Astri Suhrke. When More Is Less: The International Project in Afghanistan. New York: Columbia University Press, 2011. x + 293 pp. $25.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-231-70272-0.
Reviewed by Hamish Nixon
Published on H-Diplo (August, 2012)
Commissioned by Seth Offenbach
Explaining the Deepening Morass of Afghanistan
It seems unlikely that history will be wholly kind to the early forays of the global war on terror. The true costs--human, financial, diplomatic, and moral--of intervention in both Afghanistan and Iraq defy accounting even as they continue to mount. In Afghanistan, the struggle to emerge from a decade of engagement without a breakdown into civil war, never mind seeing the stable and democratized country once hoped for, grows increasingly desperate. Explaining this yawning gap between the aspirations and scope of the international intervention in Afghanistan and its inglorious results will entail years of scrutiny and argument. As Gilles Dorronsoro, like Astri Suhrke an expert with decades of exposure to Afghanistan, notes in his endorsement of When More is Less, the course of Western nation building in Afghanistan is a major event begging for explanation, and Suhrke's book is a foundational step in that process.
At its core, Suhrke’s argument is simple: simultaneously pursuing a military response to terrorism along with an international peace and state-building effort was doomed to fail. Elements of this idea and the institutional tensions and ideological blinders it would engender were recognized by those with the most knowledge and (perhaps therefore) the least influence in the new international enterprise. A notable example, Suhrke grants, is the last book that this reviewer read before departing to Afghanistan, Chris Johnson and Jolyon Leslie’s prescient work The Mirage of Peace (2004).
There is little doubt that many of the dynamics of Afghanistan’s, and indeed Iraq’s, bizarre trajectories can be laid at the feet of the overwhelming dominance of a U.S. military tasked with an ever-expanding mandate over a fragmented civilian aid community. There is possibly no more emblematic example of this core contradiction than the U.S. delays and outright exclusion of significant militias from the flagship Disarmament, Demobilization, and Reintegration (DDR) program because they “were needed to fight the Taliban” (p. 142). This contributed to an empowerment of armed groups that continue to operate to this day and some argue was “the single most important flaw in the whole international project” (pp. 141-142).
Prominent among this book’s contributions are its systematic documentation of the destructive tension not only in the security sphere, but also across the political, administrative, and judicial dimensions of the state-building effort. The chapter dealing with the justice sector, for example, makes clear that the sudden surge of interest in integration between formal (courts and judges) and informal (jirga and shura) justice mechanisms had nothing to do with the social realities of the country, but rather the perception that the Taliban were gaining ground by delivering uncorrupt justice services. By treating the intervention thematically, When More Is Less fosters a discussion of this core tension across several domains. The economic distortion (in terms of macro-economic effects and benefit incidence) of this dynamic remains the least well-studied component, and understandably may remain so for a long time.
Beyond this core, the book also documents the internal weaknesses of each of the efforts--the anti-Taliban fight and the international liberal peace-building effort in their own right. These suffered in parallel from a similar set of pathologies: their overwhelming fiscal weight as opposed to the capacity to absorb resources; the reliance on individual interlocutors, themselves all with incentives to “game” the system; and the mind-boggling incoherence and multiplicity of the donor and military landscape and its associated ever-multiplying demands on the Afghan government. Furthermore, the book illustrates the cultural chasms and errors in logic that feed deepening involvement and perverse outcomes--the beginning of an intellectual history of events. The civilian surge, for example, emerges as the product of the decision to surge military personnel combined with the proliferating meme that there is no purely military solution, rather than actual analysis of the requirements of governance reform and the weaknesses of parachuting in growing numbers of well-meaning but ill-equipped civilians. Again and again, the international community finds itself treating as peripheral to the mission concerns that for the Afghans are at the very heart of the legitimacy of the entire enterprise--the empowerment of armed commanders, collateral damage, and affronts to honor and Islam. Indeed, some of the most interesting theoretical thinking in the book concerns the problem of legitimacy, with the tentative and provocative claim that the modernizing option of legal-rational legitimacy is essentially results based, while nationalism, Islam, and charisma are not. By extension, trying to modernize in messy environments like Afghanistan will always be at a deep disadvantage.
