One primary bad assumption about the mission in Afghanistan is that there is some fundamental need for Afghanistan to exist as a single country, that these colonial borders should be maintained at a great cost in human life. The ruling group you mentioned in Japan shared a culture, language, religion, and ethnicity with a majority of the country, although significant minorities existed (Okinawan, Ainu). In Afghanistan, things are much more divided. Would the Tajiks be better served as part of Tajikistan? Would the Persian speakers be better off with Iran? Would they at least be better off separate from the Pashtuns in three countries? Is it fair to expect a fledgling government to solve the complex Sunni/Shia divide?

The fact that we go in there expecting new states that are still figuring out how to collect taxes to solve difficult problems of protecting minorities that remain challenges for advanced states seems so unrealistic it is hard to believe it is possible. However, I don't think we had to settle for letting the Taliban rule over everyone. We failed on this with the Kurds in Iraq, and expected their new democracy to solve the Sunni/Shia problem. Somehow we found peace in Yugoslavia, by getting every group their own country. Why don't we try this approach more often?

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Aug 16, 2021Liked by Noah Smith

Great post. My own view of why Japan(and Germany) did so well after WW2 is similar. Yes, the US helped, but much of their post war growth was merely getting back on track. Prior to the war both had stable functional governments, civil societies, advanced technology, and political norms forged over centuries. Japan's emergence as a world power could be traced back the Meiji restoration and Germany with unification under Bismarck. What both Germany and Japan had in common were indigenous reformations, largely an attempt by local elites to copy what worked elsewhere and junk antiquated cultural artifacts. However, both still had long traditions prior setting the tone for modernity. Afganistan's political elites are dead set on eliminating all things foreign or impure, they're more like the Khmer Rouge.

There is an intersting body of literature in economics I'd like to call "deep time" economics. Nothing in society can be truly determined but there are some intersting correlations economists have found. Modern development has been found to correlate with prior levels of development(rough GDP or urbanization estimates), the presence of agriculture, technological advancement, political stability, and the presence of formal government from hundreds and sometimes thousands of years ago. Here are two of a number of great papers on the issue.



Afghanistan has for a long time been an unstable and far removed place, dominated by tribalism. They simply don't have the centuries of accumulated social and physical capital Germany. Italy and Japan did. Think about what Afganistan was doing in the 70s or 80s. Compare that to the cutting edge manufacturing, physics, and chemistry coming out of Germany before WW1.

As a brief aside, I'd like to mention that I had some family in Afganistan in the 1980s fighting for the Soviet Army. As far as we can tell very little has changed. Modernization efforts like getting girls educated or letting people listen to music were both in vogue back then and often met with as much disinterest or hostility as they are now.

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I know little about this part of the world, but my son is far more knowledgeable and felt I should offer an alternative view on some of your propositions:

Thanks for the interesting read, Noah. On the two main points – that American military presence does not magically make countries more like America, and that the reason post-war Afghanistan does not resemble post-war Japan is primarily due to local factors – I agree, but I think there are some important misreadings of the situation.

Primarily, the idea that “… the only authority able to impose real order in the past few centuries was the Taliban” is factually wrong, deeply patronising, and promotes a misconception that ultimately serves to excuse America from blame for the outcome. While the name ‘Afghanistan’ is comparatively new, the part of the world to which it refers, historically known as Khorasan, has been well-run for much of its history. Over the past few centuries alone, the Shaybanid Khanate (based in modern Uzbekistan), the Safavid Dynasty of Persia, and the local Durrani Shahs have all been competent and effective rulers of the territory; the cities of Kabul, Herat, Balkh, and Mazar-e Sharif have been cultural centres for centuries.

Even in the 20th Century, the period from the end of the First World War to the very late 1970s was marked by stability, rising prosperity, and integration into global society; while rural areas may have been conservative in habit, as rural areas almost universally are around the world, society as a whole was generally open and becoming steadily more so. Anarchy and misrule has been the historical exception, rather than the rule, and usually occurs on the border with foreign states (like the Raj, or the Sikh state in the late C18 to early C19) or in response to foreign intervention that disrupts local patterns of authority. While Afghan society and its power structures are certainly nothing like Japan’s, and may be less familiar or accessible to outsiders, Afghanistan is not historically ungovernable.

