Lant Pritchett on Afghanistan

As we will learn in today’s post, the principles that we will learn from this marvelous essay are applicable in so many other contexts.

First, the title of his essay:

A Quickly Made Long Tragedy

Here’s one way to understand what this means in practice: the advantage of a top-down decision making system is that decisions can be made quickly. The opportunity cost of such a system is that buy-in from every person involved with the system is not only difficult to get – it is difficult to ascertain in the first place. As Akshay Alladi puts it over here:

What does Lant Pritchett mean when he says a “quickly” made “long” tragedy? The decision making was quick, sure – implementing said decisions on the ground proved to be rather more tricky. And it took twenty years to understand that in this case, more tricky was, in fact, a euphemism for “was never gonna happen”.

Second, talk about connecting the dots as a writer!

How can one not fall in love with an essay that:

  1. is written by an economist
  2. uses basic physics
  3. uses Shakespeare (!)…
  4. uses medicine
  5. … to explain how sociological concepts
  6. … can be used to understand how political goals
  7. were never going to be achieved
  8. … and all this using a diagram that absolutely anybody could understand?

Third, this excerpt:

I am a very visual person so I propose this diagram as an aid to understanding the tragedy, for both the USA but much more so the people of Afghanistan, of the US engagement

If you’re a student, this is an important lesson. Figure out what type of learner you are, and that as quickly as possible. Do you prefer to understand a concept by drawing a diagram? Or by writing down an equation? Or by writing down your understanding in words? You’d be doing yourself a favor by trying to get better at all three, but any subject becomes easier when you try to figure out how you learn best. Double down on that method and get excellent at it. Try to get better at the other methods sure, but be unapologetic about the method that works best for you.

The entire essay is worth reading, and multiple times. But when you consume anything (a video, a movie, a podcast, a textbook – anything) always ask what else you can learn from it, apart from the intended lesson itself.

It is A Very Underrated Skill indeed!

Trying to Make Sense of Afghanistan

If you read the newspapers regularly, you’ll have noted that Afghanistan is in the news, again. I’d written two blog posts about Afghanistan last year, before the Covid madness started in right earnest.

Here’s the first of those, and here is the second. Here are other posts on EFE where Afghanistan has been mentioned.

Why are we talking about Afghanistan again? Because, well, plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

With the Resolute Support Mission (RSM) — a US-dominated support force — planning to complete the withdrawal process by September 11, another chapter in Afghanistan’s political journey is set to begin.

As always, read the whole thing, please. But the point that I take away, more than any other, is that the last twenty years has mostly been about the Taliban biding its time. And Afghans have been biding their time, in one way or another for a very long time now:

It has customs, and it has traditions, but it doesn’t have rules, and good luck trying to impose them. The British tried (thrice) as did the Russians and now the Americans, but Afghanistan has proven to be the better of all of them.

Splainer had a feature on this yesterday, and just in case you’re not subscribers, I’ll share here some of the links from their write-up about Afghanistan yesterday (and please do consider subscribing, it’s well worth the money!)

That last link, the paper from Carnegie, really is a very good read:

Lastly, John Lewis Gaddis’s warning about history—that it has a “habit of making bad prophets out of both those who make and those who chronicle it”—remains equally true in contemporary times. This paper is based on the premise that the United States will withdraw troops from Afghanistan at some point in the next two years and that the Taliban or parts of the movement, in some form or shape, will be politically represented in Kabul or, at the very least, be more involved than it is at present in Afghanistan’s democratic politics as the troop drawdown is completed. These are the foundational assumptions of our observations and analysis. Should they be wrong, we must be and are prepared to be called poor prophets.

Pretty good propheteering, if you ask me.1

Also, a quote that I liked enough to record in my notes separately:

Assessing risks is a risky business

But outside of all of those links, there is something else that I read today that I wanted to share with you today. This essay/article came out in the Times of India yesterday, and it is an absolute must read:

All such data help ask relevant questions, whose answers can mostly be found through the old-school forms of immersive reporting and fieldwork, neither of which happens much. There is no substitute for the insights one gains from spending time on the ground, talking to voters, to party workers, to local observers and journalists, listening to their woes and views.
This requires greater engagement than asking generic questions at tea stalls or speaking to party spokespersons. Ideally, data work and fieldwork should go hand in hand, as no ground investigation can provide the larger picture without the backing of empirical evidence. Instead of doing that, we move from one election to the next without paying attention to what happens between them.

Again, read the whole thing, but the reason I put this up here is because what Gilles Verniers is speaking about over here can also apply to Afghanistan. Replace the word “election” with “war”, and I argue that is mostly the same story.

