• Jim Kelly

Afghanistan: a rare moment of clarity

Washington just declared victory getting the last Americans out of Afghanistan, despite the people left at Karzai Airport waving US passports.


The corporate media and leftist commentators are frantically explaining why the withdrawal could never have been expected to go much better and wringing hands about what will become of Afghan women now that the Pentagon's kevlar-clad feminists have withdrawn. They're going along with the White House framing as a question of whether to leave Afghanistan or not, with which Biden attempted to redirect from the aministration's botched withdrawal.


For the record, this was a botched withdrawal. Which we know because the Soviet Union demonstrated a graceful withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1988. They negotiated it with the Afghan government, sent a four-star general to lead it and be accountable to the public for it, and who a year later was the last across the border. It was peaceful. It was orderly. There were military bands.


The usual pattern


The government takes 40% of everyone's output directly, including all the disadvantaged groups it purports to help, and heavily directs what we can do with the remainder. To keep us all safe from terrorism and viruses and achieve other outcomes we supposedly couldn't get any other way.


Usually the problems that government directs itself toward not only don't get solved, they get worse. And usually people don't notice because the failure plays out over decades, such as the wars on poverty or drugs, or the century of health care "fixes" Washington has treated us to.


When the problem gets suddenly accute so that everyone notices, most of the public goes along with blaming speculators or billionaires or corporations other parts of the private sector, who never promised to solve the problem and were not getting paid to do so. If there's a financial crisis involving regulated banks, they demand prison terms for the bankers, never for the regulators. If public schools produce more disappointing results, they blame unnamed private citizens for refusing to fund them adequately, as if that were their decision. If two years of public health totalitarianism failed to curb a pandemic, they blame not the public health policy or the authorities playing politics with it but private citizens--20 people who held a beach party, or the unmasked, or the millions who already caught covid and are in no hurry to get a heavily-propagandized vaccine.


Afghanistan is unusual in its clarity. It was easy enough to ignore trillions of dollars squandered over two decades for the grand cause of nation building, but hard to overlook the Afghan government and army eagerly crumbling in two weeks. And Afghanistan was firmly a public sector adventure that can't plausibly be blamed on Jamie Dimon or Jeff Bezos, so it reflects clearly on government as an institution.


The flailing


So how are Americans reacting? By flailing around to avoid blaming government as an institution. Blaming Trump for negotiating a withdrawal. Blaming Biden for executing it poorly. Explaining how this withdrawal was about as good as we should expect. Blaming the Afghan government kleptocrats for living down to the example set by the Washington agents writing them checks, and acting on their incentives.


To be sure, all these individuals deserve every morsel of the blame they're getting. But Washington, and Afghanistan, America's declining empire, and the many afflictions of American society are much bigger than one or two or even dozens of individuals. The important lessons are about institutions.


The left has no problem indicting institutions, so long as they're in the private sector. Oil companies are not well-intentioned organizations with a few bad apples, they're rotten right to the bottom of their wells and need to be put out of business. They'll even speak ill of the military and its contractors, as well as the Republican party. In 2020 they broke new ground calling to defund the police, a rare indictment of an arm of the government as an institution.


No way to run a civilization


If the structural problems to investing government with absolute power but holding it to zero expectations were not already obvious, Afghanistan is an invitation to recalibrate. We lost trillions of dollars, 20 years, and many lives because of the government's incentives in Afghanistan.


Your money is free, so there's every incentive to waste it. Not 10% of it around the margins of the budget, but the entire thing--millions of families' economic output, seized and destroyed.


Your curiosity is negligible, so there's every incentive to optimize programs around sound bites rather than meaningful outcomes. How many questions did the press ask of Bush in 2001 when he got us into Afghanistan? How many of Obama when he kept us there? They lied to you for 20 years about nation building and women's rights, lied to you last month about the withdrawal plans, and lied to you this morning about what would happen this afternoon.


Would you continue to employ a dentist who treated you this way? A dog walker? A shoe shiner? Where are you planning to draw the line?

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