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Friday, July 1, 2011

Towards a post-Gates Afghanistan

Bob Gates has left the US Department of Defense. Many would say that he has been something of a sure hand there. But on Afghanistan he has been mistaken. He is famous for the statement that the US is 'not trying to create a new Switzerland in Afghanistan.' To him it seems like a perfectly obvious and pragmatic view. We all chuckle at the thought of Afghans crafting Rolex watches or munching on chocolates.

But the policy that Gates has pursued is even more idealistic than that. For him and his boss presumably to not pursue such a transformational project would be costly. Curiously however massive transformation is exactly their project, with all the forces of history and politics against them. A new Switzerland would be easier.

Here's why. The Gates' view is to make Afghanistan a unitary state, like France run from Paris, only in this case Kabul would run the place  After all, it is the capital city, no? Switzerland also has a capital city but it does not run the country...the provinces or cantons do. The national government is a creature of the cantons. Switzerland is a confederal state. So is Afghanistan historically. And with Gates gone maybe there is a chance that the US could now implement a confederation policy. 

What has been worse about Gates' policy is that it not only counters Afghan history and politics but it goes against global trends. The centrality of Westphalian-style states is fading worldwide. Not completely mind you. But there is more competition in the global space. There are now strong IO's and NGO's and MNC's and stateless peoples and stateless insurgencies, etc. etc.

Sometimes the definition of a hero is one who triumphs against all the odds. Indeed Gates has said he does not care how much it all costs monetarily and his Defense budget never ever declined during his tenure. But today's heroes simply need to win not win bullheadedly.  

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