Which brings me to my last link for the day:

In the tiny village of Pigish, inhabited by peaceful Shia Ismaili farmers, five busy water mills hum through the autumn harvest season. Just as in medieval Europe, each mill is taxed by the government, and each mill is family owned. Milling is a time-honored profession, passed down through bloodlines for decades, centuries. The farmers push their sacks of wheat to the mills in wheelbarrows. These barrows are often made of rough planks. The people of the Wakhan also construct their own mud-brick houses, hew their own poplar roof beams, stitch their own burlap donkey saddles, braid their own yak hair ropes, carve their own wooden shovels, and build their own stone aqueducts. These handmade surfaces of life make the Wakhan Corridor a pleasure to walk through. Lay your palms on the skin-polished grip of a willow ax handle: The body remembers.

It is one thing to read about the wars in Afghanistan, and the strategies, the geopolitics and all of that. But every now and then, it makes sense to also get a sense of the lives of the people of Afghanistan. Not just this article, please read the entire series of articles based on Afghanistan.

And then the rest of the series, of course. Paul Salopek does truly remarkable work, and no matter how anybody phrases it, that would still be an understatement.

  1. I plan to restrict myself to one bad pun every week. Or try to, at any rate.[]

Mancur Olson in Afghanistan (And Thakur in Sholay!)

Who is (was) Mancur Olson?

An American economist of some note, who is perhaps not as widely known as he should be. Let me be honest upfront and say that I have never read a single book of his cover to cover, in spite of repeated attempts – they are really hard going, at least for me. But even dipping into them every now and then, based on snippets I pick up here and there is by fun, and rewarding. (One such snippet was provided by The Economist recently, about which more in a second.)

Olson is perhaps most well known for his theory of the “roving” and “stationary” bandit. Here’s Wikipedia:

In his final book, Power and Prosperity (2000), Olson distinguished between the economic effects of different types of government, in particular, tyranny, anarchy, and democracy. Olson argued that under anarchy, a “roving bandit” only has the incentive to steal and destroy, whilst a “stationary bandit”—a tyrant—has an incentive to encourage some degree of economic success as he expects to remain in power long enough to benefit from that success. A stationary bandit thereby begins to take on the governmental function of protecting citizens and their property against roving bandits. In the move from roving to stationary bandits, Olson sees the seeds of civilization, paving the way, eventually for democracy, which by giving power to those who align with the wishes of the population, improves incentives for good government. Olson’s work on the roving vs. stationary bandits is influential in analysis of the political and economic order structured in warlord states and societies.

And here’s the Economist, writing about the current state of Afghanistan:

At the edge of Kabul, the boss of a company which imports cooking gas says the security of his tankers has actually improved over the past year, because the Taliban control more roads. They charge 35,000 afghanis ($455) for every lorry travelling from Herat, on the Iranian border, to Kabul. “In the past there were no Taliban taxes,” he says. “But they used to shoot us with RPGs [rocket-propelled grenades]. So we are happy with the taxes.”

The trick (for the bandit) lies in getting the quantum of taxation just right, of course…

Understanding Afghanistan A Little Bit Better

“Here is a game called buzkashi that is played only in Afghanistan and the central Asian steppe. It involves men on horseback competing to snatch a goat carcass off the ground and carry it to each of two designated posts while the other players, riding alongside at full gallop, fight to wrest the goat carcass away. The men play as individuals, each for his own glory. There are no teams. There is no set number of players. The distance between the posts is arbitrary. The field of play has no boundaries or chalk marks. No referee rides alongside to whistle plays dead and none is needed, for there are no fouls. The game is governed and regulated by its own traditions, by the social context and its customs, and by the implicit understandings among the players. If you need the protection of an official rule book, you shouldn’t be playing. Two hundred years ago, buzkashi offered an apt metaphor for Afghan society. The major theme of the country’s history since then has been a contention about whether and how to impose rules on the buzkashi of Afghan society.”

That is an excerpt from an excerpt – the book is called Games Without Rules, and the author, Tamim Ansary, has written a very readable book indeed about the last two centuries or so of Afghanistan’s history.

It has customs, and it has traditions, but it doesn’t have rules, and good luck trying to impose them. The British tried (thrice) as did the Russians and now the Americans, but Afghanistan has proven to be the better of all of them.

Let’s begin with the Russians: why did they invade?


One day in October 1979, an American diplomat named Archer K. Blood arrived at Afghanistan’s government headquarters, summoned by the new president, whose ousted predecessor had just been smothered to death with a pillow.

While the Kabul government was a client of the Soviet Union, the new president, Hafizullah Amin, had something else in mind. “I think he wants an improvement in U.S.-Afghan relations,” Mr. Blood wrote in a cable back to Washington. It was possible, he added, that Mr. Amin wanted “a long-range hedge against over-dependence on the Soviet Union.”

