Robert Kaplan has a nice new piece on Afghanistan over at the Atlantic. As usual, it is worth your time. Kaplan travels to places most of us in IR could only dream of visiting, so his work’s got a verite feel that our modeling and endless quotations of one another never do. (This is why people read him, not us.) Unfortunately Kaplan repeats the same motifs again and again, so its not clear if we are reading about Afghanistan, or just Kaplan’s expansive Americanist ideology again. In this way, he is becoming like the Kagans. You already know his answer: geography is a huge constraint on international action; America’s NCOs and infantrymen are kick-a—; we should win the GWoT at even huge expense; and US empire is probably good for the world, even if others resent it.
This time around, Kaplan lays the groundwork for Stanley McChrystal’s presidential bid. What is it with conservatives and the lionization of generals? Just read Kaplan’s purple prose. No one doubts Petraeus or McChrystal’s military talents, but I am pretty sure the US right’s cult of personality tendency for military machismo is unhealthy for the democratic process. Also, is it really admirable that McChrystal only sleeps four hours a day? How many of us could make good decisions living that way regularly? That told me less that McChrystal is super-committed, and more that he is overworked, under-resourced, and under-staffed. That sounds like the Bush-era GWoT all right…
But the money quote from Kaplan’s piece has go to be this from a NATO International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) interviewee:
The recruits may not know how to read, but they are incredibly street-smart. They’re survivalists. Basic soldiering here does not require literacy. We give them a course in how to read and issue them pens afterwards. They take tremendous pride in that. In Afghanistan, a pen in a shirt pocket is a sign of literacy.
Note the use of the military verb ‘issue.’ Yes, the $.50 plastic pen you forgot in the coffee room yesterday is a formally issued piece of military hardware that signals prestige in the wider Afghan society. WOW.
Consider all the information that short anecdote conveys to you about education, poverty, and governance in Afghanistan:
1. Afghans are so poor, they can’t afford pens. ISAF has to issue them, and only qualified soldiers get them.
2. Afghans are so illiterate, no one really needs them.
3. Widespread illiteracy and poverty means the Afghan state, even down into the local level, cannot meaningfully connect to the citizenry.
If illiteracy is so widespread that pens are a mark of social prestige, then Afghanistan can hardly be expected to have complex institutions or national centralization. If you can’t write bills or receipts, what kind of markets will you have? If you can’t read laws from Kabul, much less correspond with state organs, how do you know what the rules are, where to pay taxes, etc? If education is that non-existent, how can you build an army, infrastructure, courts, etc?
None of this means the US and other wealthy states should not help Afghanistan. Indeed, your heart should break when you read that Afghans are issued pens. Nor is this a verdict on the utility of ISAF; maybe we should still go, despite the huge hurdles this very revealing anecdote makes clear.
But this anecdote told me more about how hard the Afghan operation really will be, than Obama’s surge speech last year, or any of the other fearless, ‘we-can-do-it’ prose of Kaplan’s piece. This is way beyond Iraq. Afghanistan doesn’t just need counter-terrorism/insurgency, it needs nation-building on an order that took the US two centuries to achieve.
Obama didn’t include anecdotes this revealing in his Afghan surge address last year. Did he white lie by not showing us just how high the slope is? It kinda seems like it…