Suhrke frequently distinguishes her argument from another school of thought among experienced observers: that shortly after 2001 a window was missed when goodwill was high; warlords were cowed; and a more robust effort, undistracted by Iraq, would have generated a different dynamic had it not been blocked by a relentless U.S. focus on chasing scalps. For example, Suhrke is careful to distinguish her argument from Ahmed Rashid’s diagnosis, in his journalistic-yet-thorough Descent into Chaos (2010), of missed opportunities in the early years of the intervention, and is also more knowledgeable in her treatment of the non-military aspects of the intervention. Suhrke overplays some of these distinctions for effect. At root the question is simply this: could the situation have turned out differently, or did the decision to go to Afghanistan (with its roots in September 11) contain the seeds of its own failure? There is plenty of evidence for both conclusions contained in When More Is Less. Although Suhrke does not clearly state it in an explicit argument, what emerges in the book is that how things are done matters just as much as the effort (in dollars or personnel) that is put into them.
Suhrke warns repeatedly that counterfactual history is dangerous. However, linear explanations of social and political change may be equally dangerous, and an adherence to explanations that turn on the international mission’s contradictions may miss turning points that are often overlooked and hard to discern, but have always been clear to those operating inside Afghan politics. An example might be the riots that rocked Kabul in 2006 after an American military truck’s brakes failed, killing several bystanders in a Tajik-dominated corner of the capital: an unpredictable accident that presented to Afghan President Hamid Karzai the crystal clear reality that the northerners could bring the entire edifice down with little notice if they wished.
The section on democratization opens approvingly, noting that the Bonn process succeeded in “putting in place some principal institutions for resolving social conflict,” but it also contains the best illustrations of considering quality as well as quantity (p. 155). Suhrke outlines potentially crucial turning points in revealing detail: the blocking by the United States of any check on the executive branch during the transitional period, the adoption of an ultra-centralized presidentialism, and an obscure and ill-suited electoral system as part of a wide-ranging effort to block political development of parties.
The nature of the political system in Afghanistan is not a peripheral or symptomatic feature of the failure of the transformative agenda. It is at the core of that failure. As Suhrke describes, centralism to this degree meant that “the executive branch exerted a strong gravitational pull in clientelist politics by virtue of its command of important access points to the international support structure” (p. 176). In fact, it is important to go further: by concentrating all key decisions in its imperial presidency, the system placed Karzai at the chaotic center of the nexus between formal institutional politics and informal power, making inevitable his degradation and that of the system as a whole. For now, it remains a matter of debate whether a different political system might have been chosen, but it certainly remains a live question for potential peace negotiations not only with the Taliban, but also among mainstream political forces in the country.
In a sense, the argument that invading Afghanistan while trying to rebuild it was a contradiction in terms comes across as mechanistic and obscures some of the nuances of the book. In an alternative account that accepts the likely twists and turns of history and rejects a mechanistic determinism, the biggest of these turning points is surely the failure to seek a political settlement among all Afghan forces as the basis for the entire endeavor. Such a peace would have solved many of the foundational contradictions that Suhrke so carefully documents, since many of them stemmed from the imperative to hunt and fight the Taliban. She is right to point out that we cannot strictly know if this would have been possible, but would be wrong to claim that it is counterfactual--as she reports, careful scholarship and reporting have already revealed a strong interest in an inclusive settlement by many elements of the Taliban in the early period of the intervention.
What is clear (once again) is that altering the balance of power by moving pieces around or adding more of them to the chessboard is not enough. Peace building, as John Paul Lederach has elegantly put it in The Moral Imagination (2005), is an act of “moral imagination” that transcends the mere application of resources to permit both belligerents and peace builders to transform their relationships and envision a new reality. When More Is Less shows the inability to foster such a transformation under the circumstances of the War on Terror. It is less able to tell us if the international community might not do better if it takes (or rediscovers) as a starting point the idea that one cannot build peace without a peace agreement, and societies will not be transformed without the opportunity such an agreement presents.
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Hamish Nixon. Review of Suhrke, Astri, When More Is Less: The International Project in Afghanistan.
H-Diplo, H-Net Reviews.
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