There are some other issues (the term ‘tribal society’ obscures a lot of complexity, and the identification of ‘empires’ with ‘settler colonies and population replacement’ is inappropriate and refers to only one of many possible models of imperial organisation and exploitation, to name just two), but most importantly, the excuse offered for the present outcome – that Afghanistan is simply historically ungovernable – is untrue, misleading, and serves to mask the many failings of the US in its Afghan adventures.

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Aug 16, 2021Liked by Noah Smith

"Modern Japan is a prosperous stable liberal democracy not because of the magical transformative power of U.S. boots on the ground, but because of deep-rooted institutional, political, and cultural forces that were present before the war."

Perhaps that is the reason Afghanistan did not turn into a liberal democracy.

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I agree completely with your take on Afghanistan, but I think your take on American insularity actually displays a particular form of that insularity: you've adopted the view of the *one* foreign country that you're most familiar with, and you think that's a global enough perspective.

I'm not saying that I'm above it, but let me just show you what that looks like by explaining that I'm an American that's most familiar with Korean history and culture. And I think a lot of Koreans would tell you that you're giving Japan way too much credit when you claim that they "decided" to choose liberal democracy. Most Koreans would laugh at the notion that Taisho Democracy showed the liberal roots of Japan, since during that time Japan began a brutal occupation of Korea. I'm guessing that during your years in Japan, you didn't spend a lot of time with people from countries that experienced Japanese imperialism first hand.

The Japanese Emperor didn't "decide" to "choose" liberal democracy. He watched the American bombs fall on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and then he did what he was told. If he hadn't, he simply would have been executed and then his replacement would have done as the Americans demanded. I'm not in general a war hawk, but neither can I deny that there is such a thing as a just war, and WWII certainly qualifies. You seem to have forgotten that there was a just war and an unconditional surrender.

And finally, on whether military occupation can result in transformative effects: "It did not in the Philippines, it did not in Vietnam, it did not in Iraq, it did not in Afghanistan, it did not in Japan or Germany." Again, you left out Korea, a place that was indeed transformed in two halves. One half was transformed into arguably the worst country in the world. The other half is responsible for technology in your home and in your pocket, K-pop & K-drama, and winning Oscars without even speaking English. Of course it is always preferable to never be occupied at all, but geopolitics sometimes result in regions of constant strife. Korea's brief occupation by the United States freed half the country from hundreds of years of subjugation by Japan and China. That's not nothing, and if you say that it would have happened without the U.S., then you have to explain those hundreds of years, and you have to explain North Korea. To be clear: I'm not arguing that we should pursue foreign policy as if we can reliably transform countries through military occupation. I'm just saying, if all you know is American culture and Korean culture, it would be natural to see very different things than an American whose main foreign experience was in Japan.

I'm not saying that my blindered view is right, either. I'm more amused that even our American insularity is insular. But still, I think it's evident that not all of our foreign excursions have been misguided, and the ones that were misguided were not all misguided in the same way.

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I'm disappointed in this piece Noah, I like you and Delong a lot but there are some glaring errors. Saying America isn't an empire is a really ignorant statement to make. You 1) Ignore settler colonialism is only one type of the colonialism. A large portion of empires were made up of tropical dependencies where a small number of elite Europeans would rule of a large proportion of non-western people in Africa, Asian and the South Pacific, that existed mainly resource extraction. 2) You also fail to acknowledge neo-colonialism and the South/Latin American experience. America doesn't need to directly have integrated territory and political units to be an empire. If the United States and it's business interests dominates your entire economy and whenever some radical tries to change that status quo there's a CIA back coup or military intervention, then it's effectively colonialism. The industrialized countries continue to dominate the world economy, and badly needed capital and technology is contingent on "reforms" or concessions that lead to foreign ownership of the economy. It's pretty bad that you failed to mention address this aspect of colonialism at all.

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I don't think America is a nation-state. It's not an empire, but the unifying theme of American society is that Americans have no shared nation.

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I think it's useful to look at US foreign policy post-WW2 in terms of two very different phases: contesting the globe with the USSR during the Cold War; and, post-1989, pursuing a combination of national security and liberal internationalism as the world's hyperpower, 1989-August 15, 2021. In the first phase, we weren't concerned about nation building; we were only concerned about winning proxy wars and US interventions against Soviet clients and allies. In the second phase, with no perceived limitation on our ability to shape events, we sought to rescue the less powerful, spread liberal democracy and combine that, as necessary, with eliminating new threats to our own safety.

