- Stuck in the Big Muddy
For those who follow the conflict in Afghanistan on a regular basis, it almost seems as though the United States and NATO-led International Security Force (ISAF) blunder from one strategic disaster to another. From the desecration of Qur’ans and the dead bodies of Taliban fighters to the tremendously alarming growth of “green-on-blue” or “insider attacks” (fratricide) — 51 in this year alone, as of mid-September — there has been no shortfall of mishaps. Add to these a series of high-profile assassinations, spectacular attacks in Kabul mass prison escapes, $910 million vanishing from the Kabul bank in “mysterious insider loans,” and the recent announcement that the US military is suspending ground-level operations with Afghan troops. It is therefore not surprising that Western public support for the Afghan War has waned, with 53% of Europeans and 44% of Americans favoring immediate withdrawal.1 Several recently published books on Afghanistan chronicle the enormously complex and deeply flawed Western efforts to bring peace and stability to this war-torn country.
Astri Suhrke’s When More is Less is a detailed, trenchant exposé of Western peacebuilding efforts in Afghanistan since 2001. The principal question she raises is how Afghanistan reached the point where the US commander of Combined Forces in Afghanistan warned in late 2009 that NATO was on the verge of losing the war (p. 2). To answer this question, she dissects the forces, dynamics, and contradictions associated with the West’s “grand international project” in Afghanistan. Suhrke contends that the international community’s liberal modernization agenda pursued in a deeply conservative, traditional society was bound to, and indeed did, engender resistance.
Suhrke begins by reminding the reader that “about two-thirds of all aid was channeled [End Page 723] through an ‘external budget’ administered directly by foreign donors ... The result of this huge infusion of capital [was]… massive corruption, poor governance, the uncertainty of economic growth in the aid bubble, a steadily expanding insurgency and mounting violence that affected combatants and civilians alike” (p. 1). Contradictions between the goals of this massive liberal peacebuilding effort and the realities of the war on the ground had a “corrosive effect on the entire peacebuilding project,” according to Suhrke. Efforts to pursue reform and protect human rights clashed with military pursuits (p. 15), and the lack of security hindered development. State-building became overly ambitious, in “striking contrast to the narrow and specific aims of the Bush Administration when it invaded the country in late 2001” (p. 23). The “sheer size of the aid sector created extreme dependence, weak local ownership and corruption” (p. 119). By mid-decade, foreign donors, for all practical purposes, had created “a rentier state unparalleled in Afghan history and nearly unique in the world of international assistance” (p. 120). Moreover, the massive size of the aid sector created weak local ownership and corruption. Quite simply, the amount of aid money flowing into Afghanistan overwhelmed the country’s social and international capacity to absorb it in any legal and socially acceptable manner (p. 133). This, in turn, undermined the Afghan government’s legitimacy, allowed for the continued prominence of warlords and perpetuation of human rights abuses, and a wide variety of other calamities (p. 225).
Suhrke also argues that the costs and unintended consequences of the foreign military presence contributed to the growing frustration, anger, and anti-foreign sentiments among the Afghan people (p. 70). This was especially evident...