Pete Baker in the NYT speaks of recently made available archival history, which essentially reconfirms what seems to have been the popular view all along: the USSR could not afford to let Afghanistan slip away from the Communist world, no matter the cost. And as Prisoners of Geography makes clear, and the NYT article mentions, there was always the tantalizing dream of accessing the Indian Ocean.

By the way, somebody should dig deeper into Archer K. Blood, and maybe write a book about him. There’s one already, but that’s a story for another day.

Well, if the USSR invaded, the USA had to be around, and of course it was:

The supplying of billions of dollars in arms to the Afghan mujahideen militants was one of the CIA’s longest and most expensive covert operations. The CIA provided assistance to the fundamentalist insurgents through the Pakistani secret services, Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), in a program called Operation Cyclone. At least 3 billion in U.S. dollars were funneled into the country to train and equip troops with weapons. Together with similar programs by Saudi Arabia, Britain’s MI6 and SAS, Egypt, Iran, and the People’s Republic of China, the arms included FIM-43 Redeye, shoulder-fired, antiaircraft weapons that they used against Soviet helicopters. Pakistan’s secret service, Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), was used as an intermediary for most of these activities to disguise the sources of support for the resistance.

But if you are interested in the how, rather than the what – and if you are interested in public choice – then do read this review, and do watch the movie. Charlie Wilson’s War is a great, great yarn.



AP Photo, sourced from the Atlantic photo essay credited below.

Powerful photographs that hint at what the chaos of those nine years must have been like, from the Atlantic.



And finally, from the Guardian comes an article that seeks to give a different take on “ten myths” about Afghanistan, including the glorification of Charlie Wilson:


This myth of the 1980s was given new life by George Crile’s 2003 book Charlie Wilson’s War and the 2007 film of the same name, starring Tom Hanks as the loud-mouthed congressman from Texas. Both book and movie claim that Wilson turned the tide of the war by persuading Ronald Reagan to supply the mujahideen with shoulder-fired missiles that could shoot down helicopters. The Stingers certainly forced a shift in Soviet tactics. Helicopter crews switched their operations to night raids since the mujahideen had no night-vision equipment. Pilots made bombing runs at greater height, thereby diminishing the accuracy of the attacks, but the rate of Soviet and Afghan aircraft losses did not change significantly from what it was in the first six years of the war.

What Next in Afghanistan? A Podcast This Sunday

As you know, Sundays are usually for videos. But I was unable to find a video that was as informative and thought provoking as this podcast about the recent deal.


Click here to listen to Anand Arni, Pranay Kotasthane and Aditya discuss what’s next in Afghanistan.

Afghanistan Today

After Poland and Germany, let’s pick an Asian country to understand better for the month of March. And given the recent deal that has been signed, about which more below, let’s begin with Afghanistan.

As always, begin with the basics. The gift that is Wikipedia, on Afghanistan:

“Afghanistan is a unitary presidential Islamic republic. The country has high levels of terrorism, poverty, child malnutrition, and corruption. It is a member of the United Nations, the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, the Group of 77, the Economic Cooperation Organization, and the Non-Aligned Movement. Afghanistan’s economy is the world’s 96th largest, with a gross domestic product (GDP) of $72.9 billion by purchasing power parity; the country fares much worse in terms of per-capita GDP (PPP), ranking 169th out of 186 countries as of 2018.”

And from the same article…

The country has three rail links: one, a 75-kilometer (47 mi) line from Mazar-i-Sharif to the Uzbekistan border; a 10-kilometer (6.2 mi) long line from Toraghundi to the Turkmenistan border (where it continues as part of Turkmen Railways); and a short link from Aqina across the Turkmen border to Kerki, which is planned to be extended further across Afghanistan. These lines are used for freight only and there is no passenger service.

Now, as opposed to how I structured the essays on Poland and Germany, I intent to begin with the now and work my way backwards. This is primarily because of what Afghanistan is in the news for:

The joint declaration is a symbolic commitment to the Afghanistan government that the US is not abandoning it. The Taliban have got what they wanted: troops withdrawal, removal of sanctions, release of prisoners. This has also strengthened Pakistan, Taliban’s benefactor, and the Pakistan Army and the ISI’s influence appears to be on the rise. It has made it unambiguous that it wants an Islamic regime.

The Afghan government has been completely sidelined during the talks between the US and Taliban. The future for the people of Afghanistan is uncertain, and will depend on how Taliban honours its commitments and whether it goes back to the mediaeval practices of its 1996-2001 regime.

Doesn’t bode well for India, obviously, but doesn’t bode well for the United States of America either, says Pranay Kotasthane.

And the New York Times says a complete withdrawal of troops, even over the period currently specified, may not be a great idea. Ongoing support is, according to that newspaper, necessary:

More important than troops, potentially, is the willingness of the international community to continue to finance the Afghan government after a peace deal.

