Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Russian Lessons

We aren’t the first to try nation-building in Afghanistan.

We met on a wet winter day outside Altufievskaia station at the northern end of the Moscow subway system and drove into the countryside. Once the senior official responsible for Soviet economic and technical assistance to Afghanistan, Valerii Ivanov has had frequent visitors from the West since 2001. Each time, he explained his experiences developing the Afghan economy, and each time his visitors nodded politely and promptly ignored everything he said.

The situation in Afghanistan now is quite different from what it was in the 1980s. President Hamid Karzai enjoys genuine popular support, unlike the Soviets and their allies in the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan. The Taliban, despite their safe havens in Pakistan, receive nothing on the scale of money and weapons that the Mujahideen did in the 1980s. Nevertheless, casual dismissal of the past reveals a dangerous smugness as well as a profound ignorance of the Soviet-Afghan relationship.

Overshadowed by the publicity for President Barack Obama’s surge of additional troops to Afghanistan, the promised civilian surge of economic and technical assistance has attracted far less attention. Obama has pledged “a dramatic increase in our civilian effort,” including at least 600 nonmilitary advisers and billions of additional dollars of economic aid.

To win the war, however, the United States has to use its dollars much more effectively than Ivanov and his fellow Soviets did. To date, it has not done so. In May, the U.S. special inspector general for Afghan reconstruction, Marine Corps Gen. Arnold Fields, published his first audit report. Despite billions already spent, he could not be sure that U.S. funds had been well used.

America’s British and Canadian allies have also been talking of shifting their focus from combat to economic development. But their aid performance has been no better. A recent internal assessment for the British Department for International Development noted that more than half the UK’s projects were likely to fail and only 4.5 percent provided “value for money.” Nipa Banerjee, formerly Canada’s senior aid official in Afghanistan, wrote in February 2009, “There seems to be little concrete evidence that aid activities are having a positive impact on the lives of Afghans. Despite deployment of vast efforts, impact on the ground appears inadequate.”

Simply increasing the amount of aid is not the solution. The problem is neither too little money nor too few civilian advisers. These were not the problems for the Soviets either. Something deeper was, and is, at fault.

It suits our prejudices to imagine that the Soviets were solely agents of destruction. Yet while one arm of the Soviet state blew things up, the other built them, repaired them, and trained the local people to maintain them. In the upstairs office of his dacha, at the end of a bumpy village road that could do with some reconstruction of its own, Ivanov printed off a list of projects the Soviets had completed. The relevant archives had disappeared, he complained, apparently tossed out by some bureaucrat in the 1990s, a time when Russians were trying to expunge any memory of their years in Afghanistan. (As a historian, I can only despair at such vandalism. Nevertheless, I have been able to confirm most of the details from other sources.)

Long before and all through the military occupation, the Soviets built roads, electric power stations and power lines, irrigation canals, factories, housing, grain elevators, bakeries, wells, automotive repair plants, airports, technical colleges, and much more. They trained tens of thousands of Afghan specialists, provided hundreds of thousands of tons of humanitarian assistance, and distributed food, seed, and fertilizer. They built schools and hospitals, too. “Equipment and medicines for two clinics, school desks and blackboards, furniture and clothing for young children,” were among the aid delivered to Kabul, a 1988 issue of Sotsialisticheskaia Industriia reported.

Soviet economic and technical assistance to Afghanistan got underway in earnest in the mid-1950s during the premiership of Mohammed Daoud. The primary aim was political—to ensure that Afghanistan was friendly and stable—and the underlying economic premise was that Third World countries remained backward because of a lack of capital and the lingering results of colonial exploitation. Development meant building an independent industrial economy from its basic infrastructure up, using foreign aid to compensate for the lack of capital. The resulting industry would in turn generate more capital, which could be used to pay off debts and invest in more industry, thus kickstarting a virtuous circle of economic growth.

This logic meant that development became a simple engineering problem, a matter of building “stuff’,” which in turn was meant to generate more “stuff.” It was, in a way, an extension of Lenin’s equation that communism = Soviet power + electrification.

