Gen. McChrystal in London last week:
“We don’t win by destroying the Taliban,” he said. “We don’t win by body count. We don’t win by the number of successful military raids or attacks, we win when the people decide we win.”
That would be the Afghan people, naturally, McChrystal's unseemly and increasingly unhinged obsession. He continued:
“Why isn’t the situation better after eight years?” he said. “Afghans’ expectations have not been met. ...
McChrystal said a clear change in “mindset” was needed because many current tactics are counterproductive and producing hostility and skepticism among Afghan civilians who must be convinced the coalition forces will improve their safety and quality of life.
Guess what, General? The United States of America has already tried improving Afghan safety and quality of life, and on a colossal scale, and it just didn't stick. And back then, between 1946 and 1979, there was no Taliban "insurgency" complicating the social work of nation-building.
This decades-long episode of US-Afghan history has been erased from our national consciousness, pricked only by the odd "remember when" news report. Such national memory loss is probably due to the fact that these US efforts to improve Afghanistan -- centered in Helmand Province, by the way, the Taliban-spawning, opium-growing region into which 4,000 US Marines "surged" this summer -- have themselves been erased from Afghanistan. Of course, for nation-building utopians such as McChrystal -- those from Right to Left who see different peoples and different cultures as interchangeable markers on a games board -- reality never tempers the fanaticism.
Back in 2002, Nick Cullather, a history professor at Indiana University, excavated our long-forgotten but long-sustained presence in "New York in Afghanistan," which was organized under the rubric of "the Helmand Valley Authority." The centerpiece of the massive project was an ill-conceived dam project-plus designed by none other than Morrison Knudsen, builder of Hoover Dam, Cape Canaveral and the Golden Gate Bridge. Cullather writes:
In late September 2001, while looking for lecture material related to the war that had just begun, I came across references to the Helmand project. It initially appeared to resemble rural development schemes I was studying in Southeast Asia, but closer examination revealed the project’s unusual scale and longevity. ... It came under American supervision in 1946 and continued until the departure of the last reclamation expert in 1979, outlasting the theories and rationales on which it was based. It was lavishly funded by U.S. foreign aid, multilateral loans, and the Afghan government, and it was the opposite of piecemeal. It was an “integrated” development scheme, with education, industry, agriculture, medicine, and marketing under a single controlling authority.
Nation-building did not fail in Afghanistan for want of money, time, or imagination. In the Helmand Valley, the engines and dreams of modernization had run their full course, spooling out across the desert until they hit limits of physics, culture, and history.
Cullather teaches a fascinating history lesson, of good intentions and hubris, of Cold War politics and utopianism, that all Americans should read. And that goes double for our leaders with the power and the will to make the same mistakes twice, this time paying the price of ignorance not just with with American dollars but with American blood.
Some Cullather excerpts below:
In May 1960, the historian Arnold Toynbee left Kandahar and drove 90 miles on freshly paved roads to Lashkar Gah, a modern planned city known locally as the New York of Afghanistan. At the confluence of the Helmand and Arghandab rivers, close against the ancient ruins of Qala Bist, Lashkar Gah’s 8,000 residents lived in suburban-style tract homes surrounded by broad lawns. The city boasted an alabaster mosque, one of the country’s best hospitals, Afghanistan’s only coeducational high school, and the headquarters of the Helmand Valley Authority, a multipurpose dam project funded by the United States. This unexpected proliferation of modernity led Toynbee to reflect on the warning of Sophocles: “the craft of his engines surpasseth his dreams.” In the area around Kandahar, traditional Afghanistan had vanished. “The domain of the Helmand Valley Authority,” he reported, “has become a piece of America inserted into the Afghan landscape. …The new world they are conjuring up out of the desert at the Helmand River’s expense is to be an America-in-Asia.”
Plus ca change: p. 3
In the 1950s and 1960s, the United States made
southern Afghanistan a showcase of nation-building with a dazzling project to “reclaim” and modernize a swath of territory comprising roughly half the country. The Helmand venture is
worth remembering today as a precedent for renewed efforts to rebuild Afghanistan, but it was also part of a larger project—alternately called development, nation-building, or
modernization—that deployed science and expertise to reconstruct the entire post-colonial world.
The root of root causes? p. 16
Truman’s Point IV address reconfigured the relationship between the United States and newly-independent nations. The confrontation between colonizer and colonized, rich and poor, was with a rhetorical gesture, replaced by a world order in which all nations were either developed or developing. The president explicitly linked development to American strategic
and economic objectives. Poverty was a threat not just to the poor but to their richer neighbors, he argued, and alleviating misery would assure a general prosperity, lessening the chances of war.
