- - Monday, July 26, 2021

Was the “war” in Afghanistan a failure?  The answer depends on what the “mission” was.  If the mission was to prevent another terrorist attack on the U.S. homeland by groups located in Afghanistan, it was a clear success because there has been no such attack in twenty years.  If the mission was to destroy all terrorist groups in Afghanistan, the mission was a failure because the number of men and material to achieve such a goal would have had to be of such magnitude as not to meet any reasonable cost-benefit test.  If the mission was to turn Afghanistan into a democratic, free-market democracy, it was a clear failure because such an outcome was not possible (more of this below).

The real problem with Afghanistan was caused by the U.S. political leaders of both parties who failed to articulate clear, doable goals and then implicitly scapegoated the U.S. military for not doing things they were not properly resourced and tasked to do.  The press, as usual, did a miserable job of explaining the problems and alternatives to the American people and holding all of those responsible to account (rather than just their favorite villains).

The U.S. military suffered fewer than 3,000 combat deaths in the 20-year Afghan involvement – with another perhaps 2,000 U.S. contractor deaths.  In the last eight years, the death rates have been very low, less than 10 a year in some years (fewer than a weekend in Chicago).  The irony is that military-age men and women had a greater chance of dying from gunshots in several major U.S. cities than being stationed in Afghanistan.  The “mission” had evolved into attempting to train a group of largely uneducated men, with little sense of nationhood, into an effective army to destroy terrorist groups when their own government is largely dysfunctional and corrupt – good luck.

The following comments are focused on the “nation-building” part of the mission, where I have some experience.  When Americans go to war, they want to “end all wars” by turning the hostile country into a model of free-market democracy.  That worked in Germany and Japan because the conditions were ripe.  Both countries had strong national identities, with largely free-market economies before WWII, and most importantly, both countries had a very high level of literacy.  None of that was true with Afghanistan.

Afghanistan has never been a unified nation-state as commonly understood.  It has many different tribal and language groups – who often view the others as enemies.  Despite two decades of assistance from Americans and Europeans, the literacy rate is still only about 43% (which is a big improvement in the last 20 years).  Many Afghans do not know their birthday, cannot read or write their own name, or do basic arithmetic. 



The U.S. military has basic education requirements before a person is allowed to enlist.  They have to be literate enough to read basic training and instruction manuals. They have enough background to understand and learn how to operate sophisticated weapons – skills the typical Afghan recruit does not have.

The American Founding Fathers were very explicit that the successful operation of a democratic republic required a high degree of literacy among the population.  By 1800, it is estimated that more than 80% of American white men (the only ones allowed to vote) were literate, and most women were also rapidly gaining literacy.  Americans from the beginning had higher literacy rates than Europeans because, in part, most were members of various Protestant sects that put great emphasis on the ability to read the Bible directly. 

Most Americans could not only read and write, but they often read or had read to them important books from the enlightenment.  Thomas Paine published Common Sense in 1776.  Over 500,000 copies were produced, which would be equal to 75,000,000 today after adjusting to the size of the population.  Most educated people were familiar with John Locke’s Second Treatise on Government (1689), with Benjamin Franklin’s letters under the title, Experiments and Observations on Electricity published in 1751, and the annual series of Poor Richard’s Almanack, and a number of his other writings.  Adam Smith published Wealth of Nations in 1776, which had a huge impact on the American Founders – several of whom personally knew him – and other influential people of the time.  Americans were also reading novels and even the first cookbook, Amelia Simmons’ American Cookery (1796).

With no TV or movies, Americans often entertained each other with lively political debate, as many were familiar with the Roman statesman Cicero and his oratory and other classical thinkers.  It is easy to argue that a major reason for the decline in rational and informed political discourse is because the average American is not as well educated in political theory as was the population in 1800. 

Those of us who have been involved with various “nation-building” exercises over the decades are well aware that without a high degree of literacy, and more specifically political literacy, free-market democratic capitalism is unlikely to exist. If the U.S. government had not spent the trillions of its treasure on the fool’s errand of nation-building in Afghanistan and instead focused on teaching American students the classics, the country would be in better shape. 

• Richard W. Rahn is chairman of the Institute for Global Economic Growth and MCon LLC.

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