So in the latter phase we got Somalia, Bosnia, Kosovo, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and so on -- and one could argue Granada and Panama. And now we've learned that it doesn't work, sometimes not catastrophically (e.g., Kosovo and Bosnia), sometimes catastrophically but at minimal costs to ourselves (Libya), sometimes catastrophically and with greater cost to ourselves (Afghanistan) and sometimes at huge costs to everyone (Iraq and its knock on effects).

The desire to save people by using what power you have is admirable, and making the effort -- even if failed -- is not the worst thing one can say about the US. But we now know the limits of our ability to shape events. In this way, the emerging competition with China may be salutary, as a way for us to finally give up our world-shaping role as the hyperpower, and instead focus on engaging with China -- even if that means countering it -- to maintain the balance of power and preserve world peace.

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First of all: With modern militaries, telecommunications and financial/legal infrastructures, Empires do not have to look like the British East India Company, with pith helmeted Etonians traipsing around the globe. Please use some critical thinking.

Second of all: I guess if you still fundamentally believe the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan was good AND a success, then you are not the kind of person who believes the US does enough bad things to really worry about (and that helps get you a sinecure spouting neoliberal gibberish for Mike Bloomberg).

BUT!!!!! In your closing you say "we should not occupy and seek to transform other countries. That is simply not what we do." This is nonsense! It literally is "what we do" which you just spent a whole blog post eliding.

A lot of the time the US also seeks to transform other countries without occupation: sanctions, embargoes, bombing, IMF/WB SAPs, investor-state dispute settlements, coups, or just a military base.

In 2008 the Honduran President started talking about closing the US air base in his country...and a year later there was a coup with considerable (and underreported) US involvement.

The US government is constantly trying to transform other countries, and it lies about what it does and why it does it. Again, let's try some critical thinking.

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", and Vietnam and Afghanistan were cases of temporarily propping up local puppet governments for the purpose of fighting a war against a bigger enemy (the USSR or al Qaeda). " Same could be said of South Korea. It's easy to say now that the intervention was doomed to fail in Vietnam, but it was likely similar in Americans' eyes to what they tried and succeeded in in South Korea. Probably South Koreans today are glad the Americans came and propped up a local puppet gov initially? What is you stand on the case of South Korea, I'd be curious to know.

By the same token, why does it have to be all or nothing for Afghanistan ? Why can't we think of a scenario whereby half or more of the country is in the hands of the Talibans and the rest, including Kabul, in the hands of a less vile group, with some American support, like happened in South Korea. There are likely geographical reasons against it I guess, Kabul and its region are not really sustainable as a proto-state, and would always be easily infiltrated by motivated terrorists, I'm not sure, but you sure need to address that idea Noah to cover the full topic I'd say ;)

"When Japan and Germany did integrate their economies with ours in order to help themselves develop, it provoked an American backlash!" maybe, but that backlash was not immediate, would you deny that initially America opened its markets to Germany and Japan out of genuine intent to help them develop and further integrate into its economic sphere? It's just that America didn't expect these 2 nations to become so good at it, same for China way later, and yes a backlash ultimately happened, but after some time and by then Germany and Japan had already advanced enough for that backlash not to matter so much anymore.

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70000 Afghan security personnel have died in the war, alongside 2500 Americans. A democratically elected government has been overthrown by armed insurgents. The last Afghan elections saw a nearly 50% turnout.

All of this happened on America's watch. If American's dont have a strong response to the violent overthrow of a democratic government, they are not much of a nation either.

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I agree with the arguments you make in your post. As I understand it the key points are:

1 Boots on the ground only work in some cases. They failed in Vietnam; they ended the US Civil War but failed to convince Southerners that their ideological support of slavery was wrongheaded; they work if and only if there is a political will on the part of a majority of people in the occupied region or country are able and willing to change their political system. That happened in Japan and in Western Germany.

2 The political and ideological values of the United States are not shared by many people throughout the world. Putting boots on the ground in these countries may be a temporary panacea but not a permanent solution to their problems. Peace-keeping operations make sense depending on the likely consequences but nation-building is not a viable goal. The United States should stand for its principles but not expect to shove these values down the throats of people it is hoping to bring on board in its pursuit of global policies.

