I’ve been wondering for a while now what exactly Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the commander of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and U.S. troops in Afghanistan, meant when he told the New York Times that there was a “government in a box” waiting in the wings to take over services and development programs as soon as Taliban fighters were cleared from their stronghold in Marja. Like other publications following the massive allied incursion into the central Helmand Province town, the NY Times‘ report made only glancing references to what the “government in a box” would look like:
For the first time, NATO and Afghan officials have assembled a large team of Afghan administrators and an Afghan governor that will move into Marja the moment the shooting stops. More than 1,900 police are standing by.
Setting up a government in this impoverished country is no small task. Across Afghanistan, the Afghan government and its police are reviled for their inefficiency and corruption.
Sounds problematic, to say the least. Who are these people? (Perhaps not revealed for security reasons.) From where does this “government” derive its legitimacy? Karzai? The provincial government in Lashkar Gah? How will their programs work? What are their programs?
The phrase got almost no notice in the U.S. press, let alone any follow-ups about what exactly the plan entails. Nonetheless, the wording alone was enough to raise hackles at Reason:
Government in a box? What a foolish thing to say, what hubris. Ironically, it’s probably more truth than the general wanted to reveal about American manipulation of the Afghan “government.” But what should we expect when we put a military commander—underscore the word commander—in charge of a nation-building folly. Apparently, the general thinks you can bring in a government as easily as he requisitions more meals-ready-to-eat for his troops.
Of course, we’ll get a result as tasty as those MREs. The outcome will be what any intelligent observer with a sense of history will understand–a client government in name only, in a failed non-state, rife with corruption.
This morning, the L.A. Times expanded a little on what the phrase means for Marja by way of comparing it to similar operations in the Helmand town of Nawa:
The Afghan government, prodded by the U.S. and Britain, has a plan for Marja designed to eliminate some of the frustration and discontent that comes from the slow, incremental pace seen in Nawa.
Dubbed the District Development Plan, or “government in a box,” it calls for a local government structure to be established as soon as the fighting stops, with strong and permanent links to the provincial government, which largely controls the money.
In Nawa, these operations are themselves bogged down in bureaucratic snafus:
Although there have been improvements recently, the relationship between the district government and the provincial government in Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand, is tenuous.
[R]ifts between the locals in Nawa and the provincial government cover nearly all services and are hampering plans to make the district into a showpiece of the permanent improvements that can occur when the Taliban is no longer in charge.
The plan centers around building schools (one was “refurbished” in Nawa), giving jobs, and providing wheat as an alternative crop to poppies (in 2000, the immediate Marja area produced 10 percent of the world’s illicit poppies; Helmand as a whole produces more than 40 percent). But these efforts, while there have been some successes, have faltered in Nawa. The L.A. Times story focuses on the refusal of the provincial government, based in Lashkar Gah, to provide support for Nawa’s agricultural program and its dispirited district governor (“I don’t know what to do,” he says).
Andrew Bacevich, the Boston University professor and Vietnam Army vet, also took to the pages of the L.A. Times to declare his skepticism about the “government in a box” plan. Bacevich is a consistent critic of what I think are the two biggest problems in U.S. foreign policy today — its persistent militarization and American exceptionalism. He looks farther away than Nawa for a comparison. Instead, he finds an apt foil in the tiny, isolated West Texas town of Marfa, where Bacevich is apparently spending some time. The U.S. Army also spent some time there — several decades in the first half of the 20th century. But nary a trace of them remains:
The military’s impact proved strikingly ephemeral. […] People here still cultivate the memory of James Dean, Rock Hudson and Elizabeth Taylor, who spent a few weeks in Marfa filming “Giant” in the 1950s. By comparison, the legacy of the soldiers who served here for more than 30 years is scarcely perceptible.
Marfa remains incorrigibly Marfa, its identity deriving (not unlike Marja’s) from a mix of cultural, ethnic and religious values, reinforced by habit and inertia. To parachute some prefab government, identity or reality “out of a box” into Marfa (population 2,200) with expectations of remaking the place would be a fool’s errand. You might as well volunteer to have your pocket picked.
Yet that is precisely what the United States expects to accomplish in Marja (population 85,000) before moving on to the rest of Afghanistan (population about 28 million).
Bacevich is taking the long view. The U.S. spends a few years in Marja propping up a corrupt and inefficient government. Then they leave.
No doubt the Marines will succeed in securing Marja. Their commanders promise to stay on to see the mission through, and they may even believe what they say. Yet when the last American climbs aboard a departing helicopter — probably within a few years at most — Marja will remain incorrigibly Marja. A couple of decades from now, no one will remember why the Marines came or what they did.
Maybe Bacevich is onto something here: It doesn’t really matter what a “government in a box” consists of, its personnel, structures and goals. Maybe the idea is wrong from the start.