Jonah Blank

  • Country: The United States
  • Title: Policy Director for South and Southeast Asia on the Staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee
  • Education: Harvard University, Yale University
  • Books: Mullahs on the Mainframe: Islam & Modernity Among the Daudi Bohras, Arrow of the Blue-Skinned God: Retracing the Ramayana through India

What is the United States' biggest accomplishment in Afghanistan since the 2001 invasion?

Ousting the Taliban and laying the foundation for a regime that is much better for the Afghan people, the region, and the world. Those are actually two major accomplishments, but they're closely linked.

Does that justify the ten-year war's cost in blood and treasure?

If the foundation is successfully built upon, it might well be worth the cost in dollars. Few observers argue with the need for drastic military action in 2001, so the financial question really comes down to whether this challenge was worth ten billion dollars or several hundred billion dollars. It will be difficult to give a meaningful accounting until we see how it plays out.

As for the lives lost -- in terms of troops and civilians, American, Afghan, and those of other nations -- that's a tougher question. I've met U.S. soldiers and marines who feel the sacrifice is indeed worthwhile. I've also met many who feel it is not. I suspect that the families of those who don't come back are more justified in their opinions than observers who haven't lost a loved one.

You write that every would-be conqueror of Afghanistan has run up against the same basic problems -- political systems or ideologies imposed from the outside do not survive, and attempts to coax change from within fail unless they are grounded in a deep knowledge of local cultures. To what extent has the Obama administration fallen into the same traps?

The Obama administration -- and, in fairness, the Bush administration, too -- has recognized the challenge of introducing centralized Western democracy into Afghanistan, a country in which popular rule was previously present only at the local level (in the form of shuras or jirgas, themselves not quite what the West has in mind when it speaks about "democracy"). Until recently, moreover, Kabul's rule had always been monarchical and rather distant from most people's lives. Recognizing the challenge, however, is much easier than meeting it.

Throughout the war, the task of understanding the chess game of local tribal politics has fallen largely to the commanders of the Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs). I'm constantly impressed by the speed with which PRT commanders (typically Lieutenant Colonels in their late thirties or early forties, with no prior experience in the region) have learned the basic rules of the game and the capabilities of the various pieces. The challenge they face is immense. As an anthropologist, I know the difficulties of trying to learn even the bare bones of another culture. Most social anthropologists conduct a year or two of fieldwork before even attempting to write anything about a community they are studying. And the stakes for these ethnographers in uniform are far higher; make a wrong move on the cultural chessboard in Paktika, and you'll lose much more than a shot at tenure.

As the Obama administration executes its drawdown of troops, what will make the United States' gains sustainable?

The only thing that will make the United States' gains sustainable is the transfer of responsibility for governance and security to capable Afghan civilians and military and police officers. Even a decade into the effort, the work that remains is exceptionally daunting. The United States long ago abandoned any hope (if it ever had any at all) of transforming Afghanistan into a model society. Reaching the present goal of "good enough" will still be a challenge.

Some experts have suggested that turning away from Afghanistan and Pakistan will only mean that the United States will have to return later. What do you make of that argument?

That is two questions, and they have different answers. Could the United States turn away from Afghanistan and not have to return? Quite possibly. There is no reason to believe that a failed state in Afghanistan would pose a greater threat to core U.S. national security interests than, for example, a failed state in Somalia or a weak state in Yemen. The Obama administration's key rationale for deployment of troops in Afghanistan was to deny safe haven to al Qaeda, and that goal may be achievable without a heavy investment of troops or resources.

It would be far more difficult, however, to walk away from Pakistan. As problematic as the relationship is, the United States would have a difficult time ignoring a nation of 185 million people that possesses a full nuclear arsenal and sits astride one of the world's most volatile political fault lines. That doesn't mean that the U.S. engagement with Pakistan going forward should be the same as it was in the past. Historically, the United States has focused far too much on the military side of the equation and far too little on the civilian side. It will have to calibrate its involvement, and that may involve some painful choices. But it's hard to see how the United States could afford to simply walk away.

Assuming that Washington makes the smartest possible decisions at every turn, what is the best-case scenario for Afghanistan ten years from now?

In my view, the best-case scenario would be a more decentralized form of governance (de facto or de jure), with more power and responsibility pushed to the provincial, district, and local levels. The result would be a patchwork: some parts of the country would be well-governed, economically prosperous, and able to provide security and justice to their populations. Other parts, less so. The United States might have a continuing presence to help support capable Afghan partners at both the central and local levels.

Ironically, this is pretty much what Afghanistan looked like for much of the twentieth century, especially during the reign of Muhammad Zahir Shah (1933-73). For his four decades in power, Afghanistan served as a buffer state between its neighbors, and received substantial international assistance for this useful service. The government in Kabul was a moderating presence on society, albeit a distant one. Real power lay in the hands of local authorities. Some of them governed well, others poorly, but all of them did so within the context of Afghan customs and cultural norms.

Afghanistan's future will probably look like some version of its past. If the United States plays its cards right, Afghanistan might more closely resemble 1960 than 1980 (a period of foreign occupation), 1990 (a time of civil war), or 2000 (an era of Taliban rule).

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