Sunday, September 6, 2009

On Stability

Colin has repeatedly suggested that the United States should abandon Afghanistan. He believes that the costs of occupying Afghanistan are greater than the potential benefits. He does not, however, identify potential costs and he seems to suggest that stability is not a worthy goal. Indeed, he has questioned whether instability is a bona fide threat to US national security.

Let me begin by noting that I do not agree with every aspect of the United States strategy in Afghanistan. As I have noted in previous posts, there are facets of US strategy that need great reform, particularly the US approach to poppy growth and opium production. I am also in agreement with Colin in so far as I question whether that is an achievable goal. Colin and I – so far as I can tell – diverge on the question of what US goals ought to be and whether those goals are achievable. As I have written previously, I do not believe that western style democracy is in the offing in Afghanistan but I do believe that stability there is achievable and that it is worthwhile goal for the United States from a national security perspective.

States are best able to deal with other states. It is unsurprising that after several hundred years of a state-centric international (or at least, western international order), states are predisposed to develop and effectuate policies with a view towards other states. The international system is likewise designed to account for interactions between and among states. This system provides a convenient hierarchy for decision making – it is a heuristic that allows decision makers to contextualize events and place them in appropriate bins: international organization, state or individual; interstate or intrastate.

Stability within and among states is thus convenient and, to some extent, necessary for states to craft responses. But stability for its own sake is not a sufficient reason for the United States to be involved in Afghanistan. Indeed, creating instability has, at times, been a useful tool for the United States and an appropriate goal for the United States. For example, the United States fueled the anti-Soviet insurgency in Afghanistan because creating a quagmire in Afghanistan for the Soviet army allowed the United States to inflict non-trivial damage on the Soviet Union for little cost. Instability there, and at that time, was an appropriate goal.

However, persistent instability, once a policy goal has been achieved – in the case of Afghanistan, depleting Soviet resources, driving the Red Army out of Afghanistan, and contributing to the collapse of the U.S.S.R – serves no positive foreign policy objective and can become a source of insecurity.

Afghanistan is frequently depicted as having been chaos under the Taliban. That was not in fact the case. While the Taliban were a backwards and despicable regime, they did provide some semblance of order. There writ was weak and the extent of their control territorial speaking was limited. Within this limited control, Al Qaeda was able to carve out what amounted to a fiefdom in Afghanistan – an area of the country, nominally under Taliban control, run by Al Qaeda. Within that space, Al Qaeda was able to conduct its operations, culminating with the September 11, 2001 attacks.

So, non-state threats to the United States are not necessarily born from chaos. But a weak state allows non-state threats to operate with impunity. When those non-state threats are given access to infrastructure that facilitates a global reach – airports, say – through porous borders, then the ability of that non-state organization to act with impunity within a putative state is a threat to the national security of the United States.

Additionally, a weak state affording the non-state actor safe haven (potentially unknowingly or unwillingly) presents the United States with a policy dilemma. How does the United States address the non-state threat? Traditionally, the United States could demand the state to turn over member of the non-state organization, or demand that the state cease facilitating the non-state organization under threat of some sort of state-driven reprisal. But this presumes that the state is sufficiently cohesive to comply with US wishes, or sufficiently cohesive for the United States’ state-driven reprisals to have effect. The United States might pressure the non-state actor directly and by-pass the putative state. Or, the United States might attack both the sheltering state and the non-state actor simultaneously – as it did in Afghanistan in 2001.

This is not to say, however, that instability does not present a threat to the United States as well. First, it would be hard to imagine a state that is sufficiently chaotic in which a cohesive non-state actor would not be able to setup a fiefdom like Al Qaeda managed to do in Afghanistan before 2001. Even in Somalia, the preeminent example of a collapsed state in chaos, features areas of either incredible stability (Somalialand) or areas that have been pacified by a non-state actor to facilitate the non-state actor’s goal (see Islamic Courts Union). Second, the net effect of one state’s instability on US national security must be examined on a case-by-case basis: Has there been spillover? If so, what are the consequences of the spill-over? How do those consequences impact US national security? This is not a linear system and its effects may not be immediately nor readily identifiable.

In Afghanistan, spill-over has been obvious. The Pashtu-based insurgency that rose up in the wake of the US invasion in 2001 has traditional cross-border links. The porous nature of the Afghan-Pakistan border and the relatively weak control Pakistan exerts over its border areas provided the Pashtu insurgency with safe haven – another, though slightly removed, example of instability threatening US national security. This, in turn, has fueled a Pashtu-based insurgency in Pakistan, attacking the state. Disruption of Pakistan is a threat to the national security of the United States – that is self-evident.

