It will take years to develop a full accounting of the degree to which America’s presence in Afghanistan has been a complete and utter debacle. Most Americans are blissfully unaware of the true extent of the number of lives lost or maimed, money wasted, or monumentally foolish decisions and policies that led to the United States’ humiliating, though entirely necessary, withdrawal from Afghanistan. Seeing how Americans loathe losing and humiliation, it would not be surprising if most people tried to forget about the whole affair as soon as possible. Such selective amnesia, however, is a sure way to ensure that such debacles occur again in the future and we owe it to those whose lives have been fruitlessly lost and to the lives of those yet to come to understand how such a disaster could occur.
Fortunately, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) has been diligently recording the 20-year-long train wreck year after year, and its report What We Need to Learn: Lessons from Twenty Years of Afghanistan Reconstruction makes clear how badly American policymakers were in need of Hayekian insights into the complex nature of society, and the futility of what Hayek would call the constructivist rationalist basis for attempting to “start the world over again.”
While the lengthy report has many sections worthy of close review, the seventh chapter, “Context,” is especially noteworthy for its clear demonstration of how in many ways Hayek’s ghost haunts the hills of Afghanistan.
American officials were completely lacking in local Afghan knowledge throughout US involvement. SIGAR’s report documents some widespread examples that would be comical if they weren’t so absurd. American-designed schools had heavy roofs that required installation by cranes, cranes that could not get to the rugged mountain terrain where they were needed. Schools designed with lighter roofs collapsed under the heavy snow. Because of the Americans with Disabilities Act, Afghan schools built on terrain that was inaccessible to wheelchairs were required to be built with wheelchair ramps and extra-wide doors, contributing to US-built schools costing four to five times as much as schools built by European agencies. In other instances, SIGAR found that planners had selected construction sites without even consulting topographic maps or aerial photography, resulting in the selection of “unsuitable construction sites, such as steep slopes or riverbeds.”
As bad as all that was, worse still was, in language included in the report, that the “US government was even less adept at perceiving and adapting to the country’s social and cultural environment.”
The US government seemingly did everything wrong. As it attempted to create formal institutions, it largely ignored preexisting informal ones that have empowered corrupt warlords and local strongmen for as long as anyone on the ground could remember. A failure to understand existing patronage networks and the incentives of the Afghan bureaucracy led, inexorably, to the death of a Western-style market economy.
In one notable example, the US spent over a billion dollars attempting to set up a formal justice system in the country, despite the vast majority of legal disputes having been dealt with for centuries through local institutions and dispute resolution mechanisms. Those who tried to use this new formal justice system found it to be slow and mired in bureaucracy. In turn, this allowed the Taliban to compete with the US-backed Afghan government by providing familiar and efficient dispute resolution services.
As the report notes, “the laws that emerged from the post-Taliban state building effort were drafted by foreign advisors with only limited involvement of their Afghan counterparts.”
A similarly painful example can be seen in the US government’s attempt to promote gender equality across Afghanistan where SIGAR notes that “US agencies often failed to adequately appreciate the Afghan cultural context and acute sensitivities around gender norms, or to set realistic goals that reflected the barriers to progress.”
Some officials were aware that the US was fumbling around in the dark. The report notes that one member of General Stanley McChrystal’s assessment team stated that “implementing an effective counterinsurgency campaign requires ‘a level of local knowledge I don’t have about my own hometown.’” Another official noted that “his team was ‘played all the time by the Afghans.’”
SIGAR notes that the US government was effectively trying to completely transform and rebuild Afghan society in every respect while also fighting an insurgency campaign and notes that “rarely did US officials have even a mediocre understanding of the environment, much less how it was responding to US interventions.”
The report then cuts to the crux of the Afghan debacle:
In fact, blaming mistakes on a simple lack of information may be charitable. Many mistakes were borne from a wilful disregard for information that may have been available. After all, in many cases, the US government’s very purpose was to usher in an orderly revolution that would replace existing Afghan social systems with western or “modern” systems. If the intention was to build institutions from scratch, understanding and working within the country’s traditional systems was unnecessary.
None of these negative outcomes would be a surprise to Nobel Prize-winning economist, F.A. Hayek, who discussed at great length the negative effects of central planners attempting to consciously construct immensely complex social institutions that have organically emerged over time, not from conscious human design, but rather from the disparate interactions of numerous people.
In his essay “Kinds of Rationalism,” Hayek labels this impulse to consciously build all institutions and in doing so attempted to toss out all existing spontaneous systems as constructive rationalism, and stated that it has “wrought unmeasurable harm” and has served as the basis for all kinds of 20th century totalitarianism. Drawing upon the work of David Hume, Hayek argued that “human intelligence is quite insufficient to comprehend all the details of the complex human society” and that therefore we have come to rely on abstract rules that have emerged spontaneously over time in a multi-generational process of trial and error. America’s spectacular failure in Afghanistan drives home how those who ignore this insight do so at their own peril.
Had America’s foreign policy establishment taken Hayek’s lesson to heart, so much human suffering could have been avoided, for both Americans and Afghans. The debacle in Afghanistan has finally ended, at least for Americans, but unless Hayek’s insights on the futility of central planning fueled by constructivist rationalist obsessions with remaking the world are taken to heart, such costly mistakes will continue to happen.