“The real key to whether Afghanistan avoids falling into an even longer civil war is the degree to which the United States and NATO are willing to fund and train the Afghan security forces over the long term,” Mr. Stavridis said. “When Vietnam collapsed and the helicopters were lifting off the roof of the U.S. Embassy, it was the result of funding being stopped.”

But it’s not just military funding! Afghanistan needs a lot of the world’s support in the years to come. Water, for example, will be a contentious issue in the years to come, and that’s putting it mildly.

Afghanistan doesn’t face a water shortage – it’s unable to get water to where it’s needed. The nation loses about two thirds of its water to Iran, Pakistan, Turkmenistan, and other neighbors because doesn’t harness its rivers. The government estimates that more than $2 billion is needed to rehabilitate the country’s most important irrigation systems.

And water, of course, is just one of many issues. Health, education, reforming agriculture, roads – it’s an endless list, and it will need all kinds of ongoing and sustained help.

So, amid all of this, what should India be doing?

Meanwhile, India’s interests in Afghanistan haven’t changed. India hopes to build up Afghanistan’s state capacity so that Pakistan’s desires of extending control can be thwarted. Given this core interest in a changed political situation, what’s needed in the long-term in the security domain is to build the strength of the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF). Without a strong ANDSF — which comprises the army, police, air force, and special security forces — peace and stability in Afghanistan will remain elusive. India’s aim should be to help the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan and ANDSF claim monopoly over the legitimate use of physical force.

But, the article presciently warns us of the same what/how problem we first encountered in studying the Indian budget:

In short, the budget might itself not be the biggest issue. The US has pumped nearly $3.6bn on average every year for the last 19 years solely on reconstruction of the ANDSF, a support that is likely to continue even if the US withdraws its soldiers. The bigger problems are insufficient processes to plan and execute budgets resulting in unused funds and lack of infrastructure leading to pay shortfalls.

Now, to unpack all of this, we need to study the following: the Soviet invasion and its aftermath, American involvement in the region, the rise of the Taliban, leading up to Operation Enduring Freedom, 2002. That’s next Wednesday!

Links for 21st May, 2019

  1. “The latest edition of the World Cup will soon be upon us. Just ten teams this time, playing out their matches (including the warm-up games) in mainstream venues. No chance for an unheralded ground to get on the cricketing map – as Amstelveen and Edinburgh did in 1999. No chance for history to unfold in a far-off venue like Tunbridge Wells – which to this day has Indian tourists visiting every year, to hear about Kapil’s unbeaten 175.This time too, there will be much Geography to savour. Grounds, ends, winds and soils. Maybe even clouds on some days. Balls soaring towards the River Tone in Taunton. There will be schoolkids watching it all. Perhaps some among them will jot down names and trivia in the margins of their notebooks. Like this one schoolboy did close to three decades ago.”
    A useful example of how learning about one thing can have entirely unexpected (but very pleasant) consequences. In this case, cricket as a geography teacher.
  2. “Tech leaders across the industry are rethinking the role of their platforms’ incentives, in response to mounting criticism that technology platforms do more harm than good. Instagram is running a test where like counts are hidden to followers, but are viewable by the post’s account holder. Head of Instagram Adam Mosseri told BuzzFeed News that the test wasn’t about incentivizing specific behavior but “about creating a less pressurized environment where people feel comfortable expressing themselves” and focus less on like counts.”
    This article is mostly about Twitter, but the excerpt is about how tech companies are responding to the huge backlash they are currently facing. Is the response enough? You be the judge!
  3. “The Muslim world can easily find martyrs but what it urgently and desperately needs are statesmen, negotiators, advisors, scholars, and intellectuals who understand their times and peoples.”
    This is a part of the world (Afghanistan) I know very, very little about – and in particular, the 1970’s, 1980’s and 1990’s – which is what most of this book seems to be about. I plan to read it, for this reason.
  4. “And that’s when I realized that they believe they will lose very little by associating themselves with Nath. They don’t expect anyone to boycott the film just because an actor accused of serial sexual predation is in it. The issue is not that the cost of the reshoot was too high, but that the costs imposed by society for not removing Nath from the film were too low.”
    This article is worth reading for many, many reasons – some of which are too complicated to go into here. But here are the main reasons: Shruti Rajagopalan is always worth reading, this is an economic analysis of an ostensibly non-economic issue (is there such a thing?), and well – more people in India (and elsewhere) need to read this!
  5. “You get your Raspberry Pi and hook it up to a monitor and a keyboard and a mouse, then you log on to it and … it’s just a Linux system, like the machine, and ready for work. A new computer is the blankest of canvases. You can fill it with files. You can make it into a web server. You can send and receive email, design a building, draw a picture, write 1,000 novels. You could have hundreds of users or one. It used to cost tens of thousands of dollars, and now it costs as much as a fancy bottle of wine.”
    A very long, but (to me at any rate) extremely readable article that is essentially an ode to technology.