What to do about Afghanistan?

I don’t know.

Eight years after the great western crusaders traveled half way around the world to start a war with a bunch of islamo-fascists, the war is still going on. While the Iraq war was always controversial, the Afgani war was generally much more popular. At the time I was in a small minority of libertarians and peaceniks in arguing against the war.

Looking at the growing mess now, my instinctive response is to say “we shouldn’t have gone in the first place”. But without a time machine I’m not being very helpful. So what should we do now?

The current situation is that the Taliban has a support base in the south-east of the country (where they have always been strong and have fairly strong local support), the Afghani government controls the centre (with the capital Kabul) and various government-associated warlords run the north (as it has been for centuries). But the Taliban (and a particularly nasty Taliban-linked warlord called Hekmatyar) are threatening to expand.

It’s not clear that this war is winable. First, there is no obvious “good” side within Afgani politics. The advantage of the non-Taliban side is that they are more interested in personal corruption and less interested in grand social planning. But even then, they have passed laws that sanctify rape. Second, one difficulty in defeating the Taliban is that they have significant support in some parts of the country (and this may be growing). Unless there is a successful “hearts and minds” campaign or a mass genocide, it’s difficult to see a solution.

As public support for the Afghani war slips away, the west is flicking between talk of a “surge” and talk of a withdrawal. Neither hold much hope. A surge won’t create better government, nor will it convince Taliban supporters to change sides. And withdrawal will probably result in escalated fighting and Taliban gains. Or we could just tread water, supporting a pro-rape corrupt government and seeing a steady trickle of deaths in a war without end. Of the above three options, that’s probably the best.

Here’s my alternative suggestion… jurisdictional competition.

Afghanistan should be split up into several countries. At least two, but maybe more. The pro-Taliban south-east should be given independence as Talibanistan, and then both sides should agree to a cease-fire. As part of the agreement, people must be free to move between the two (or more) jurisdictions.

The benefits of this are (1) an end to the war; (2) it allows the pro-rape, but relatively less fascist groups to retain most of the country; and (3) it allows people to chose between competing jurisdictions.

The last benefit is (in my opinion) significant. It allows people to better match their government with their preferences, and it provides a natural experiment in different forms of government. Over time, the better form of government (as subjectively determined by the people of Afghanistan) will win out. I have a strong suspicion that the jurisdiction that has more freedom will be more popular over time.

It’s not perfect. Talibanistan and Afghanistan will continue to be shit-holes for a long time to come, with little economic development and fascist governments. But there is no silver bullet, and at least this gets half of what we want now and a mechanism for future improvement.

18 thoughts on “What to do about Afghanistan?

  1. I wonder if we can see what a pure anarcho-capitalist country would be like, in Afghanistan? Everyone is armed, and never accepts outside interference. where’s the love?
    As for resolving the dispute, the British came up with a workable solution- suborn some local chiefs to promote peace, and leave them to sort out the details. Not tidy, but it minimizes loss.

  2. The war should have been waged but the objectives should have been different. The US should have focused on:-

    1. Punishing the leadership that hosted Osama and permitted him to use Afghanistan as a launch pad for 911. In practice this would have entailed killing the top brass in the Taliban.

    2. Capturing Osama.

    Reforming the nation by taking over was always folly. The point of the war should have been to set clear incentives for the new leaders. Essentially the message should have been “plot to kill our citizens and we will return and kill you just like we killed your predecessors”.

    The problem was not the decision to launch the war. It was the decision to stay and deliver democracy via nation building.

  3. “At the time I was in a small minority of libertarians and peaceniks in arguing against the war.”
    I didn’t think you needed to be a libertarian or a peacenik to believe that. You just needed a short history of Afghanistan book and common sense. The latter obviously seriously evaded many people at the time (and still does now).
    How about we just get out, say sorry, and let Afghanis do what they want to each other until someone wins out? I doubt there is really any point in worrying about splitting the country up now — who would govern the borders anyway?

  4. I think this is a very good idea, but the difficult part would be having “both sides should agree to a cease-fire” materialise.

    Do these people even seek territory? I’m a bit ignorant on the Afghanistan situation.

  5. Good suggestions John.

    Here’s another suggestion… actually adopted from Bird in one of his more rare lucid moments:-) Allow and actually encourage female only immigration to the west from Afghanistan.

  6. John – my point is not about execution. It is about mission. If you get the mission wrong then the best execution in the world doesn’t help. If you get the mission right then poor execution may still actually deliver the goods. If I was President then what I’ve outlined is what I would have set as the mission. Obviously if somebody else was President anything is possible.

  7. JC — I like it. Perhaps we could send Bird over as our ambassador of peace. 🙂

    Dan — the Taliban want a homeland so that they can practice their weird form of islamo-fascism.

    Of course, another part of the solution is to legalise the production and sale of opium. By cracking down on the opium growers, the government (& allies) are driving many farmers towards the Taliban.

  8. John – given your comment above about intervention being great if done properly I presume you would only split the country properly. An improper split is off the agenda.