At this point, while the Afghan and Pakistani insurgencies have separate goals, they clearly contribute to each other. It is highly unlikely that in leaving Afghanistan, the insurgency in Pakistan will burn-out. Leaving Afghanistan, however, will remove whatever ability the United States has had to prevent the Pakistani Pashtu insurgency from using Afghanistan as a safe haven in its war against the Pakistani state. That the Afghan state is currently too weak to provide a similar role is apparent, and the likelihood that an abandoned Afghanistan would give the Pakistani Pashtu insurgency strategic depth militates against the United States leaving. Further, there is little reason to believe that, should the United States abandon Afghanistan, that Al Qaeda or some other non-state actor would not be able to carve out yet another fiefdom where it could enjoy operational freedom, engendering an additional threat to the United States.

Building a stable Afghan state with a government able to exercise its writ sufficiently to prevent the development of a new non-state fiefdom is no easy trick. That said, abandoning the Afghan project is the only way to guarantee failure with regard to that strategic objective. Yes, leaving would stem American expense of blood and treasure in the short-term. It is likely that in the medium and long term, however, quitting Afghanistan at this stage, will only cost the United States greater expenditures of both. Failure of long-term policy thinking and engagement during and following the last Afghan war contributed directly to the attacks of September 11, 2001. These failures are hallmarks of US foreign policy making in the post-War era. But making the same mistake, in the same place, twice is not just bad policy, it’s criminal. Simply abandoning Afghanistan would be just that.

UPDATE: Ahmed Rashid writes in today's Washington Post:
Many dissenters in Washington, such as columnist George Will, insist that the Afghans are incapable of learning and unwilling to build a modern state. Others, including former British diplomat Rory Stewart, argue that Afghan society should be left alone. But the dissenters do not sufficiently acknowledge the past failures of the Bush administration that led us to this impasse. What's worse, they offer no solutions.

10 comments:

Colin said...

It seems to me that the argument being advanced here is simply that a weak state provides an environment conducive to providing sanctuary to organizations such as Al Qaeda that desire to attack the US.

Our presence, it would appear, is being justified on the theory that withdraw could possibly destabilize Pakistan that could then have deleterious effects for the US as well as Afghanistan being left open to use by terrorist non-state actors. I am skeptical about the plausibility of the former scenario and have doubts about the second.

A few specific points:

In Afghanistan, spill-over has been obvious. The Pashtu-based insurgency that rose up in the wake of the US invasion in 2001 has traditional cross-border links. The porous nature of the Afghan-Pakistan border and the relatively weak control Pakistan exerts over its border areas provided the Pashtu insurgency with safe haven – another, though slightly removed, example of instability threatening US national security. This, in turn, has fueled a Pashtu-based insurgency in Pakistan, attacking the state. Disruption of Pakistan is a threat to the national security of the United States – that is self-evident.

Well, what we're seeing here is that US involvement has created instability. I'm not sure how this is an argument in favor of a continued US presence or bolstering the presence already there. Is there not reason to think that an end to US involvement would not then lead to more stability?

When the last major foreign power to invade Afghanistan -- the Soviets in the 1980s -- withdrew from the country did that serve to destabilize Pakistan?

But a weak state allows non-state threats to operate with impunity. When those non-state threats are given access to infrastructure that facilitates a global reach – airports, say – through porous borders, then the ability of that non-state organization to act with impunity within a putative state is a threat to the national security of the United States.

Weak states almost invariably have terrible infrastructure. How many flights are headed out of Mogadishu each day or ships call that city their home port? Let's keep in mind that some of the 9/11 planning occurred in Germany, a modern nation state with excellent infrastructure.

Further, there is little reason to believe that, should the United States abandon Afghanistan, that Al Qaeda or some other non-state actor would not be able to carve out yet another fiefdom where it could enjoy operational freedom, engendering an additional threat to the United States.

Frankly, it might be preferable if the locus of Al Qaeda were to shift from the caves of Pakistan into operating in the open in Afghanistan. This would make them a much easier target.

Failure of long-term policy thinking and engagement during and following the last Afghan war contributed directly to the attacks of September 11, 2001.

