The failure of nation building in Afghanistan

Lyonel Charles Feininger (1871–1956), Architecture, 1937.


It was in Afghanistan that a new liberal worldview was born.

Nation building (nation building) in Afghanistan arrived in 2001. Western interventions in the former Eastern bloc in the 1980s and early 1990s were spectacularly effective in destroying the old social and institutional order; but equally spectacular in failing to replace societies that had been imploded by new institutions. The threat of failed states became the new mantra, and Afghanistan ― in the wake of post-11/XNUMX destruction ― was therefore in need of outside intervention. Weak and failed states would be the breeding ground for terrorism and its threat to the global order, it was said. It was in Afghanistan that a new liberal worldview was born.

On another scale, however, the war in Afghanistan would eventually become another trial by fire. More realistically, Afghanistan became a proving ground for every innovation in technocratic project management—and each of these innovations heralded itself as a harbinger of our broader future. Enormous funds were poured in, buildings were erected, and an army of globalized technocrats arrived to oversee the entire process. Big data, AI and the use of ever-growing sets of technical metrics and statistics would have to topple old “boring” ideas. Military sociology, in the form of Human Field Teams [Human Terrain Teams], as well as other innovative creations, were launched to bring order to chaos. Here, all the strength of the NGO world and the brightest minds of that budding international government were given a playground with nearly endless resources at your disposal.

It would be a showcase for technocratic managerialism, where it was assumed that a properly technical and scientific way of understanding war and nation building would then be able to mobilize reason and progress, to accomplish what all others could not, and thus creating a postmodern society, starting from a complex tribal society with its own history.

The new arrived ― so to speak ― in a succession of NGO packages stamped as pop-up modernity. Evidently, the eighteenth-century British statesman Edmund Burke had already warned in Reflections on the Revolution in France, in witnessing the Jacobins overthrowing their old order, that “it is with infinite caution” that one should overthrow or replace structures that have served society through the ages. But this managerial technocracy could not waste time on boring old ideas.

And what the fall of the Western-installed regime in Afghanistan last week so clearly revealed is that today's managerial caste, consumed by the idea of ​​technocracy as the only means of enforcing working rules, was born instead as something already completely rotten—“data-driven defeat,” as an American veteran in Afghanistan put it. described —so rotten that it collapsed in a matter of days. About the extensive errors of the work in Afghanistan, he writes, “A retired SEAL who served in the White House under Bush and Obama reflected, [that] 'collectively, the system is incapable of stepping back to question basic assumptions.' This system can best be understood not simply as a military or foreign policy body, but as a euphemism for the habits and institutions of an American ruling class, which exhibited an almost limitless common ability to circumvent the costs of failure.

“This crowd, in general, and those responsible for the war in Afghanistan, in particular, believed in informational and managerial solutions to existential problems. They sublimated the intersection of data and statistical indices to avoid choosing prudent objectives and developing adequate strategies to achieve them. They believed in their own providential destiny and that of those who govern like them, regardless of their failures”.

Whatever wasn't corrupt before the US arrived in Afghanistan became corrupt in the whirlwind of $2 trillion of US funds poured into the project. Military men, weapons manufacturers, globalized technocrats, governance experts, aid workers, peacekeepers, counterinsurgency theorists, and lawyers—all made their fortunes.

The problem is that Afghanistan, in the progressive liberal view, was first and foremost a sham: Afghanistan was invaded and occupied just because of its geography. He was the ideal platform to upset Central Asia and thereby upset Russia and China.

No one was really committed, because there was no longer any Afghanistan to commit to. Who could steal from the Americans, did. The Ghani regime collapsed in a matter of days, because it never existed in the first place. It was just a Potemkin construct, whose role was to perpetuate a fiction, or rather the myth, of America's Great Vision as the shaper and guardian of our global future.

The real drama, for America and Europe, of the present psychological moment is not just that nation-building, as a project designed to uphold liberal values, has ended up achieving nothing, but that the débacle of Afghanistan underlined the limitations of technical managerialism in a way that is impossible to deny.

The gravity of the current American psychological moment ― the Kabul implosion ― was well formulated when Robert Kagan argued earlier, that the project of global values ​​(however tenuous its basis in reality may be) had become essential to preserve democracy at home, since ― he suggests ― an America that withdraws from global hegemony, would no longer possess, also at home , domestic group solidarity to preserve America as an idea.

What Kagan said there is important... and could be the true cost of the débacle from Afghanistan. Every elite holds a series of propositions about its own legitimacy, without which a stable political order is impossible. Legitimate myths can take many different forms, and they can change over time, but once they are exhausted or lose their credibility ― when people no longer believe the narrative or the propositions that underpin that myth, idea policy – ​​then it is End of the game.

Swedish intellectual Malcolm Kyeyune note that we may be “witnessing the catastrophic end of that metaphysical power of legitimacy that has protected the managerial ruling class for decades”: “Anyone, even briefly acquainted with the historical record, realizes how much of a Pandora's box this loss of legitimacy can be. The signs have visibly multiplied over many years. When Michael Gove said 'I think people in this country have had enough of experts' in a debate over the merits of Brexit, he probably outlined the contours of something much bigger than anyone really suspected at the time. At that time, the acute phase of the delegitimization of the management class was just beginning. Now, with Afghanistan, it is impossible not to understand it”.

So there's little mystery about why the Taliban took Kabul so quickly. not just the project per se it lacked legitimacy for Afghans, but that aura of alleged expertise, of technological inevitability that protected the elite management class, was exposed in its sheer dysfunctionality, on display as the West fled frantically from Kabul. And it is precisely the way in which she succumbed that truly reveals to the world the rot that was brewing underneath.

“When the claim to legitimacy is exhausted, when people no longer believe in the concepts or arguments that support a particular system or claim to govern, the extinction of that particular elite” ― recalls Kyeyune ― “becomes a summary conclusion”.

*Alastair Crooke, former British diplomat, founder and director of Conflicts Forum, based in Beirut.

Translation: Ricardo Cavalcanti-Schiel.

Originally published in Strategic Culture Foundation.


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