This piece was published as part of The Future of Afghanistan and U.S. Foreign Policy, a collaboration between the Chicago Project on Security and Terrorism and ForeignAffairs.com. 

The future of Afghanistan is crucial for three reasons. First, after a Marxist coup in 1978 shattered the patient process of 50 years of state formation, it has become increasingly unclear whether the territory bounding what we think of as Afghanistan can again become a sovereign state. Second, should a stable state fail to reemerge in Afghanistan, the political and economic costs to its neighbors and much of the world are certain to rise. Third and finally, how the international community approaches Afghanistan has direct consequences for other states whose futures are similarly in doubt and whose continuing failure generates similarly troubling negative externalities.

Afghanistan exemplifies a significant dilemma of modern foreign policy. The United States must either reconsider the merits of colonialism in some form, establishing a permanent administrative and security presence in ramshackle states, or endure the escalating costs associated with these states playing host to organized criminals and terrorists, and treating their own citizens with systematic neglect and abuse.

Since 2002, U.S. policy in Afghanistan has been fundamentally flawed, and as a consequence, Afghanistan’s people, its neighbors, and the rest of the world are worse off. The initial assault that routed the Taliban should have been followed by a rapid exit of U.S. and allied forces. The political moment demanded what nineteenth-century treatises on small war referred to as a “punitive expedition,” and nothing more. What followed instead was the inescapable pull of recovery, reform, and rebuilding. Pledges of aid to rebuild Afghanistan's economy and infrastructure were not met. Much of the aid that did arrive was subsequently either squandered or pocketed by greedy locals or private contractors. This created a habitat ideal for exploitation by insurgents and organized criminals (functionally, the Taliban are both).

Afghanistan’s prior status as a genuinely sovereign state had taken generations to engineer: The country became a state by virtue of a succession of skillful leaders dedicated to maintaining a careful balance between tradition and modernization. Their success forced the centuries-old identities of tribe and valley to yield slowly to a collective Afghan identity.

But the Marxist coup in 1978 ended all hope of maintaining this balance. Once communists gained control, they rapidly alienated most Afghans, and they intensified their governing problems by eliminating most of Afghanistan’s public servants by arresting, executing, or forcing them flee. Trying to implement a preposterous plan for organizing society without any experience governing, Afghanistan’s new leaders were compelled to rely on Soviet advisers. Afghanistan’s once unified identity devolved into a patchwork of loosely affiliated sub-identities, bounded as in ancient times by dialect, kinship ties, and topography. This balkanization of Afghan identity was accelerated by the Soviet Union’s divide-and-conquer counterinsurgency strategy that followed its military intervention in 1979.

Herein lies the root of the problem: Since 1979, Afghanistan has lacked sufficient indigenous public servants to rebuild the state, and it has proven impossible to import and maintain foreign public servants without the taint of neocolonialism. Ironically, like the Marxists before them, the Taliban who consolidated power after the Soviets withdrew in 1989 were also transnational revolutionaries who attempted to govern by a preposterous doctrine. They created no public servants of their own because they were not interested in a state but rather in a transnational caliphate.

The “public” servants that exist in Afghanistan today are merely servants of the heads of clans and tribes attached to specific provinces and valleys within Afghanistan. And President Hamid Karzai is effectively Afghanistan’s most powerful warlord. His aides, advisers, ministers, and security personnel are loyal first to him and to his clan and only after to Afghanistan as a whole.

Thus, any third party that wishes to see a functional state reemerge in Afghanistan will have to be willing to import its own administrators, including security personnel. Whether carried out with the aim of benefiting the Afghan people or preventing the security challenges bred by the Afghan government’s administrative and security deficiencies, this would amount to a form of colonialism. But colonialism -- however one qualifies it -- contradicts contemporary norms of legitimacy and remains unsustainable in terms of resources.

This is not to say that no real progress has been made but rather to point out that such progress has been too dearly paid for and is unlikely to survive the inevitable exit of its foreign administrators. On the other hand, once Western foreigners leave, the Taliban will again begin to look more like foreigners themselves. Either way, Afghanistan will not be a functioning state until the people of Afghanistan commit to the years of additional suffering and deprivation necessary to make it so.

The solution to the dilemma of U.S. and allied efforts in Afghanistan -- both the well-intended efforts toward promoting human rights and those aimed at addressing national security concerns -- is to brace for an orderly withdrawal and focus on national defense. The United States will inevitably be attacked again. But the legitimacy it gains from being the victim of veritable harm, rather than its perpetrator, will more than compensate for the damage. In today’s world, the best defense is a good defense.

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