The Real Afghan
September 23, 2021
The greatest tragedy of Afghanistan is not that the United
States was defeated but that the Afghan government collapsed.
America will recover from this retreat from empire, but “failed
states” are a much more serious problem. Regimes are crumbling
in much of the Middle East, Central America, and Africa.
Afghanistan is only the most extreme case. Government failure
has triggered the waves of immigrants now beating upon the West.
commentators tend to blame state failure too simply on obvious
misrule. Supposedly, governments fail because despots or
oligarchs serve only themselves. So they should allow political
rights and hold elections. But in these countries, there is
often no middle between misrule and mayhem. As Iraq and the
Arab Spring showed, allowing open politics may just sap whatever
authority a regime has, producing only chaos. Changing rulers
or holding elections usually changes little.
problem is cultural. With few exceptions, only Western
countries have made free government work. That is because only
they combine individual rights with equally strong commitments
to the rule of law and government by consent. This combination
empowers regimes to rule while also keeping them honest and
accountable. The West thus reconciles freedom with order, as
very few other societies have managed.
non-West, cultures are generally more passive, less
individualist, and strongly deferential to authority. Morals
are less principled, more dependent on what one’s own associates
expect. So the civic culture is far weaker. Corruption becomes
accepted, thus weakening public authority, until officials can
no longer command their territories. Governments may appear to
resist all challenge, but they are actually far weaker than the
freer, more civic regimes of Europe or America.
might seem more formidable than the Afghan regime it toppled.
But they too will probably govern more in form than substance.
For in the non-West, all authority structures, including Islam,
remain largely external to the people and thus insecure. Only
in the West have public norms migrated from outside to inside
the self. Only this generates the moralism of our
culture—strong insistence that government “do the right thing”
and resistance to corruption and misrule.
despite its dedication to freedom, American government is the
strongest the world has ever seen. Washington has the resources
and legitimacy to project power far beyond itself. The huge Air
Force transports that carried out the recent airlifts from Kabul
are symbols of that power. The hapless Afghans running beside
the planes, struggling to get on board, reflect a powerless
society that failed to advance even after two decades of
many people in poor countries believe in freedom. Many have
been educated in the West, where they learned American values.
They want the United States to promote democracy in their
countries. Afghan women, particularly, fear losing the rights
they gained from two decades of the American presence. But
these elites are typically isolated. The rest of their
societies is far less willing to challenge the authorities.
Political activists typically must look for support far more
among foreign observers and journalists than among their own
people. Democracy must wait until local cultures become more
War II, the European empires were dismantled, and it was naively
assumed that the “new nations” would steadily converge on
Western models of good government. But most have not. From the
moment the Europeans left, governmental quality in most of these
countries declined. Now millions of their citizens are risking
their lives to escape to the West. Not poverty or inequality
but government failure is the greatest tragedy of the
efforts to promote democracy abroad have mostly failed. Our
policymakers have simply ignored the cultural preconditions of
freedom. Today the West must promote civility, not in its
former colonies but at home, among the Third World migrants who
are now crowding into “lifeboat America” and Europe. Runaway
immigration could well overwhelm the individualist culture that
generated Western wealth and power in the first place. Through
migration, the non-West might finally defeat its past
conquerors. That is far more to be feared than the fall of
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