I’ve had a lot of vague thoughts about the situation in Afghanistan and nation building in general which have been bouncing around in my head, but unfortunately they haven’t coalesced into a coherent argument that I could post. So I’ve given up on that and instead will simply throw them out without trying to tie it all together.
The current situation in Afghanistan reminds me of that in feudal Europe in the late Middle Ages. The central authority is paid lip service but the real power lies with warlords (Dukes and Earls) at the local level. Perhaps the best parallel might be Scotland, which was also a clannish society that was as happy warring against each other as against outside invaders. It was mountainous and conducive to guerilla warfare, and hence hard to govern effectively.
I don’t know all my case histories, but I think in almost all cases strong central authority was only developed slowly, and it was done by force rather than through the ballot box. Conditions remained chaotic until someone had the power to enforce their decisions on the rest of the country. Only when the king (or a conqueror) was strong enough to overpower the nobles strong rule be exercised.
The nobles (and warlords) won’t cede their power voluntarily; there has to be something in it for them. You can gain their loyalty either through the carrot or the stick, but they won’t give power to any central government for moral reasons, or to “end the suffering of the Afghan people.”
The stick is the armed power of the central government. In Afghanistan this is still weak, which means that the central authority will be correspondingly weak. They walk a tightrope—if they give too much power to any individual warlord (or warlords) they risk alienating the rest and restarting the civil war. But without the close loyalty of one or more warlords, the central government has no military power to enforce its decisions.
There are two main positive incentives (carrots) that a newly formed central government can provide. The first is authority and power, or more properly an authorization of the power that is already possessed by the warlords. Call him a district governor and co-opt him into your government. This is the tack that the provisional government has taken, and given it’s weakness is the only approach that could work. The only form of government that could survive long is a loose sort of confederation, with most of the power devolved to regional warlords, who will be given a new coat of paint and renamed governors or some such.
A second incentive that the central government can provide is money; specifically western money. This is why I think continued aid is important, and it is important that it be funneled through the central government. This increases opportunities for corruption and might be less efficient than direct aid to the regions, but control of aid money is, at this point, really the only positive power that a new central government in Afghanistan would have. So the inefficiencies should be accepted to avert future civil war and instability.
Then, once you have a functioning central government, to which the regional powers at least pay lip service, you can slowly build up the armed forces and consolidate its position, a process which is already going on now. And it’s important that it be multi-ethnic—ethnic conflicts and coups have crippled African governments since independence. If the government ever becomes co-opted by a single ethnic group, or if the military becomes dominated by one, then discrimination corruption and despotism become strong possibilities. Even if that doesn’t happen, if one group gains too much dominance in the government or military (which in the early days will amount to the same thing, since Afghanistan is still in a primitive enough state that power comes from military might) then other groups are more likely to secede and the chance of civil war grows.
Anyway, I think it’s important to keep our eye on the situation there and lend what assistance we can. And it’s important to be clear-eyed about it and to realize that just declaring a democracy and going home is unlikely to result in a long term solution. The situation is delicate and will require a combination of cunning and might on the part of the central government (whatever it turns out to be) to achieve and maintain power. A fully open and democratic regime may be the end goal, but it might not be a workable initial step.
One common point of discussion in debates on Islam and its role in sponsoring terrorism and oppression is the lack of a clear separation between Church and State in Islamic teachings. Not that such a separation isn’t possible, but merely that there is still an acceptable feeling among many believers that the teachings of the Koran should guide not just individuals but national governments as well. The outcome of this line of thinking is the repressive regimes In Iran and Saudi Arabia, and of course the Taliban. Further, the Saudis are aggressively proselytizing their Wahhabist version of the faith and have won many converts, to the point that radical Islam is an important political force throughout the Middle East and in Pakistan, and may be gaining ground elsewhere.
So how did the separation of church and state take hold in the West, and what are the prospects for it in the Middle East? On this question, I am optimistic in the long term. There may be serious problems in the short term, but I think history is on the side of freedom in this case.
The key events which led to the separation of powers in the West were the religious wars of the 17th century, in particular the 30 Years War. (I’m currently reading a wonderful but out of print history of that conflict by C.V. Wedgwood, which I’d strongly recommend. For such a fundamental event in European history, it gets remarkably little attention in schools or in documentaries.) That war started out as a conflict between the Austrian branch of the Catholic House of Hapsburg and the semi-autonomous Protestant kingdoms of Germany. While there were wider political considerations which prolonged the conflict and made it more intractable, at the beginning it was in large part a religious war. Similarly, there were ongoing struggles in France between the Catholic majority and Huguenot dissenters, many of which were extremely bloody. And the English Civil War had strong religious undertones to it, with Cromwell’s Puritanism opposed by a French backed royal party which was mistrusted because of it’s suspected Catholic sympathies.
The upshot of these turmoils and the mixing of the religious and the political was mainly to inflict great suffering on the populaces of the countries in question. This misery, most pronounced in Germany, then discredited the idea of a religious rule on the part of the state. The political problems also made it impossible to keep any coherent religious agenda—the 30 Years War, for example, ultimately degenerated into a proxy war between the Hapsburgs and the Bourbons, both of which were Catholic monarchies. While religion helped start the conflicts, when push came to shove self interest trumped religious considerations. (As it has throughout history.)
I think these same two elements are also at play right now in the Middle East. First, and most importantly, repressive Islamic regimes just don’t work. The Taliban tried it and the Afghanistan people chafed under their rule and celebrated when they were expelled. There’s no chance a similar rule could ever be imposed upon them again—their experience has inoculated them against that extremist strain. Similarly, the population of Iran is discontented under the rule of the mullahs, and the majority is agitiating for a change. And once the Iranians are free of the grim rule of the Ayatollahs, you can be sure they won’t return to it.
So, while Islamic law may inspire some and can serve as a blueprint for a government, it’s not an effective government or one people want to live under. Experiencing the misery of living under such rule can convince people to reject it, just as the misery of the religious wars in Europe led to a rejection of religion as a guiding motive for policy in the West. This has been pointed out before. I don’t remember where, perhaps in the NRO, but the best long term strategy might be to let Egypt and Saudi Arabia topple and their governments be seized by more extremist sects. They may be more dangerous to the US in the short term, but they will burn themselves out and destroy their power and influence with their repressive policies.
As to the second point, while Israel serves as a convenient lighting rod and an external enemy that can unify the Islamic countries in the Middle East, that unity is superficial. There are still serious divergences of interest between the nations. The pan-Islamic ideology can’t work. Bin Laden can try to frame the conflict as Islam versus the West, but I think that will fall under its own weight as various Islamic countries make their own decisions and come into conflict with each other during the US war on terrorism. At some point, the continuing branding of dissenting regimes as heretics loses its force and the universalist pretensions of the Islamacist movement will crumble. It will still be dangerous, but I think some of its power will be gone once it becomes just another sect, another movement within Islam, rather then the “one true way.”
Update: (Via Brink Lindsey): J. Bradford Delong has posted an interesting essay making a number of similar points, although he emphasizes the economic aspects of a potential solution more than I would. (Understandable, given that he's an economist.)
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