Surprise! Anthropologists Give Western State-Building in Afghanistan Poor Marks

Coburn does not romanticize the ways of Istalif–the quiet the town has enjoyed since the end of the Taliban regime is highly tenuous, and largely the result of tacit agreements among bitter rivals over what to forget and ignore. Whatever the fragility of such an arrangement, Coburn implies that it is preferable to the modernizing plans of even the most thoughtful state-builders. The attempt to create impersonal, merit-oriented bureaucracies and to spread liberal beliefs about gender, religion or criminal punishment is as likely to exacerbate conflict as to resolve it. Stability is created with the resources at hand, not from on high or far away (“The state does not live here,” Istalifis like to say).

That’s from a thought-provoking review in Sunday’s New York Times of three new books on Afghanistan, two written by Boston University anthropologists Noah Coburn and Thomas Barfield and one by the now-uncategorizable Rory Stewart and co-author Gerald Knaus. Here’s another bit of the review, by senior editor Alexander Star, on Barfield’s book:

With some irony, Barfield shows that Afghan rulers of the last 150 years anticipated Karzai in their combination of anti-foreign rhetoric with a reliance on outside assistance; one king after another cast himself as the essential preserver of Afghan independence and tradition while depending on British subsidies. Meanwhile, life in the countryside was little affected: the most successful rulers “declared their governments all-powerful but rarely risked testing their claim by implementing controversial policies.” After the Taliban’s departure, “the enthusiasm for restoring a highly centralized government was confined to the international community and the Kabul elite that ran it.”

The review also addresses the claim that the whole state-building endeavor in Afghanistan could have gone much better, if only Western agents of modernization had arrived with deeper “local knowledge.”

Understanding Afghanistan’s social and cultural diversity has proven little easier than mastering it…The trouble, it seems, is that a little local knowledge can be a dangerous thing. Western soldiers meet with village councils, or shuras, and work to strike deals with local elders; and the methods of counterinsurgency may well give them a greater capacity to do so. But what if the shura is largely ceremonial, with real power exercised behind the scenes? And what if the elders are not all they seem? What if they exaggerate their own authority, or seek to establish that authority through prominent meetings with easily impressed outsiders? What if the elders, like everyone else, are anxiously hoarding their power, refusing to take risks, and preparing for an unpredictable future in which it’s equally plausible that mullahs, militias or Kabul bureaucrats might each gain more power? What then is to be done?

I said my piece on Western state-building efforts in Afghanistan on this blog a few months ago, and I’m sure I found this review so appealing, in part, because I already agreed with the conclusions the authors and reviewer have reached. I’m not an Afghanistan expert, so I don’t expect my thoughts on the subject to move many readers.

That said, I wish everyone calling for MOAR STATE-BUILDING as a way to end the war in Afghanistan, or to stabilize “fragile” and “failed” states anywhere else, would engage more seriously with these deep, first-hand accounts of how and why the most intensive (and expensive) attempts to do so in recently history have fundamentally failed. If you’re going to argue that externally motivated and funded programs can build functioning states while making peace and advancing liberal values, you can’t just wave your hands at these kinds of failures or claim they can be overcome with another twist of some knob (More local knowledge! More stakeholder involvement! Faster training!). The failure is systemic, and MOAR STATE-BUILDING is part of that system.

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