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Home | Mises Library | Nation Wrecking in Afghanistan

Nation Wrecking in Afghanistan

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Tags War and Foreign PolicyWorld HistoryInterventionismOther Schools of Thought

03/17/2010Jonathan M. Finegold Catalan

The United States invaded Afghanistan to topple the Taliban regime and capture Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. Neither objective was completed: while the Taliban lost power in Kabul, their control over certain regions of the country remained largely intact. More than eight years later, the United States has lost sight of its original goals. Osama bin Laden is nowhere to be found, while Al-Qaeda has built formidable strongholds elsewhere.

With the mission of eliminating Al-Qaeda having ended in failure, the United States changed its purpose in Afghanistan to nation building. This has come into conflict with their second original objective: ending Taliban rule. While on the surface the coalition's military has fought an eight-year battle against resurgent Taliban warlords in different areas of the country, including the most recent offensive on Marjah,[1] behind the scenes, US policy makers have actually been working closely with certain elements of the Taliban in an effort toward stabilization.[2]

It is becoming more and more obvious that the United States' government is looking to patch up its credibility as a "nation builder" before public opinion absolutely forces it to withdraw personnel from Afghanistan. Current American policy is not too different from Richard Nixon's "peace with honor" "exit strategy" during the Vietnam War. Nation building is really a misnomer for an objective that involves providing Afghanistan with a strong government in Kabul to offer the illusion of peace and stability, no matter what the cost to the Afghan people and the long-term prosperity of their country.

To be fair, not everyone who believes that central governments can provide peace is being genuinely dishonest. There has always been a strong belief in the connection between big government, stability, and the establishment of an environment conducive to economic and social growth. There is no doubt that the people of a country with a single authority have a greater opportunity to prosper than a people shackled by conflicting governments. An Afghan not suffering from the uncertainty of wondering what military force will destroy his crops this year will have a much greater opportunity to accumulate capital.

This is probably the mindset Professor Sheri Berman operated in while writing her piece for Foreign Affairs, "From the Sun King to Karzai."[3] In the article, she draws attention to the rise of French King Louis XIV, who managed to dislodge French noblemen from positions of power in an effort to become an absolute monarch. She means this as an analogy, to argue that the best course of action in Afghanistan is to create a strong national government in Kabul at the expense of local, rural leaders. It is clear that Berman believes that a strong central government in Afghanistan is bound to lead to development, growth, and long-term prosperity. If centralization of power under Louis XIV led to the development of modern France, a similar course of action will do the same in Afghanistan.

For all its appeal, there is a lacuna in the argument for strong central government. Historically, some central governments have not been "strong" because they have been big, but because a wealthy economic environment has allowed them to come into existence. Stability can therefore be said to come from wealth. People free to prosper are people with incentives to avoid creating regime uncertainty. Central governments can therefore form without too much opposition from the people they intend to preside over.

With this in mind, it is no coincidence that most politically unstable countries are also very poor. But the relationship between wealth and government dictates that wealth must precede central government. So, even if it is successful, the establishment of an authoritarian central government will probably not lead to positive economic and social development in Afghanistan.

In fact, historically speaking, strong central governments in poor nations have simply been oppressive dictatorships. Iraq, prior to the US invasion, was one such example. And these "strong central governments" have not provided stability for long. Even during Louis XIV's reign, there were repeated rebellions between 1630 and 1670.[4] In fact, it was not until Louis XIV reversed his crippling tax network and replaced mercantilism with laissez-faire that France began to develop.[5] Freedom, not big government, is the catalyst for prosperity.

"The European experience, in fact, suggests that governments play absolutely no role in stabilization."

