commitments eventually confront a reality of little or no progress. Then, the political logic repeats itself. The USA either needs to leave, acknowledging they are doing so in spite of the fact there isn’t a capable and legitimate Afghan state in place, or, they need to push down the ambition and push out the time and try again. But the new attempts now face both the same politically set overambitious targets and the legacy of the past failed strategy and tactics. Increasingly the USA found itself integrated into, and part of, a corrupt policy: buying cooperation by turning an officially blind eye to corruption at the expense of democracy, rule of law, and legitimacy. This is how the tragedy gets long (and bipartisan).

The endgame, which many people both inside and outside of Afghanistan predicted, again and again from 2001 onwards was that eventually the USA would admit failure and announce they were getting out no matter what and try and put the best face on that fact.

I know personally, and have read about, many extraordinarily capable and well meaning people who sincerely worked at improving conditions in Afghanistan. But ultimately they all were powerless against the forces of tragedy set in motion. They became like the Earl of Kent, often speaking courageously against the madness:

Be Kent unmannerly
When Lear is mad. What wouldst thou do, old man?
Think’st thou that duty shall have dread to speak
When power to flattery bows? To plainness honour’s bound
When majesty falls to folly. Reverse thy doom;
And in thy best consideration check
This hideous rashness.

Only to be ignored be themselves banished, or, as Kent, finding a way to continue to struggle against the unfolding tragedy.

Afghanistan has deep and important lessons for nation-building, fragile states, conflict: issues which are an integral part of the practice of development. But I fear they are hard lessons to learn and even harder to convince politicians to swallow. I was working in South Sudan in 2011 and saw the exact pressures to announce as a “plan” a wildly overambitious pace of progress, often coming from “conflict” experts whose expertise rested on their experience in Afghanistan.

Lant Pritchett is a development economist from Idaho and the RISE Research Director at the Blavatnik School of Government, University of Oxford.

This article was originally published by Lant Pritchett and is re-printed here with permissions. Click here to view the original article. 

The views expressed in this piece are those of the author(s), and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Institute or the United Nations University, nor the programme/project donors.