Is the failure of the post-Soviet Afghan era one of not getting more involved in the country or simply not having the willingness to act when presented with a threat? If one read's Steven Coll's Ghost Wars it seems that we could have wiped out Al Qaeda's camps in Afghanistan but opted to fire cruise missiles instead.

Given the hard lessons we are learning in Afghanistan now I am not sure that I regret the US not taking a more active role in re-ordering Afghan society in the 1990s. I just wish we had the guts to pull the trigger and take Al Qaeda out when given the chance. That, to me, is the real lesson.

Ben said...

The broader lesson from Coll's Ghost Wars - as well as Charlie Wilson's War - is that a failure of continued policy involvement in Afghanistan (that is, doing what you suggest and letting a militarized, destabilized state twist in the wind) contributed directly to 9/11.

Your comparison between AfPak today with AfPak at the time of Soviet withdrawal is inapt. The point, clearly made I think, is that Pakistan has become destabilized by virtue of the hamhanded US invasion of Afghanistan. That Pakistan's ability to defend itself would be severely retarded by allowing Afghanistan to become the Pakistani Taliban's strategic depth - it is, if you will, a reflection across the Hindu Khush of the situation as it stood in November 2001.

Again, I'm not suggesting a re-ordering of the Afghan state or society. Rather, just a reasonably cohesive state should be the goal and would suffice to improve US national security from the way it stands today, it stood before September 11, and certainly from what it would be if we were to leave Afghanistan as it stands today.

Colin said...

Again, I'm not suggesting a re-ordering of the Afghan state or society. Rather, just a reasonably cohesive state should be the goal and would suffice to improve US national security from the way it stands today, it stood before September 11, and certainly from what it would be if we were to leave Afghanistan as it stands today.

How do we get from here to there? That's the million dollar question.

The broader lesson from Coll's Ghost Wars - as well as Charlie Wilson's War - is that a failure of continued policy involvement in Afghanistan (that is, doing what you suggest and letting a militarized, destabilized state twist in the wind) contributed directly to 9/11.

But again, Afghanistan was not a destablized state. Al Qaeda did not move in until the Taliban had firm control. I believe that this is a point even you have conceded. Al Qaeda wanted the sanctuary that only an established state could provide, not a chaotic destabilized environment.

And even if one accepts that the primary fault US policy was in not taking a more active stance in Afghanistan following the Soviet withdrawal, what should have been done? The answer is not at all obvious. I know that Charlie Wilson wanted more humanitarian aid to the country, but I am not sure that building schools would have prevented the Taliban victory.

If we had simply taken out Al Qaeda when given the chance this discussion might very well be moot.

Taking on Al Qaeda and targeting them wherever they are found strikes me as eminently preferable to the US-sponsored establishment of a cohesive state in Afghanistan, something that -- even if possible -- is sure to come only at a fearsome cost.

Bret said...

at no point prior to 9/11 did the taliban establish anything approximating a stable, capacious, or strong state by any reasonable definition of the word. it did not monopolize on violence within the borders of afghanistan (not even considering the issue of the monopoly on legitimate violence). to my knowledge, it did not establish any differentiated state organs or institutions. it did not have a bureaucracy, much less a meritocratic autonomous bureaucracy, and it did not provide even the most basic of public goods (including internal defense and security). a strong balance of power in favor of a faction of thugs a state does not make.

this issue notwithstanding, solutions to the current situation are difficult, but not so difficult that the costs are incalculable.

step 1: stop any spending targeted toward economic development. economic development is as likely to cause instability as stability. samuel huntington first made this point in his critique of modernization theory in the '60s (political order in changing societies).

step 2: divert all of those resources to the development of capable political institutions, starting with the ones that keep order.

step 3: if you insist on elections (and i think that needs to be reevaluated), change the bloody electoral rules (http://www.nytimes.com/2005/03/15/opinion/15iht-edrubin.html).

colin is right about one thing. this aimless meandering that constitutes a nation-building mission is a waste of everyone's time and money, and if it's going to continue it's time to cut bait. he's wrong in implying it's impossible or too costly in principle.

Colin said...

at no point prior to 9/11 did the taliban establish anything approximating a stable, capacious, or strong state by any reasonable definition of the word. it did not monopolize on violence within the borders of afghanistan (not even considering the issue of the monopoly on legitimate violence). to my knowledge, it did not establish any differentiated state organs or institutions. it did not have a bureaucracy, much less a meritocratic autonomous bureaucracy, and it did not provide even the most basic of public goods (including internal defense and security). a strong balance of power in favor of a faction of thugs a state does not make.

