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  • Michael Shurkin

Loose Change No. 8: Why We Lost in Afghanistan, or What Happens When People Stop Reading Weber

Updated: Feb 20


Donald Rumsfeld ultimately was right about Afghanistan though not necessarily for the right reasons. America should have steered clear of having any but the most limited aims there for the simple reason that the US Government lacks the wherewithal to do more and better. This has nothing about resources, which in the context of post-9/11 America were virtually without limit. It’s about having no understanding of Afghanistan, and also no understanding of what it would take to establish a legitimate state, or even just of thinking about state legitimacy. Indeed, the US military doctrine on COIN that emerged a few years after the start of the war all state clearly that legitimacy is everything yet have nothing to say, really, about how that is achieved. The USG defaulted to an apolitical understanding that boiled legitimacy down to the observance of some forms of democratic governance and Weberian bureaucracy, service provision, and economic incentives: Maybe if we threw enough cash around and built enough school buildings…



Max Weber himself wrote about the nation-state in terms of a monopoly over the legitimate use of violence (which in Afghanistan we undermined incessantly), and he associated legitimacy with either legal, traditional, or charismatic forms of authority. Legal only works in unusual circumstances, like in the case of the English constitution, and it’s hard to detach from traditional authority. Charisma? Well, as far as anyone can tell, the US picked Hamid Karzai because he looked and sounded the part—that lamb fetus hat helped—and because he met some criteria we believed relevant, though for absolutely no reason since none of the people who made the choice knew anything. Tradition? There’s the rub. What we imposed on Afghanistan usurped tradition and was revolutionary. So what makes revolutionary regimes legitimate? Not service provision. Not CERP. Not the observance of a few rites like a Loya Jerga that we imagined had some magical effect. Funny enough, David Galula, whom Petraeus reportedly regarded as an oracle, had a few ideas which everyone seemed to have ignored. Like ideology. Ideas. A political movement. If only there were scholars who studied revolutions…have any historians written about them?



True story: I met with one of the senior American diplomats who was responsible for many of the big choices of 2001-2005 regarding who would rule Afghanistan and how. I told him I wanted to do a study of legitimacy in Afghanistan to understand really what it would take. This was in maybe 2010-2011. He said to me, “What makes you think Karzai and his government aren’t legitimate? His polling numbers are strong.”


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