Where I differ from you is on the question of empire building. Much US policy is not designed to build an empire per se but rather to counter other countries trying to counter US influence: the Soviet Union at one time, China today, and so forth. Without doubt there are imperialistic tendencies at work in the US but there is a huge body of domestic opposition to imperial outreach in the United States. You have to be more precise about your distinction between imperial outreach and self interest in a competitive global ideological environment. For instance the Containment Policy that was designed to rein in Eurasian Communism was based on a defensive position but it failed to take into account of nationalism which ultimately led to the split between China and the Soviet Union and was key to the willingness of the North Vietnamese but not the South Vietnamese to fight on.

4 In Afghanistan the key problem in my mind is Salafist Islamic ideology, particularly attitude towards female empowerment. Most Afghani men do not support equality for females, whether they are in the Taliban or on the other side. Most of the US trained Afghani troops and police were not willing to die to defend female rights, let alone free speech.

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this ignores the military industrial complex, oil industry and others that through lobbyists corrupt the government into incredibly advantageous contracts - the net result, massive economic advantages from conquest to select individuals that have the power to direct the military. at least to some of us, the united fruit company era neocolonialism never ended

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Calling the Taliban, an organization which has existed for 25 years (less than your lifespan!) Afghanistan's "natural rulers" completely discredits this piece. It's orientalism at its finest - "those savages over there deserve and will always have a theocratic dictatorship as their rulers because they simply are too barbaric to do anything else"

Afghanistan spent longer as a constitutional monarchy than the Taliban have existed!

By your argument, Japan should always be a military dictatorship run by a tiny class of brutal warlords because those brutal warlords are Japan's "natural rulers", pointing to the fact that they ruled Japan from the 1100s to late 1800s, and in practice until the 1900s since all the post-Shogunate rulers were from that same class. And if you agree that Japan's postwar government was made up of many members of its prewar government, which was made up of members of that warlord class, than Japan today should still be a military dictatorship!

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This a good article that raises a lot of good points.

The point about a functional state prior to the war is an important one. In the case of Japan the war was a sudden even that wasn't precedeed by an intervention in the internal state affairs so the leading figures could connect the dots between pre war and post war era easily not just culturally but also economically and from the identity standpoint.

The Afghanistan story is different because the country was subject to subversion and turf war between the soviets and US troops for a long time. Also the taliban radicalization is the result of the American intelligence services that so far that they created school books preaching religious radical values. Now it's going to take decases to have that effect decay.

I would also ask if it was worth it? 3000 American lives in WTC vs 3500 dead coallition forces + 71.000 Afghan civilians + a country that you left in worse conditions that when you found it, radicalized and at the point of being an incredibly bad influence for decades now in the entire area.

Another question would be how many of the humanitarian problem created in the area is US ready take on? I kept hearing about the UN jumping in and saving the day. The UN had very little saying when Afghanistan was first invaded in 2001.

Another topic that follows a similar pattern is Irak. ISIS also a product of American intervention. It grew and got stronger on the back of the War on Terror. Now ISIS is all over Syria, Jordan and Yemen with active cells almost impossible to contain. Yes, there are other factors and actors that contributed and surely the security services are neck deep in Irak, Afghanistan, Siria, Lebannon, and the entire Middle East.

What is a shame is how US acts solely based on it's narrow and self interested objectives and yet when it gets stinky it's everyone's duty to help. How many Sirian refugees did US take onboard since the war started there. Surely the small European countries took more than their fair share.

US through their actions covert and direct created a lot more long lasting problems for everyone than the initial ones.

Lastly, a close inspection of USA actions abroad would show how none of the American values are applicable in regards to any alien (a human being that is non American): human rights, Geneva convention, respect to independent state borders, right to self determination, not interfere with other countries internal politics etc.

It quite hypocritical to think that US is pointing the finger towards every country that goes against their interests yet it can go away with Irak invasion and it's war crimes and torture.

Maybe USA should first fix the basic problems at home before going abroad and telling others how should live their own lives while drinking CocaCola and eating McDonalds.

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In the modern day you can call any large state with overseas interests an 'Empire' and you can just as easily defend any large state from the aforementioned charge. Its ultimately a meaningless term in the 21st Century.

The people I find funny are those who will scream for hours defending country A from the 'Empire' tag but are then happy to move goalposts and pillory country B.

Either we have to fix the definition and find another term to criticize those we don't like, or we have to accept that people can and will be awfully liberal with denoting ideological/geopolitical foes as 'Empires'.

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