Lest it be said that I’m picking on Tom Friedman, there’s a general sense out there that the administration’s Afghanistan strategy refashions the country in a western image. My friend Lindsay Beyerstein asked last week, “Isn’t it kind of crazy to think that the U.S. can transform the nation of Afghanistan into something we like better?” The answer depends on what you mean by “something we like better.” An under-explored aspect of the refined strategy really does seem to be a shift away from nation-building and toward more fulsome development work.
I’m reminded of this when reflecting on Undersecretary Flournoy’s talk this morning at AEI. She and her colleagues described restricting U.S. support to key ministries focused on security and (mostly agricultural) development; immediate-impact short-term development projects like irrigation; efforts out in the provinces and districts to expand the relevance of those ministries to local communities; and backing away from set targets for how large the Afghan Army and police need to be. Paul Jones, deputy to Richard Holbrooke, talked about moving in more USAID personnel and reducing reliance on U.S. contractors, even giving the selected Afghan ministries “direct assistance if they increase transparency and accountability,” in part out of a recognition that foreign money can drive corruption.
No mention, in other words, of the structure of the Afghan government; no normative judgments about the structure of the Afghan economy; nothing at all about culture or religion. It’s sure not like the U.S. is backing away from Hamid Karzai. But I think we can fairly infer that the strategy aims at mitigating Karzai’s deleterious effects and enhancing both capacity and, crucially, constituency among Afghans for better governance. It isn’t “necessary, nor is it feasible,” Flournoy said, to make Afghanistan a western-modeled nation state. Indeed, I would say if that was the aim of this strategy, it would be incoherent. This looks more like meeting Afghan society where it is, not where we’d like it to be.
None of this is to say that the strategy doesn’t have its share of flaws. But I don’t think it’s fair anymore to view this as a nation-building strategy.