Ah, but the debate is not whether Afghanistan pre-9/11 was a modern state, but whether it was stable. And it was. The Taliban controlled, if I recall correctly, about 85% of Afghan territory and had a monopoly on violence within the territory it controlled. Indeed, the lure of many Afghans to the Taliban was that it supplied order and brought an end to the pervasive chaos after the Soviet withdrawal.

After that stability was established, Al Qaeda moved in.

Bret said...

that's idealized. im not saying it was a modern state, im saying a modern state is at the high end of a state capacity scale on which afghanistan did not even register. if zero is anarchy and 10 is x modern western democracy, afghanistan, at the hight of the taliban's power, would have checked in at right around 1, and im giving you the benefit of the doubt.

15% is a lot of territory to not control. the military leadership and the government ministers were the same people, and often subject to arbitrary reassignment. nobody had a delimited sphere of responsibility. regional governors and local leaders were arbitrarily appointed and dismissed by omar. to the extent the taliban could be said to have established institutions, they could not just be described as unstable, they could be defined as unstable.

im not saying you're necessarily wrong that al qaeda could prosper in strong or stable states. i am saying this premise to your argument is fundamentally flawed.

Colin said...

the military leadership and the government ministers were the same people, and often subject to arbitrary reassignment. nobody had a delimited sphere of responsibility. regional governors and local leaders were arbitrarily appointed and dismissed by omar. to the extent the taliban could be said to have established institutions, they could not just be described as unstable, they could be defined as unstable.

By this rationale all dictatorships are unstable given the supreme and arbitrary power wielded by whoever is in charge. But North Korea is a stable country.

That the Taliban lacked many of the institutions featured by modern states is irrelevant. Indeed, they were eschewed by the Taliban as unnecessary trappings incompatible with their religious beliefs. As wikipedia says:

Also in keeping with the governance of early Muslims was a lack of state institutions or "a methodology for command and control" standard today internationally even among non-Westernized states.

Really the only thing that matters is whether the Taliban had control of its territory and a monopoly on force within it. And they did.

What Al Qaeda truly would have feared was being trapped in a chaotic, unstable environment. With the Taliban they had no such worries.

Bret said...

"By this rationale all dictatorships are unstable given the supreme and arbitrary power wielded by whoever is in charge. But North Korea is a stable country."

this statement does not logically follow from my argument. many dictatorships are highly institutionalized. the soviet union was the prototype. likewise, north korea is relatively stable because it is relatively institutionalized, especially as far as the state police and armed forces are concerned.

"That the Taliban lacked many of the institutions featured by modern states is irrelevant. Indeed, they were eschewed by the Taliban as unnecessary trappings incompatible with their religious beliefs."

it's not irrelevant when you're making an argument about state capacity or stability. let's say for a second i accept your premise that that taliban monopolized force and controlled their territory (which is manifestly false). from the macro level characteristic of nominal military control over a territory, you cannot infer stability at lower levels of aggregation. like it or not, and whether fundamentalist muslims want them or not, political institutions are a necessary precondition for stability. they extend peoples' time horizons by allowing them to make credible guarantees about their future behavior. they create iterated prisoners dilemmas. they determine the set of possible and acceptable strategies for political action. they act as information shortcuts to simplify decision making. in short, they make life predictable. the "control" provided by the taliban did none of these things.

if you want to make an argument that AQ likes stability, you would be better off to proceed from your obersevation that they prefer to take advantage of the trappings of modern society, e.g. the AQ cells in German, or extremism in the Paris suburbs. proceeding from a premise that afghanistan was stable under the taliban is simply not teneble, either theoretically or empirically.

Colin said...

Rather that get into an academic discussion of what constitutes stability I will make this argument: Al Qaeda had all the stability they needed. While based in Afghanistan no one could touch them and the Taliban provided them an environment in which they could openly conduct their training camps. The Taliban had a sufficiently strong grip on the country that it required the might of the US military to dislodge them, and with them Al Qaeda's protection.

And really, that's all that matters.

Bret said...

i won't disagree with that except to say that if you're talking about US interests in providing stability it would be unwise to dismiss as academic what constitutes stability and how you get there. too many of these problems come from people thinking you can impose stability at the barrel of a gun, without paying careful attention to the rules that structure social and political relationships.