He is also good at describing some of the reasons why the latest intervention has failed. He describes being offered $200,000 over the phone to work in Afghanistan as a translator, even after he had said that he didn’t speak Pashtu. He says that one foreign technical expert roaming the country, with security, travel and accommodation, costs about $1 million, and he marvels at what that money could have done if it had been given to locals (whose average salary is $40 to $70 a week) or lent to small businesses and NGOs in microloans. I have often wondered the same thing and am convinced that what progress has been made in the past 10 years could have been made without a western military presence and at a fraction of the cost, in blood and money. When locals were hired as labourers, Ansary writes, they sometimes built a road during the day and destroyed it at night, because that was the only way they could stay in work. I’m sure that has happened often, in many different ways.
Ansary blames this and much bigger cases of graft on the influx of foreign money, especially as that money is mostly spent on the security and pampering of the foreigners themselves.
Ansary is cautiously optimistic about a few recent developments, such as the discovery of minerals and the spread of TVs (not in Helmand or Kandahar, I thought, the main focus of US and British military efforts), electricity and mobile phones. But even these gains are “fragile and reversible”, in military-speak. In other respects, I would go much further and say we have made things worse. The Afghan national police, for example, are often drug addicted, illiterate and prone to desertion or “insider attacks”. Police commanders abduct and rape young boys. Police checkpoints often exist for the sole purpose of taxing locals. With foreign forces rapidly withdrawing and handing control of the cities and countryside to that, I wanted to know what Afghans themselves thought they had achieved and what would happen once they leave.
Ansary doesn’t offer much advice on what needs to be done next (perhaps the main argument of his book is that no one should), but most of what he does say is convincing. His conclusion is that Afghanistan is “like a laboratory . . . The country is rife with contradictions – but then so is the planet. And if Afghanistan succeeds in blending its many strains into a cohesive cultural whole, well, then, maybe there’s hope for the planet too.” It is a statement that says almost nothing.
Far more important, I thought, were his descriptions of how the most successful Afghan rulers almost achieved their goals. They secured the sponsorship of the biggest relevant foreign power while also appearing to their countrymen as strong men standing up to outside forces. They won over the rural villagers, too, while “covertly pursuing” modernisation. The city, in other words, must trick the countryside into supporting it, before ushering in slow and gradual reform. I read this aloud to an Afghan friend, thinking he might see it as simplistic, or even offensive. “Actually, I think he is right on this,” he replied.
No one knows what will happen next in Afghanistan, but I hope that whoever ends up in charge takes Ansary’s advice.