The problem was that although the roads were built, the electrical stations constructed, and the canals dug, nothing followed. Roads did not increase commerce, electricity did not encourage private factories, and irrigation failed to boost agricultural productivity. A Soviet economist lamented that, despite all the aid, GDP per capita actually declined in the 1960s. Although it rose slightly in the 1970s, the gain was insignificant. “If the current tempo is maintained,” another Soviet expert commented, “Afghanistan will never reach the global average.”

In part, this was because of the industrial model. Both Soviet and Western aid largely bypassed the agricultural sector and did nothing to help the mass of the rural population in what is, after all, an almost entirely rural country. Irrigation projects—the Soviet-built Jalalabad and Sarde irrigation systems and the American-supported Helmand Arghandab Valley Authority (HAVA)—absorbed most of the money earmarked for agriculture. They did more harm than good. The HAVA, for instance, managed to reduce, rather than increase, agricultural production, as it led to waterlogging and later salination of the irrigated fields.

The industrial model was not the only problem. Soviet analysts eventually identified two key failings: lack of human capital and weak institutions. In so doing, they discovered something the West has only woken up to lately.

Building “stuff” that the local people lack the skills to use or maintain is counterproductive. Irrigation systems led to sodden and salty fields because farmers, though skilled in thousand-year-old water-management techniques, did not know how to deal with the additional flows of water produced by new dams and canals. Similarly, there was a reason industrial productivity was low: there were too few trained personnel. Moreover, at the national level, sophisticated economic plans could be written only with the help of foreign advisers, and there were not enough people to manage and supervise.

Worse, foreign capital and new infrastructure did not generate additional investment because social and political institutions militated against it. As an American report noted, “The traditionally wealthy and powerful landowning and trading interests had previously seen a threat in the growth of a new group of industrialists and had supported those who advocated the dominance of government enterprise.” These groups therefore used their political power to ensure that the taxation system favored the importation of consumer goods that they traded, while discouraging investment in domestic industry.

Soviet economist E.R. Makhmudov drew similar conclusions, but took matters an important step further. Because economic progress was blocked by the landowning and trading interests mentioned above, “The experience of Afghan industrialization showed that resolving this problem required complete fundamental reforms of the entire social and economic structure of traditional society. … This experience demonstrated that in the conditions of a developing state … industrialization is not only a social-economic, but also a political, problem.”

The Communists’ solution only made things worse. They chose not to reform but to smash the institutions that they believed stood in the way of progress. The Soviet-backed regime had almost no understanding of rural society, and its members were brutal, incompetent, and corrupt. The result was counter-revolution and war. This undid any benefits economic aid might have brought. Until the security situation improved, the economy could never prosper, but the security situation would never improve unless the regime changed its behavior.

The Soviet leadership was well aware of this. Acknowledging that the obstacles to growth were institutional and human, the Soviets trained tens of thousands of Afghan technicians and sent thousands of advisers to work in Afghan government agencies even as they prosecuted the war with growing intensity. This was the Soviet equivalent of what we now call “capacity building.”

In scale, this effort far surpassed anything so far attempted by NATO, but it still failed to improve Afghan governance. Soviet officials complained that their Afghan colleagues took the presence of advisers as an excuse to do even less work than before. Furthermore, the advisers were not always very good. As Gen. M.A. Gareev commented, “It wasn’t so much the fault as the misfortune of our civilian advisers that they were typical products of our cadre system, trained to be loyal executors, capable only of putting into life the line that the party had given them.” Most importantly, the Afghan regime refused to alter its brutal and fractious behavior, confident that the Soviets had little choice but to continue supporting it anyway.

The lesson here is that the barriers to development lie not in a lack of aid but in poor human capital and weak social and political institutions. Although Western economists came rather later to this conclusion than the Soviets, most now accept it. Practice, though, continues to lag theory. Too often, those tasked with development still view it—as the Soviets initially did—as an engineering problem, a matter of building roads, factories, and schools.

