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Can We Win in Afghanistan?
All the indications are that this is an unwinnable war. And if it is, our blood and treasure belong elsewhere.


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Jim Lacey

I recently attended the umpteenth conference at which I heard how we can win in Afghanistan by creating a vibrant economy there. If one is to believe the speakers, all that is required for success in one of the most blighted regions on earth is the tweaking of this aid package and the refocusing of that one. After which, we will be well on our way to building a new Switzerland in the Himalayas.

This is a pipe dream.

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After a decade’s effort, nearly 12,000 Americans killed or wounded, and almost $350 billion, we have managed to double the size of the Afghan economy. In doing so, we have picked all the low-hanging fruit. From now on, things just get harder. A second doubling of the Afghan economy will take far longer and cost much more than the first. But let’s assume we can double the Afghan economy again if we just hang in there for ten more years, 12,000 more casualties, and another $350 billion. What would we get?

One more doubling would give Afghanistan a per capita GDP equal to Chad’s. In short, Afghanistan would still rank among the poorest nations on earth. Instead of a new Switzerland in the Himalayas, we would have created a mountainous Chad.

Afghanistan expert and retired Marine colonel T. X. Hammes once told me, “Chad might be good enough.” Yes, it just might be, but we should know going in that what we are aiming for is Chad. Too many so-called experts are still looking at this problem with rose-colored glasses.

Two years ago I attended a conference where much was made of Afghanistan’s probable trillion dollars of mineral wealth. Most of the participants were ecstatic over the geological surveys. Mineral exploitation was going to propel Afghanistan into a prosperous future. At the time, no one wanted to be troubled by “minor” problems, such as Afghanistan’s possessing no modern infrastructure worthy of mention, no settled rule of law to defend contract rights, and no functioning market economy. Moreover, Afghanistan is a landlocked country, which would make it expensive to transport anything the mining companies did manage to extract. On top of all that, there is still a war raging over large swaths of the country, and rich mining communities are a magnet for men with guns.

Of course, the world’s hunger for various ores is ravenous. So, in time, the mining companies might venture into Afghanistan, but only after they have been just about everywhere else. In the years since Afghanistan’s mineral wealth was discovered, there has been scant progress toward exploiting it. I believe that a decade hence I will still be able to write the same thing. 

It is time to face facts. Afghanistan has always been poor. It will still be poor when we leave. And it will probably be poor long after I have departed this world. To become wealthy takes a certain mindset and dedication to creating the institutions that underpin a stable market economy. Foremost among them is the willingness to forswear killing visiting businessmen, engineers, and workers. Outsiders can sometimes, but not often, graft a workable market system onto an alien culture. For the most part, though, if the locals are unwilling to make the fundamental cultural shifts (à la turn-of-the-last-century Japan), the grafts will not take.

Nothing I have seen, heard, or read makes me optimistic that Afghanis are ready or willing to build the lasting institutions required for success in a globalized world. The country was an economic basket case when we arrived in 2001. It will be little better when we leave. At some point, we have to accept the fact that we gave the Afghanis their best shot at peace and prosperity. That they failed to grasp it cannot be laid at our doorstep. I, for one, am finding it harder and harder to reconcile myself to the idea of expending the blood of another 12,000 men and women, along with another several hundred billion dollars, just to create Chad.

So, what are the reasons for staying and making one more supreme effort? The first and most emotional is that we have already sacrificed so much that we must see this endeavor through to the end. I understand this desire and often fall prey to it myself. It took someone wiser than me to point out that the past is rarely justification for the future. Our 12,000 dead and wounded in Afghanistan are not honored by adding thousands more to their number.

Others want to stay the course in Afghanistan to ensure that al-Qaeda is never again able to establish bases there. Well, al-Qaeda has adapted to the loss of Afghanistan. In fact, its post-9/11 decentralized organization has made its members much more difficult to track and target. Many in our military would welcome al-Qaeda’s finding a new safe haven where it can set up camps and begin to mass again. Unlike in the years before 2001, there is today no reluctance among the American military to strike terror groups wherever they are found. Departing Afghanistan would not mean we will not go back if it is in our interest to do so. In the future, though, we won’t stay for any longer than it takes to eliminate those who threaten us.

The military has done everything that has been asked of it in Afghanistan. It has, in fact, performed magnificently under the most trying of conditions. Our armed forces have fought and died in a hundred places we have never heard of. But it is now time to honor their service and start bringing them home. What becomes of Afghanistan now is up to the Afghanis. The world is becoming a much more dangerous place. We must begin conserving our blood and treasure for possible use in places much more vital to our national interest and safety (as Afghanistan was in 2001) — places where we can make a real difference.

By the time this article is published, I will have been in Afghanistan for the first 48 hours of a two-week trip. I will report my overall impressions upon my return. If I am wrong, I will say so. If nothing I see there changes my impression of Afghanistan’s future, then I will repeat that it is time for Americans to wish the Afghanis well and hope they will find their way toward a peaceful and prosperous future. They will just have to get there without us.

— Jim Lacey is professor of strategic studies at the Marine Corps War College and the author of the forthcoming book The First Clash. The views in this article are the author’s own and do not in any way represent the views or positions of the Department of Defense or any of its members.



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