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.

Links for 23rd May, 2019

  1. “Ec 1152 is an introduction to that kind of economics. There’s little discussion of supply and demand curves, of producer or consumer surplus, or other elementary concepts introduced in classes like Ec 10. There is no textbook, only a set of empirical papers. The material is relatively cutting-edge. Of the 12 papers students are required to read, 11 were released in 2010 or after. Half of the assigned papers were released in 2017 or 2018. Chetty co-authored a third of them.And while most economics courses at Harvard require Ec 10 as a prerequisite, Ec 1152 does not. Freshmen can take it as their first economics course.

    “I felt increasingly what we’re doing in our offices and our research is just totally detached from what we’re teaching in the intro classes,” Chetty says. “I think for many students, it’s like, ‘Why do I want to learn about this? What’s the point?’”
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    Honestly, I am not really sure about this. My own take is that if anything, there is too much of an empirical bias in economics today, not too little. And this class seems to take that trend forward, which is… not great?
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  2. “Economists think historians are teaching it. Historians think it is being done by economists. But in truth the study of economic history is almost absent from the university curriculum. Economic history has fallen through the cracks. And economics students across universities are suffering because of its absence.My contention is that our economic past should play a far more central role in the education of economists today. Because I think the study of economic history will make economists into better economists. My mission is to make academic and professional economists aware of the key problems associated with missing out this training from the education of new economists. And then, once the problem is fully acknowledged and understood, to present easy-to-implement pedagogical solutions.”
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    This, on the other hand, I am all in favor of. Economic history needs to be taught. Forget needs to be taught, I need to learn more of it!
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  3. “It was one of the fastest decimations of an animal population in world history—and it had happened almost entirely in secret. The Soviet Union was a party to the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling, a 1946 treaty that limited countries to a set quota of whales each year. By the time a ban on commercial whaling went into effect, in 1986, the Soviets had reported killing a total of 2,710 humpback whales in the Southern Hemisphere. In fact, the country’s fleets had killed nearly 18 times that many, along with thousands of unreported whales of other species. It had been an elaborate and audacious deception: Soviet captains had disguised ships, tampered with scientific data, and misled international authorities for decades. In the estimation of the marine biologists Yulia Ivashchenko, Phillip Clapham, and Robert Brownell, it was “arguably one of the greatest environmental crimes of the 20th century.””
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    Speaking of economic history, Alex Tabarrok at MR serves us a timely reminder about its importance.
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  4. “In democratic countries, we often talk about this concept called audience costs, which is, if you tell your public one thing and then you do another thing, your public is going to punish you for it. But leaders are not elected in China, so there’s a lot less popular-audience cost. And the regime prides itself on total control over the media and censors everything that it doesn’t like. So even if it, in reality, made important concessions to the U.S., it can simply hide that fact from the Chinese public. Of course, the educated public will find out about it, but so what? The vast majority of Chinese people will be almost completely ignorant of that fact, and that’s fine. So when the U.S. is negotiating with China it should not worry about things like that, because China prides itself on its total control over the media—and there’s a lot of documentation showing that they’re pretty successful in what they do.”
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    The first time I heard the phrase audience costs, which alone is reason enough for sharing this article. But the rest of the excerpt speaks to how audience costs can be waved away – and that is scary!
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  5. “When an American buys a chair from China for $50, it decreases net exports by $50, but it raises consumption by exactly the same amount. The two effects net out exactly. Unfortunately, the way economists decided to define GDP makes imports’ negative contribution to the equation highly visible but hides their positive contribution from view.”
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    And in a neat way to circle back to the set of links today, please read this link in its entirety. Econ 101 matters!