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Bad news from Kabul

August 21st, 2003

This report from Salon is the most depressing of a string of depressing stories I’ve seen coming out of Afghanistan.

As the article makes clear, there are all sorts of reasons for the current problems, going back at least to the Russian invasion. But a big one is that the US has not spent the kind of money required to make a success of nationbuilding, and has not provided the kind of security that would encourage other donors to spend either. How much is needed would be hard to tell, but an obvious benchmark would be to return living standards to what they were before the current cycle of wars started. This would cost tens of billions of dollars, whereas the total amount being spent is around $1 billion.

All of this applies even more with respect to Iraq, which was wealthy before the war with the US started in 1991 (even more so before Saddam’s war with Iran). I estimated a few months back that a policy with a reasonable chance of establishing a stable democratic government would require expenditure of between $25 billion and $50 billion, and that the cost of undoing the damage of the last 15 years would be between $100 billion and $200 billion (all of this excludes the costs of military occupation). So far, the aid committed by the US Administration is $2 billion.

The pro-war Weekly Standard agrees, and has even suggested a petrol tax to defray some of the costs (thanks to Jack Strocchi for passing this along). Of course, there is no prospect of this happening. But at least the Standard, unlike most of those who supported the war, is pushing the Administration to take the kind of actions that would be needed to justify it.

It’s possible that the current policy of nation-building on the cheap might work. The atrocious attack on the UN building and, more generally, the shift towards civilian targets on the part of at those fighting the occupation forces may shift public sentiment against them. And perhaps the attacks on civilians are a sign of weakness. But the example of Afghanistan does not provide any grounds for optimism.

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  1. rdb
    August 21st, 2003 at 18:39 | #1

    Surely a hypothecated tax on whatever the Americans call Death Duties would be more appropriate than
    a petrol tax.

  2. kez
    August 22nd, 2003 at 14:14 | #2

    The deference to a western God for the solution to political problems is becoming increasingly suspicious. The Almighty Dollar may solve the financial issues that dominate the western world because we’re wealthy enough to ignore our increasing social concerns, but the third world requires opportunities, not just hand outs, and these opportunities will only arise through freedom from exploitation – not freedom through exploitation.

  3. August 23rd, 2003 at 11:29 | #3

    I have been reluctant to blog on Iraq until the direction of security affairs becomes clearer. But there has never been any doubt in my mind of the essential conditions for success in Iraq:
    devote massive US aid to enhance Iraq’s nation-building prosperity
    allow substatntial UN multilateral power-sharing to give Iraq’s democracy-promotion legitimacy
    The current US admin is doing precisely the opposite of what is required, trying to rush through nation-building on the cheap and cut-out multilateral power-sharing.
    This is because the US admin is:
    against welfare state nation-building/for warfare state regime changing
    against UN multilataralism/for US unilateralism
    Fundamentally the US admin wants to minimise it’s national expenditure and maximise it’s international power, but these goals are not consistent with the strategic goal of reforming Iraq.
    The current security and prosperity problems in Iraq can be traced to US admin fixation with the these contradictory ideas. In fact Iraq’s post-war woes constitute an existence proof refutation of the US admin’s minimal reformationist ideology.
    Having said that I would also, contrarian that I am, predict that, just as the war had a trough in the middle, so the peace will have a mid-term trough.
    I recall blogging/commenting at the time that the war in Iraq could turn into Mogadishu-cum-Beirut.
    One hopes that the US admin wakes up to the failure of it’s post-war thinking before Iraq’s strife trough attains a Beirut equilibrium.

  4. August 23rd, 2003 at 15:25 | #4

    The blogeist comes to the rescue on the issue of contrarian punditry. Keegan is a bull on Iraq, with a good record on prediction in this conflict.
    Keegan claims that Iraq is not another Vietnam, but the coalition needs more men.
    I think that the coalition can still retrieve Iraq from civil war or reversion to:
    tribalist fundamentalism (a la Taliban)
    statist fascism (a la Hussein)
    But the US needs to:
    spend more money on Iraq
    sacrifice power to the UN
    The US admin may be willing to change course.
    Does anyone want to take bets that the situation in Iraq will be better, not worse, within one year?
    I will be wanting odds.
    (Proceeds to go to Iraqi civilian casualty charity.)

  5. gordon
    August 26th, 2003 at 10:37 | #6

    I can’t help but feel that everybody is overstating the complexity of the Iraq situation. It seems easier to recognise that the objective of the US involvement in Iraq was never any form of Nation-building, but simply to remove any sort of competent State apparatus (welfare, warfare or other) which might interfere with US access to the oil. The reduction of Iraquis to picturesque ignorance and poverty is success, not failure.

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