Current US policy in Afghanistan is ensuring the creation of a big bureaucracy dedicated to the oppression of the Afghan populace. Malalai Joya, an Afghan woman elected to — and then banned from — parliament, has been a vocal critic of US policies in her war-torn country. She has brought attention to the fact that a large portion of Hamid Karzai's government in Kabul is composed of warlords and religious extremists, many of whom committed crimes against humanity during the civil war of the 1990s.[6] In effect, the United States is returning Afghanistan to the way it was before the 2001 invasion; in place of the Taliban, the new despots will be "warlords and drug traffickers."[7]

Professor Berman's strategy for Afghanistan only promotes disaster. While many of Louis XIV's mercantilist policies were eventually rescinded, this occurred only because the France of the 17th century enjoyed a fairly large body of wealthy merchantmen with an interest in the struggle for freedom. The poor of Afghanistan, who make up the large majority of the population, do not enjoy the advantage of having a similar social middle class willing to pressure the Afghan government into being more business friendly. As a result, Berman's strategy is bound to lead to dictatorship, not long-term peace and development.

No Easy Solution

Make no mistake, finding a solution to the "Afghan problem" is no simple task. No matter the route taken, the immediate future holds much pain, suffering, and uncertainty. It is clear that overbearing government, whether coming from Kabul or originating from any of the various regional warlords, will not be defeated bloodlessly.

But foreign intervention has obviously done nothing to better the situation. Instead, it has made the poor worse off by damaging their businesses and livelihoods; and it has reinforced the power of the local governments by providing them with military support. Instead, Afghanistan must improve from within.

Admittedly, "improvement from within" is easier said than done. It took most modern, first-world nation-states centuries of instability, war, and evolution to reach their current degree of political stability. In Afghanistan, the United States is looking to force this transition within the span of a few years.

Tragically, this objective may simply not be realistic. Any central government built through force in Afghanistan comes with a high degree of compromise. Compromise in Afghanistan is leading to the construction of an oppressive regime. A government designed without considering the interests of the people is a government that is bound to act against these same interests.

Historically, countries escaping tyranny and entering periods of healthy accumulation of wealth do so while there is a simultaneous decrease in the size of government. The example of 17th-century France has already been mentioned: it was only after Louis XIV's government began to end interventions in the market that the people of France began to prosper. The case is the same in Afghanistan. A real rise in wealth will only occur when governments, whether central or local, stop interfering with the individual's right to his property.

Providing a plan to guide Afghanistan step-by-step through the process of "nation building" may as well be impossible. Truthfully, no matter how well one knows the politics and history of Afghanistan, no single plan will be very helpful. If the experience of modern first-world nations is any guide, Afghanistan will have to undergo a period of painful political development in which the Afghan people, as individuals, demarcate the boundaries of government — invariably, this means a reduction of government. But this series of events must occur from within and must be conducted voluntarily by the Afghan people, and as a result it is largely unpredictable.

Kimberly Marten, writing for International Security, provides an interesting case study of the method by which "warlordism" was overcome in Medieval Europe:

The economic surge across Europe at the turn of the first millennium created new opportunities for long distance trade. Merchants thus had an incentive to take political action to lower the transaction costs associated with doing business. The overlapping taxes and incompatible monetary systems of the feudal system gave them reason to escape to territory where they could conduct their business without interference from feudal lords. Merchants who were able to form or settle in self-regulating towns, where impersonal legal codes protected their property rights and set predictable tax rates, prospered. In turn, this prosperity gave them the power and means either to form their own armies for self-defense against warlord predation, or to bargain with kings who promised them protection and universal fair trade rules that extended over larger territories.[8]

This historical example is very revealing. In Europe, prosperity did not come about until merchants, incentivized by their quest for profit, circumvented the restrictions placed on them by local governments. Unsurprisingly, faster development took place after the merchant class broke the state's monopoly on force. It was the creation of a code of law by the merchants themselves, through voluntary contracts, that provided the stability necessary to foster an environment conducive to investment and economic growth. The European experience, in fact, suggests that governments play absolutely no role in stabilization.

"Afghanistan will not be improved by the forceful construction of a bulky central bureaucracy."