The 2009 U.S. inspector general’s audit report cites the renovation of a power station in Khost. After installing three new generators, the Americans handed the plant over to the Afghans, only to find that within a few months two of the three no longer worked. Similarly, the British have invested millions of dollars into digging hundreds of wells in southern Afghanistan in an attempt to “win the hearts and minds” of villagers. The new wells bypass existing institutions for the stewardship of water resources while not putting anything in their place. Afghans, not used to having unrestricted access to so much water, have responded by pumping with abandon. As a result, the water table has dropped, increasing the danger of drought. Meanwhile, according to Nipa Banerjee, nearly half of the schools in Kandahar province sit empty because there are no teachers to staff them. Yet the Canadian government is pressing ahead with plans to build even more schools. Such failures are entirely typical and predictable. They reveal how “hearts and minds” operations, undertaken to support the short-term goals of counterinsurgency, can have damaging effects on long-term development.

In some respects, Soviet advisers, despite their failings, were somewhat better than ours. Ivanov, for instance, studied Dari at the School of Oriental Languages. As he and his wife recounted over a bowl of homemade borscht, rather than living in a fortified compound, he had an apartment in the Soviet-built Mikrorayon district of Kabul with his family (unthinkable for a contemporary adviser) and drove himself without escort to work every day (at least as unfathomable).

The flow of Western advisers is driven by supply rather than demand. The Afghans get what we send them, not what they ask for. Few high-ranking civil servants are willing to go to Afghanistan. As a result, the West sends young and inexperienced personnel to “mentor” much older Afghan colleagues. Few have any knowledge of Afghan languages. Valerii Ivanov told me that his Afghan contacts say that they laugh when these zealous Westerners tell them how to manage their affairs. Now President Obama is promising to send hundreds more. We can hardly imagine that, if he can actually find that many—and so far he appears to be having trouble—such a large number will really consist of highly experienced, properly qualified personnel with appropriate cultural understanding. More will not mean better.

Worse, in our efforts to fight the Taliban, we are providing Afghanistan with a massive army, a huge police force, and vast numbers of schools, hospitals, roads, and so on. All of this has to be paid for. The Afghan state cannot do so, nor will it ever be able to. When the Soviets left, Najibullah’s regime survived only as long as Moscow paid the bills. The same will be true for Karzai and his successors.

Only if a state relies on taxes levied directly from the citizenry does it have to respond to those citizens’ needs. It is no coincidence that rentier states that rely on oil or gas revenues or on foreign subsidies are associated with autocratic government and corruption. The Soviets could not improve governance in Afghanistan because the government relied on the army to stay in power, and the Afghan people did not pay for the army, the Soviets did. Our efforts to improve Afghan governance may fail for exactly the same reason.

Unless there is a significant improvement in the quality of aid, President Obama is likely to be disappointed in his belief that a redoubled development effort will help bring peace to Afghanistan. The country probably needs less aid rather than more. It needs to tax its own people directly. (It scarcely does at the moment, and has little incentive to as long as the foreign checks keep flowing.) It needs a small army, not a big one, and a manageable social infrastructure, one it can afford. As happened in the past, pumping in more aid and sending in more advisers will simply reinforce the institutional barriers to progress. The pursuit of our immediate military goals is condemning Afghanistan to perpetual governmental, and thus economic, failure.

At the end of our discussion, Ivanov’s son-in-law drove me back to the metro. It was snowing, not light, fluffy flakes but the kind of slush—half snow, half rain—that feels much colder than it is. To add to the gloom that evening in Moscow, I went to the cinema to watch a film about Admiral Kolchak, supreme commander of the anti-Bolshevik White government during the Russian Civil War. The West backed Kolchak too, providing him with money, weapons, and advisers. He lost—a failure more political than military in origin, caused by shockingly poor governance and an utter inability to gain popular support. It was not a good omen. 


Paul Robinson is a professor in the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Ottawa. He is completing a book on the history of Soviet economic and technical assistance to Afghanistan.

The American Conservative welcomes letters to the editor.
Send letters to: letters@amconmag.com



The American Conservative Memberships
Become a Member today for a growing stake in the conservative movement.
Join here!
Join here