The story pulls together what sounds like a rational case for optimism after a decade of war in Afghanistan, compiling all kinds of data about how the avalanche of foreigners’ money helped the locals.
Some of the indicators appear solid. I don’t know anybody who would argue that fewer Afghan girls get educated these days, as compared with the medieval school system run by the Taliban in the 1990s.
But the analysis has many weaknesses. It refers to Asia Foundation surveys, showing Afghans feel increasingly secure and supportive of their government, without noting the profound misgivings about such polls in Afghanistan.
The Globe and Mail previously revealed that an in-depth analysis commissioned by the British government concluded that those surveys should not be used “for potentially contentious questions around government performance, security, corruption, justice and democracy.”
The analysis also relies on World Bank data showing healthy growth in the Afghan economy, without mentioning that the World Bank also published a worrying report last month about what will happen after the planned transition to local responsibility for security in 2014. The World Bank study suggested a “sense of urgency” about avoiding a situation like that of Somalia, in which “abrupt aid cut-offs lead to fiscal implosion, loss of control over security sector, collapse of political authority, and possibly civil war.” Afghanistan’s economy, in other words, is a bubble inflated with war money.
Perhaps the most interesting part of the Foreign Policy analysis is the violence data. The magazine website reports that “the country remains considerably more peaceful and united than it has been for most of the past 40 years,” citing World Bank data on battle deaths that show an average of 9,000 deaths a year in the 1990s, as compared with about 3,000 deaths a year from 2003 to 2008.
These numbers are compiled by a Swedish academic group called the Uppsala Conflict Data Program, and it appears that researchers did not have particularly refined data for several years in the 1990s; the figures are round estimates. Even those rough numbers show a clear trend during that decade, however. Battle deaths exceeded 10,000 every year from 1990 to 1994; in the following years, as the Taliban seized control of the country, battle deaths fell to an average of 5,000 per year from 1995 to 2001. The Taliban were exceptionally bad in many ways, but the statistics suggest that they imposed a certain amount of brutal order.
The Foreign Policy analysis is correct that violence remained relatively low in the first years after 2001, but the World Bank/Uppsala statistics don’t include the terrible heights of mayhem reached in 2009, 2010 and 2011. For those numbers, it’s easiest to look at the charts compiled by Brookings in the Afghanistan Index, which make it clear that violence now exceeds the averages for the years under the Taliban regime. Among civilians alone – excluding combatants on both sides of the conflict – the annual death toll is now running at roughly 3,000 per year.
I’ve been trading emails about this today with Joshua Foust, a fellow at the American Security Project, and he summarized his opinion with typical flair: "If the international community had spent $100-billion on development over ten years and accomplished nothing, that would be shocking. So it’s no surprise that some things have improved. What [author Charles]Kenny should be asking isn’t, ‘Did we get anything for our vast expenditure?’, but rather, ‘Have the improvements been worth the cost?’"
It may be too early to make such calculations. The German media have reported on a leaked assessment by U.S. and German intelligence, predicting a nasty internal conflict will follow the withdrawal of international forces from Afghanistan. If the country spirals into civil war in the coming years, that may change history’s assessment of the intervention.
In the movie Charlie Wilson’s War, based on a book about the 1980s conflict in Afghanistan, a CIA official warns U.S. politician Charlie Wilson to avoid judging events too quickly:
Gust Avrakotos: “There’s a little boy and on his 14th birthday he gets a horse... and everybody in the village says, ‘How wonderful. The boy got a horse.’ And the Zen master says, ‘We’ll see.’ Two years later, the boy falls off the horse, breaks his leg, and everyone in the village says, ‘How terrible.’ And the Zen master says, ‘We’ll see.’ Then, a war breaks out and all the young men have to go off and fight... except the boy can’t ‘cause his leg’s all messed up. And everybody in the village says, ‘How wonderful.’
Charlie Wilson: Now the Zen master says, “We’ll see.”