The Perils of Modernization in Afghanistan

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


More articles by:

Brian M Downing is a political-military analyst, author of The Military Revolution and Political Change and The Paths of Glory: Social Change in America from the Great War to Vietnam, and co-author with Danny Rittman of The Samson Heuristic. He can be reached at brianmdowning@gmail.com.

March 22, 2018
Conn Hallinan
Italy, Germany and the EU’s Future
David Rosen
The Further Adventures of the President and the Porn Star
Gary Leupp
Trump, the Crown Prince and the Whole Ugly Big Picture
The Hudson Report
Modern-Day Debtors’ Prisons and Debt in Antiquity
Steve Martinot
The Properties of Property
Binoy Kampmark
Facebook, Cambridge Analytica and Surveillance Capitalism
Jeff Berg
Russian to Judgment
Gregory Barrett
POSSESSED! Europe’s American Demon Must Be Exorcised
Robby Sherwin
What Do We Do About Facebook?
Sam Husseini
Trump Spokesperson Commemorates Invading Iraq by Claiming U.S. Doesn’t Dictate to Other Countries; State Dept. Defends Invasion
Rob Okun
Students: Time is Ripe to Add Gender to Gun Debate
Michael Barker
Tory Profiteering in Russia and Putin’s Debt of Gratitude
March 21, 2018
Paul Street
Time is Running Out: Who Will Protect Our Wrecked Democracy from the American Oligarchy?
Mel Goodman
The Great Myth of the So-Called “Adults in the Room”
Chris Floyd
Stumbling Blocks: Tim Kaine and the Bipartisan Abettors of Atrocity
Eric Draitser
The Political Repression of the Radical Left in Crimea
Patrick Cockburn
Erdogan Threatens Wider War Against the Kurds
John Steppling
It is Us
Thomas Knapp
Death Penalty for Drug Dealers? Be Careful What You Wish for, President Trump
Manuel García, Jr.
Why I Am a Leftist (Vietnam War)
Isaac Christiansen
A Left Critique of Russiagate
Howard Gregory
The Unemployment Rate is an Inadequate Reporter of U.S. Economic Health
Ramzy Baroud
Who Wants to Kill Palestinian Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah?
Roy Morrison
Trouble Ahead: The Trump Administration at Home and Abroad
Roger Hayden
Too Many Dead Grizzlies
George Wuerthner
The Lessons of the Battle to Save the Ancient Forests of French Pete
Binoy Kampmark
Fictional Free Trade and Permanent Protectionism: Donald Trump’s Economic Orthodoxy
Rivera Sun
Think Outside the Protest Box
March 20, 2018
Jonathan Cook
US Smooths Israel’s Path to Annexing West Bank
Jeffrey St. Clair
How They Sold the Iraq War
Chris Busby
Cancer, George Monbiot and Nuclear Weapons Test Fallout
Nick Alexandrov
Washington’s Invasion of Iraq at Fifteen
David Mattson
Wyoming Plans to Slaughter Grizzly Bears
Paul Edwards
My Lai and the Bad Apples Scam
Julian Vigo
The Privatization of Water and the Impoverishment of the Global South
Mir Alikhan
Trump and Pompeo on Three Issues: Paris, Iran and North Korea
Seiji Yamada
Preparing For Nuclear War is Useless
Gary Leupp
Brennan, Venality and Turpitude
Martha Rosenberg
Why There’s a Boycott of Ben & Jerry’s on World Water Day, March 22
John Pilger
Skripal Case: a Carefully-Constructed Drama?
March 19, 2018
Henry Heller
The Moment of Trump
John Davis
Pristine Buildings, Tarnished Architect
Uri Avnery
The Fake Enemy
Patrick Cockburn
The Fall of Afrin and the Next Phase of the Syrian War
Nick Pemberton
The Democrats Can’t Save Us