Media  Foreign Affairs and National Security  2021.09.02

Has nation-building in Afghanistan failed? ~The modernization process may have been too quick for tribal Afghans~

the japan times on August 26, 2021

International Politics/Diplomacy National Security Middle East

This week, I watched a Pentagon press briefing with dismay. The briefers were inundated and scorched with an endless series of tough questions.

Most of those questions, however, seem to be based on the following false assumptions about the United States:

  • It could not foresee the quick fall of Kabul to the Taliban.
  • It failed to train and equip the Afghan National Forces well enough.
  • It was ill prepared for evacuation operations from Kabul airport.
  • It failed to take appropriate measures to protect U.S. citizens.
  • It is leaving behind at-risk Afghan allies.
  • It could not ensure democracy, freedom and human rights.
  • It ultimately failed in the nation-building of Afghanistan.

Has Washington’s noble statecraft failed? My humble answer is “no.” What the U.S. failed was to be aware in advance that such nation-building measures in Afghanistan would never be successful in the first place. The following are the reasons why.

Self-fulfilling prophecy

On July 8, President Joe Biden declared the following: “As I said in April, the United States did what we went to do in Afghanistan: to get the terrorists who attacked us on 9/11 and to deliver justice to Osama bin Laden and to degrade the terrorist threat to keep Afghanistan from becoming a base from which attacks could be continued against the United States. We achieved those objectives.”

Yes, the United States achieved those objectives as late as May of 2011 when Osama bin Laden was killed. Then why did Washington continue fighting? To give freedom and democracy to the people of Afghanistan? It was just an American self-fulfilling prophecy.

Lessons from Iraq

I served in Baghdad in the first half of 2004 as representative of Japan to the CPA, or Coalition Provisional Authority, the occupation authority in post-Saddam Iraq. One day a young American, who was a former congressional staffer, came to my office.

After briefing him on Japan‘s economic assistance to Iraq, I asked him where he was going. He proudly said, “I am going to give a lecture in Mosul and teach Iraqis democracy!” I was almost stunned to hear him say that.

I was about to tell the young American in his late 20s, “Teach Iraqis democracy? Are you kidding? Listen, young man, the United States is only some two hundred years old, but this country has a civilization of at least 45 centuries.”

Another young U.S. Army officer I met at the CPA was even worse. When I told him that “It will not be easy to democratize Iraq due to its history of oriental despotism,” he said, “Oh, but don’t worry. We have democratized Germany and Japan!” That was when I was 100% convinced that we were doomed to fail in achieving our goals in Iraq.

The reality in Afghanistan

One of the most informed Japanese experts on Afghanistan recently told me, “Make no mistake, the Taliban are not as independent and monolithic as commonly believed.” He said the sociopolitical reality in Afghanistan is much more complicated.

“If the modernization process is too quick,” he continued, “history has shown that traditional tribal societies immediately defy those reformer central governments in Afghanistan, whether supported by the United Kingdom, the Soviet Union or the United States.”

“This is what is happening in Afghanistan now and the Taliban are a Pashtun version of indigenous reformist movements against the modern central governments trying to modernize the Afghan society. Simply put, the Taliban represent the grass-roots Afghans.”

Just imagine that Japan in the 1850s was invaded and conquered by forces like the 20th-century United States, which believes that democracy, freedom, rule of law, human rights and gender equality must immediately prevail.

Such efforts would fail, no matter what they tried. We can easily imagine that almost every feudal clan in Japan at that time would challenge the American noble mission to “teach Japan democracy.”

Especially so, if those clans were corrupt, frustrated lower-class samurai would revolt against such invaders. Those samurai would be the Japanese equivalent of the Taliban of the 21st century. Such rank-and-file samurai represented Japan and so do the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Will China acquiesce?

What we have witnessed in Afghanistan over the past several centuries seems to tell us that the noble efforts of the West to modernize or democratize an underdeveloped nation in haste could backfire in the end.

As the English proverb says, “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.” If this conclusion is universal, the next question will be, “If so, does China have an excuse not to follow the Western pressure to modernize or democratize itself?”

Of course, my answer is no. Unlike Afghanistan, which has a history and tradition of feudalism and tribalism, China, now a communist nation, is an advanced modern country whose great civilization has a millenniums-long history.

China is no Afghanistan and, therefore, has no excuse. It’s time for Beijing to change its authoritarian or dictatorial regime into one that practices more civilized democratic and rule-based governance. If the West can afford making efforts to democratize a developing nation, our target must be China, not the Taliban in Afghanistan.