Acton Institute Powerblog

Afghanistan I fought for lacks foundation for freedom

(Image credit: Associated Press)

A sustainable government and flourishing society can only be built under the right conditions. Acknowledging the dignity of the human person, the importance of subsidiary social institutions, a commitment to the rule of law and an embrace of the commercial society are necessary, but they were absent in Afghanistan, largely because of Afghanistan’s violent modern history. […]

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I deployed to Afghanistan in 2010. Eleven years later, I watched the Taliban devastate all the progress we fought for.

Afghanistan’s chaos and the Taliban’s return to power is heartbreaking and maddening.  Like other veterans who deployed to Afghanistan, my astonishment at what is transpiring is limited only to the speed of the collapse.

While historians and political scientists will assess and debate the innumerable missteps during America’s 20-year Afghanistan presence, at least one thing is clear: When the preconditions necessary to secure a free and flourishing society are absent, it is extraordinarily difficult for another nation to impose them, and it is the ordinary citizens of that society who suffer as a consequence.

One of these preconditions is anthropological — a civilization must recognize the inherent dignity of the human person if that civilization is to thrive. The Afghan people have been the victims of four decades of violent conflict where torture, death and destruction were commonplace. Such an environment inevitably undermines the value of a person’s humanity.

Whatever good the United States and its allies were able to promote in the service of the Afghan people — such as increasing access to a stable school environment for Afghan girls — the Taliban will undoubtedly unravel.

According to the U.S. Department of State, the Taliban committed large-scale massacres of civilians in the late 1990s and the situation is again particularly grave for women and the ethnic Hazara minority. Two decades of effort were insufficient to illuminate the Afghan government and army of the Taliban’s barbarism and thus importance of mounting a vigorous defense of their country against them. Few government officials and soldiers possessed an adequate understanding of the dignity of each Afghani, and they folded too easily.

Our Afghanistan efforts also failed because the necessary sociological preconditions weren’t there. Human beings are inherently social creatures, which implies that social institutions are exceedingly important for human beings to thrive. But these social institutions must be at the service of the first condition — the dignity of the human person.

On the one hand, Afghan culture is known for its custom of hospitality. Indeed, I experienced the warm hospitality of Afghans firsthand. But hospitality is insufficient; societies also have a need for a broad array of social institutions (local and national) that reinforce the duty to treat all men and women with equal dignity and provide a community of reciprocal understanding and trust.

Oppressive dominance by the Soviets not only hindered the development of these institutions, but it also actively undermined them through its totalitarian Marxist ideology. After the Soviet withdrawal in 1989, the Taliban repeated the Soviet’s oppression, this time using Islamist ideology.

The Taliban’s virtue police thwarted healthy social institutions by severely limiting women’s access to education, work and health care while banning social bonding activities like kite flying. Now, after a 20-year hiatus, it appears that whatever social capital may have been built is now on the cusp of dissolution.

Other preconditions for a flourishing and stable society include the rule of law, market commerce and creative entrepreneurial activity. The rule of law, where human rights and private property are respected, must also be consistently and impartially enforced. It is only under these conditions that a commercial society can prosper, and entrepreneurship can create new wealth.

Sadly, it is well known that the Afghan government was rife with corruption. This corruption, coupled with incompetence, oftentimes manifested itself in the form of ethnic discrimination. Incensed by injustice, Afghan citizens would turn to the Taliban for extrajudicial remedies. Graft, cronyism, the drug trade and other deeply embedded maladies are not problems quickly overcome.

Furthermore, property rights are at best tenuous in a society with endemic conflict.  Regular and violent regime change often paralyzes the conditions under which commercial life thrives. Development economists have long underscored the importance of the rule of law, access to institutions of justice, and defense of property in enabling countries to grow economically.

Afghanistan, on the other hand, ranks 165th on Transparency International’s corruption perception index — indicating an abysmal deficiency in the rule of law. Clearly the Afghan government failed in establishing these conditions, and corruption was no small factor in the inevitable collapse. No country can have a thriving commercial sector under these conditions.

The United States’ removal of the Taliban after 9/11 was an understandable response to a regime that harbored terrorists. Thousands of heroic military personnel from dozens of countries sacrificed their lives to deter terrorism and give the Afghan people hope. The swiftness of the government’s collapse after 20 years of nation-building is as much an indictment of Afghan government and military as it is a catastrophe for the Afghan people.

A sustainable government and flourishing society can only be built under the right conditions. Acknowledging the dignity of the human person, the importance of subsidiary social institutions, a commitment to the rule of law and an embrace of the commercial society are necessary, but they were absent in Afghanistan, largely because of Afghanistan’s violent modern history.

Unfortunately, the endgame unfolding now is as unsurprising as it is tragic.

This article originally appeared in The Detroit News on August 19, 2021

Stephen Barrows

Stephen Barrows is Managing Director of Programs at the Acton Institute.