What is clear is that the current situation in Afghanistan makes it very difficult for such an environment to be created. The Afghan merchant class is almost nonexistent,[9] and the opportunity for the development of such an interest group has been severely curtailed by the presence of American and NATO personnel. In effect, foreign powers have been strengthening regional governments by incorporating them into the new government in Kabul and by providing them with military assistance. This is the exact opposite of what should happen in Afghanistan. To some degree or another, what is occurring in Afghanistan is similar to what would occur if the United States was to provide military assistance to the likes of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela or the Castro family in Cuba.[10]

Direct foreign assistance by means of military force has turned out to be disastrous. Direct foreign aid in the form of government-provided capital may not be what the doctor prescribed either. Given the likely recipients of such foreign aid, the capital is unlikely to be allotted toward productive means.[11] The only worthwhile foreign aid is that provided by foreign entrepreneurs looking to invest in Afghanistan; and for those investments to occur peace must be established through internal reform. The only way this will occur is if foreign troops withdraw from Afghanistan and the Afghan people struggle to reduce the size of their own government.

Luckily, the existence of globalization has made it far easier for merchants to trade for capital goods, replacing decades of capital accumulation.[12] This should shorten the process of the creation of a relatively wealthy merchant class in Afghanistan, which will also shorten the time necessary for the political changes to be made. Nevertheless, the presence of armed military personnel exercising a monopoly on force against the merchant class, or those hoping to become the merchant class, provides a strong barrier against progress. For this reason, these troops must withdraw.

Entrepreneurship versus Government

Afghanistan will not be improved by the forceful construction of a bulky central bureaucracy. There has been an incorrect assumption as to the direction of causality between strong government, stability, and entrepreneurship. The relationship is the exact opposite of what Berman and her ilk suppose.

Entrepreneurs, working around restrictions placed by the state, accumulated the wealth necessary for stable central governments to come into existence. These "strong" central governments have either been small in the first place or have necessarily decreased in size in order to allow for economic growth. Their strength and stability, furthermore, does not stem from their size or power, but from the fact that the smaller their role in regulating the actions of an individual, the less an individual is likely to question the legitimacy of the state.

Such political development does not happen overnight, and cannot be forced on a people. By perpetuating the impoverishment of the Afghans, coalition forces have set themselves up for failure. What is necessary is the creation of a relatively wealthy pool of individuals, who will then have an incentive to struggle against the state and provide the Afghan people in general with a stable environment promoting growth. Therefore, the best course of action for foreign countries directly intervening in Afghanistan today is to withdraw.

Intellectuals looking to guide foreign policy by drawing analogies between historical examples and modern-day Afghanistan must come to the realization that social and economic development can only come voluntarily and can only stem from the passion for entrepreneurship existent within the Afghan people.[13] Big government and social engineering are burdens that act against entrepreneurship; prosperous and stable nations invariably require as small a government as possible or ideally no government at all.


[1] Ghosh, Bobby, "Taking It To the Taliban," TIME, 8 March 2010; pp. 24 –31

[2] Gall, Carlotta, "As U.S. Weighs Taliban Negotiations, Afghans Are Already Talking," New York Times, 11 March 2009.

[3] Berman, Sheri, "From the Sun King to Karzai," Foreign Affairs, Volume 89, Number 2, 1 March 2010; pp. 2–9.

[4] Rothbard, Murray N., An Austrian Perspective on the History of Economic Thought: Economic Thought Before Adam Smith, Ludwig von Mises Institute: 2006; p. 225.

[5] Ibid., pp. 257–274.

[6] Joya, Malalai, "The B ig L ie of Afghanistan," Guardian , 25 July 2009.

[7] Joya, Malalai, "A T roop S urge C an O nly M agnify the C rime against Afghanistan," Guardian , 30 November 2009.

[8] Marten, Kiberly, "Warlordism in Comparative Perspective." International Security, Vol. 31, No. 3: Winter 2006/2007; p. 60.

[9] Ibid. p. 69.

[10] That being said, make no mistake that the United States does actively support tyrannical and murderous regimes throughout the world. This fact alone makes it unlikely that the United States has any intention of real nation-building in Afghanistan .

[11] For a general argument against foreign aid, see: Moyo, Dambisa, Dead Aid: Why Aid is Not Working and How There is a Better Way for Africa, Farrar, Straus and Geroux: 2009.

[12] Reisman, George, "Globalization: The Long-Run Big Picture," 17 November 2006.

[13] Finegold Catalán, Jonathan, "Passion Comes From Liberty," Mises Daily: 9 February 2010.

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