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Lessons from Vietnam and Central America

The Perils of Modernization in Afghanistan

by BRIAN DOWNING

Since counterinsurgency was first bandied about in US bureaus and agencies in the early sixties, the idea has been associated with western ideas of economic development and modernization – dissolving a backward traditional society and building a vigorous modern one. In the mind of many American policy makers, it is their nation’s mission in the world to help this process along, inevitable though they believe it to be.

Western and Afghani bureaus must abandon this idea, as sweeping change will be opposed in tribal areas and elsewhere too. In the late seventies the Afghan government embarked on a reform program of redistributing land, bringing education to the villages, and increasing the state’s presence throughout the country to carry through reform – a program that will not strike many outsiders as problematic, resonant as it is with American aid plans dating back to the sixties. The reforms led to opposition and later to open revolt in almost every quarter of the country, which in turn triggered the Soviet intervention and an agonizing war.

Even land reform – a hallmark of US development programs from postwar Japan to Vietnam and Central America – was opposed. Rural dwellers in Afghanistan felt little antipathy toward notables as long as they performed reciprocal duties and weren’t overly grasping. Roy Prosterman once proclaimed of land reform in Vietnam, “We’re going to breed capitalists like rabbits.” In Afghanistan it might breed far more Taliban than capitalists.

One of the more visible aspects of ongoing development programs is road construction. Western, Indian, and Iranian engineers are building roads linking Kabul to various parts of the country, and proudly point to their achievements. Many people in previously isolated districts will look upon the roads as beneficial, but many will not. They will see them as ominous contrivances that will facilitate outside interference and control. Furthermore, roads link many parts of the country but bypass and isolate others. Established trade flows will be altered to the detriment of some.

Economic development is a dynamic process, even more so today than in centuries past. A development project in Kandahar or Paktia today can bring more disruption in a year than a new cotton mill did over a generation in Manchester or Birmingham two hundred years ago. Older artisanal and trade patterns could be disrupted or ruined. Development programs in South Vietnam brought innovation and greater crop yields, but also unemployment for many rural laborers. Cast aside by outside forces, they were recruited by the Viet Cong and a loyal worker became a dedicated guerrilla in just a few months – confirmed by after-action intelligence. The Taliban have shown similar adroitness in the East, where government directives have restricted lumber production.

Organizations charged with counterinsurgency will face complexities unimagined by the early thinkers in the field. Modernization and related ideas of progress that are deeply embedded in the western mind, must be set aside. They must build dialog and reciprocity between state and society without fundamentally altering the latter. Their efforts will be better devoted to restoring a traditional society that has been disrupted by decades of war and the destructiveness of the Taliban.

Paradoxically, this counterinsurgency program will perhaps be the first whose task is in many respects to avoid modernization and all it portends – for men and women alike.

Brian M. Downing is the author of several works of political and military history, including The Military Revolution and Political Change and The Paths of Glory: War and Social Change in America from the Great War to Vietnam. He can be reached at: brianmdowning@gmail.com