The predictable collapse of US nation-building in Afghanistan

In my last book, “To Dare More Boldly: The Audacious Story of Political Risk,” each chapter represents a key precept, based on a specific historical story, as to how to do political risk analysis right. One of my favorites of these 10 commandments, “The Losing Gambler’s Syndrome,” directly relates to entirely predictable collapse in Afghanistan and why the US establishment took so tragically long to see that its two-decade exercise in nation-building futility was bound to end in tears.

Those of us who have been rightfully against this folly for 15 years (I left Washington over my disagreement with the Bush administration about the Iraqi and Afghan wars) must finally put a stake in the heart of the American nation-building vampire, so strategic and moral calamities such as this will entirely cease.

The Losing Gambler’s Syndrome is an intellectual and emotional fact of the human condition that casino magnates have come to well understand and profit from. When someone loses big at the tables, they have an overwhelming urge to invest ever more resources to make good on their catastrophic losses, rarely bothering to think about the reasons for these losses in the first place. Dad cannot go back to Mom telling her he has lost the kids’ college fund at the roulette table, so he keeps playing … and losing. The reason for his demise — the terrible odds — is never analytically addressed.

I saw this doleful process up close and personal in Washington as the Iraq and Afghanistan wars slid toward the abyss. Very often, those policymakers urging ever greater efforts there privately admitted to me that they did so largely to make good on their already monumental strategic losses. I pointed out that emotionally doubling down on a bad strategic assessment in order to wipe the slate clean of one’s intellectual mistakes — saving career and reputation — is a terrible way to make foreign policy for the rest of us.
The surface answer as to why Afghanistan has gone so wrong, as parroted by the usual interventionist suspects in both US parties, is that, in America fully leaving, the fragile regime in Kabul cannot militarily or politically stand on its own two feet and that the country will be completely overrun by Washington’s enemies. This is, of course, entirely true, but it is hardly the point.

Instead, it is time for all of us to use just a shred of logic in thinking this through. If — after spending an eye-watering $822 billion-$1 trillion in Afghanistan over the last generation — a stable indigenous government does not possess the magic elixir of local political legitimacy, it is a safe bet that it never will.

The Biden administration, to its credit, realizes it is past time to get out, even as it pivots to deal with peer competitor China in the Indo-Pacific.

Dr. John C. Hulsman

As this is so obviously true, the strategic options are clear and binary: Either the US is determined to properly colonize the place, staying forever, or it is past time to go and cut our massive, tragic losses of both blood and treasure. The Biden administration, to its credit, realizes it is past time to get out, even as it pivots to deal with peer competitor China in the Indo-Pacific.

But, despite all evidence to the contrary, much of the foreign policy establishment wishes to stay on in Afghanistan, as the obvious penalty for literally decades of foreign policy malpractice would be, with the victory of the Taliban, suddenly clear to the world’s public. Careers would be halted, blame rightly affixed and, most importantly, wars of choice would be even further discredited with the American public than they already are.

The failure of the indigenous government of Ashraf Ghani is painfully clear. The CIA is reported to have given the Kabul government only six more months of survival; my political risk firm’s reckoning is that this is on the optimistic side. As President Joe Biden rightly put it, “Never has Afghanistan been a united country, not in all of its history.” America’s ignorance of this historical reality has doomed it to failure.

In an earlier book — my biography of Lawrence of Arabia, “To Begin The World Over Again” — I noted that a fatal flaw in America’s notion of nation-building in Iraq and Afghanistan is that it didn’t allow for local, specific, historical, cultural, economic or geographical factors to matter. Instead, it ruinously sees all people across the world at any time period as blank slates, inherently interchangeable, and devoid of these central characteristics.

In other words, nation-building in Baghdad and Kabul should follow roughly the same path as nation-building in Tokyo and Berlin after the Second World War. This cancerous and utterly utopian idea lies behind all the other nation-building failures over two decades. This is the noxious idea that must be buried if America is not to persist in such strategic lunacy. Instead, far more humility is in order; state and national identity formation organically grows out of specific cultures and takes centuries. As T.E. Lawrence recognized, if you work with local, organic cultures you cannot lose; if you work against them, you cannot win.

The American elite has been playing, and losing, at the roulette table of nation-building and fighting wars of choice for fully two decades. It is past time to bury America’s naive and dangerously flawed notion of nation-building.

  • Dr. John C. Hulsman

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