  9. It’s ironic that this originally popular war has become a quagmire, while Iraq has reasonable prospects. I’m shifting to a solution of getting out – no sides are particularly admirable and it seems hard to see any benefits emerging, given the enormous cost.

    But the objectionable thing about withdrawing and letting them all sort it out for themselves is that women’s rights are trampled and they are left to suffer. Hence I love jc’s solution. Not that it has a snowball’s chance in hell of being adopted.

  10. Terje — I’m not sure what an “improper split” means. If the country is split, then it’s split. If it wasn’t split, then it wouldn’t be split.

    On the other hand, if you support a war there are a thousand variables that you won’t reasonably be able to control. Some are bound to go wrong, and then you will have the ready-made excuse of “oh, but it would have been a good idea if it worked how I hoped”.

    But your issue wasn’t even unforeseen. Did you really think the coalition was going to take over, and then just leave immediately?

  11. John – no I didn’t think they would do it properly. “Taking over” was the wrong idea. I’ve already said that.

    Your solution of splitting the place up whilst allowing free movement is merely a federalist version of nation building. Your assertion that there is no complexity in implementation is naive. Palaestein was split after WWII and it hss not exactly been a raving success.

  12. I don’t think federalism within a united Afghanistan will work. Both sides want to run a country. I say we let them.

    Palestine is an imperfect example, because there wasn’t really a civil war before the WWII split. But half of the old Palestine has been peaceful (Jordan). And most people believe the solution to the remaining problems involves another multi-state solution.

    If a split Afghanistan ended up with one peaceful country and the other with an ongoing low-level civil war then that would be a significant improvement over the status quo or any other plan on the table.

    Our disagreement about Afghanistan may be semantics. It seems that you were against exactly what the coalition was saying they were going to do — which means we agree. I also agree that the US were within their rights to go after Osama (with or without Afghani permission)… though that seems to be a moot point because they still haven’t got him.

  13. I wonder if we can see what a pure anarcho-capitalist country would be like, in Afghanistan? Everyone is armed, and never accepts outside interference. where’s the love?

    Afghanistan is essentially anarchist, but it hasn’t transcended tribalism and there is no critical mass of Afghanis with just about any moral value necessary for a more enlightened society. Religion is the best they’ve got. That current government is essentially tribal, and even Karzai is more linked into the drug producing tribal side of Afghani society than is portrayed in the media. Afghanis exist by a predominant mixture of tribalism and religion, hence why even they’ve been saying Afghanistan is God forsaken for a thousand years, and despite pockets of enlightenment, nothing is about to change.

    Anarcho-capitalism is an unusual state because only a fairly enlightened society can achieve it, so it doesn’t naturally tend to appear straight out of other forms of tribalism or anarchism. If a society has strong anarcho-capitalist tendencies it will very quickly evolve into something else, like develop a government, the American frontier being a good example. Afghanistan doesn’t have a government in that sense, their parliament is still a meeting of tribal chiefs, and the desire to move beyond that does not have critical mass in their society.

  14. The Talibanstan and Afghanistan split makes rational sense, but I am not aware of any precedent to suggest it might succeed. The example of Palestine suggests it won’t. The Palestinians have three states already (Jordan, the West Bank and Gaza), and it isn’t helping. I suspect they’d be better off amalgamating and negotiating with Israel over the settlements.

    My main objection to simply leaving is as Robert Cotgrove said – the effect on women. The Taliban also support rape, as well as denying women an education and preventing them leaving the house without their husband. JC’s solution appeals a lot.

    The British solution to Communist insurgents in Malaya is the only option I can think of that might work. They essentially established protected villages where the people were able to escape danger and intimidation. It upset a lot of people though, and Afghanistan is a very big place.

  15. DavidL — the Karzai government has also introduced legislation not allowing women to leave the house without their husband’s permission. But I agree the Taliban is worse.

    I’m not sure that recognising Taliban control of s/e Afghanistan would change much in terms of laws. The s/e would remain Taliban influenced. The rest of the country would remain Taliban free. But hopefully the war would stop (or at least shrink) and over time the jurisdictional competition should lead to improvements.

    If Afghanistan becomes as peaceful as modern Jordan, Israel & West Bank then that would be a huge success. Even Gaza is more peaceful than Taliban-controlled s/e Afghanistan.

    In all seriousness, I think my approach to people movement (allow free movement of everybody in both direction) would be more likely to work. There are plenty of men who would also want to escape the Taliban, and probably some people who want to try out an islamo-fascist lifestyle.

  16. Even if we give them carte blanche entry into the West, just how are these Afghani women supposed to go and get passports, buy a plane ticket etc and emigrate to the West when they’re not even allowed to leave the house without a male relative?

    You could drop leaflets encouraging them to seek asylum in Western embassies, but under a decade or so of Taliban rule they won’t be able to read.

    Maybe the protected villages idea is the best of a bad lot of options.

  17. papa — I suggest they should be allowed to move to Afghanistan (ie, the non-Taliban controlled part). That would be much easier.

    Of course, some people will effectively be held as hostages in their own home and never get out. That is the current situation anyway in the Taliban areas, so it’s not a change.

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