When Truman thought of aid, he thought of dams, or specifically of the Tennessee Valley Authority, the complex of dams on the Tennessee River that transformed the economy of the upper South. “A TVA in the Yangtze Valley and the Danube,” he proposed to the TVA’s director, David Lilienthal. “These things can be done, and don’t let anybody tell you different. When they happen, when millions and millions of people are no longer hungry and pushed and harassed, then the causes of war will be less by that much.”
The human condition as "technical probelm" pp. 16-17
The TVA had totemic significance for American liberals, but in the diplomatic setting it had the additional function of redefining political conflict as a technical problem. Britain’s solution to Afghanistan’s tribal wars had been to script feuds of blood, honor, and faith within the linear logic of boundary commissions, containing conflict within two dimensional space. The United States set aside the maps and replotted tribal enmities on hydrologic charts. Resolution became a matter of apportioning cubic yards of water and kilowatt hours of energy. Assurances of inevitable progress further displaced conflict into the future; if all sides could be convinced that resource flows would increase, problems would vanish, in bureaucratic parlance, downstream. Over the next two decades the United States would propose river authority schemes as solutions to the most intractable international conflicts: Palestine (“Water for Peace”) and the Kashmir dispute. In 1965, Lyndon Johnson famously suggested a Mekong River Authority as an alternative to the Vietnam War
Like the TVA, HAVA was a multipurpose river authority. U.S. officials described it as “a major social engineering project,” responsible for river development but also for education, housing, health care, roads, communications, agricultural research and extension, and industrial development in the valley. The US ambassador in 1962 noted that if successful, HAVA would boost Kabul’s “earnings of foreign exchange and, if properly devised, could foster the growth of a strata of small holders which would give the country more stability.” This billiard-ball alignment of capital accumulation, class formation, and political evolution was a core proposition of the social science approach to modernization that was just making the leap from university think tanks to centers of policymaking. An uneasiness about the massive, barely-understood forces impelling two thirds of the world in simultaneous and irreversible social movement—surging population growth, urbanization, the collapse of traditional authority—overshadowed policy toward “underdeveloped” areas. Modernization theory offered reassurance that the techniques of Point IV could discipline these processes and turn them to the advantage of the United States. Development, economists Walt W. Rostow and Max Millikan of MIT assured the CIA in 1954, could create “an environment in which societies which directly or indirectly menace ours will not evolve.”
Would that it were so simple. And would that our elites would finally realize that it's not. Cullather doesn't much discuss the Islam of Afghanistan, but he does bring out the cluelessness of American advisors bent on seeing Islam as modernity's friend. He writes (p. 25): "U.S. advisers made several attempts to imitate the “grass roots” inclusivity of the TVA. Aiming to dispel tribal feuds and foster a common professional identity among farmers they established local co-ops and 4-H clubs, but Daoud’s security forces broke them up. Courting the Muslim clergy was also forbidden. Agricultural experts found the mullahs to be a progressive force, “constantly look[ing] for things to improve their communities, better seed, new plants, improved livestock.” Regarding religion as an inoculation against communism, policymakers wanted to associate the Helmand project with Islam."
But all that do-gooding didn't do so good. The water project was in fact a disaster, as Cullather's paper details, causing waterlogging, run-off and other enviromental ills, and it also failed to improve agricultural yields. A switch to an agricultural strategy similarly failed -- but again, not for want of American effort, resources and time. In his concluding pages, Cullather makes note of what amount to the age-old failures of utopians bent on remaking humanity:
The project’s human subjects were rendered as productive units, “abstract citizens” whose motives conformed to the goals of the planner. “Any anthropologist could have predicted with confidence,” Arnold Fletcher observed in 1965, “that the happy notion of settling Afghan nomads on the reclaimed lands would not work out.”... The goals and effects of the project were never viewed outside the distorting mirror of modernization theory. ...
Precautionary moves were easily brushed aside by the same assurance that time and effort would bring improvement. Belief in development imposes, according to Gilbert Rist, a “social constraint” on the expression of shared doubts. If illusions doomed the project they also created and sustained it. HAVA’s evolutionary advantage was an ability to take on the protective coloration of a succession of modernizing myths. The disastrous effects of dam-building were visible in 1949 and only became more obvious as the project grew. But camouflaged by dreams of Pashtun ascendancy and invisible American influence, HAVA was as resilient as modernization theory itself, able to survive repeated debunkings while shedding the blame and the memory of failure.
Proponents of a fresh nation-building venture in Afghanistan, unaware of the results of the last one, have resurrected its imaginings. Development aid to the new Pashtun-led government in Kabul, supporters claim, will provide a buffer against terrorism and “prevent future Osama bin Ladens from arising.” The centerpiece of the modernization effort, a writer for the New York Times suggests, should be “dams to provide water for irrigation.”