...15-year spending matches 30 years of GDP...
After 9/11, the U.S. had a self-evident moral capital to organize a revenge. The terrorist attacks that took place half an hour before my PhD defense were brutal, shocking, saddening, and spectacular.
This picture of Kabul makes the place look richer than it is.
The immediate damages to the infrastructure exceeded $10 billion but just by a little. On the other hand, the war in Afghanistan that was justified by the attacks has already surpassed $1 trillion (ten to the twelfth power), see CNBC, which beats the immediate damages caused by 9/11 by two orders of magnitude.
(The Soviet Union has spent lots of money for a futile conflict in Afghanistan as well – but it was surely less than a trillion dollars.)
Despite this asymmetry, the operations in Afghanistan seem far less spectacular – that's why I have included the provoking adjective above. One could argue that the money has been almost completely wasted.
The problem emerges when you realize how these costs compare to the economy of Afghanistan. The comparison looks stunning to me especially because I tend to think that $1 trillion is the approximate market value of the whole country of Afghanistan (although the country claims to have – unproven – reserves worth $3 trillion).
Why is it so?
The country's population is 32 million people and the GDP per capita exceeds $1,000 but just a little bit. It is just three dollars per day – and GDP actually overstates the income that the people receive. Multiply that and you will get the GDP of about $32 billion per year.
Clearly, in a similar (less than) 15-year period, the country is expected to produce just half a trillion dollars in products and services. The U.S. war costs have been twice as big as the overall production of the whole Asian country!
GDP is one thing. What is the price of Afghanistan? You may estimate the price by taking some P/E ratio. For the stock market, it is typically a number between 5 and 30 or so. It means that the value of a company is approximately equal to 5-30 years of profits that it generates.
You can easily see that even with the P/E=30, the realistic recent upper bound, the Asian country is cheaper than the U.S. war spending since 2001. In other words, the U.S. government could have bought the whole country for the same money. Wouldn't it have solved all the problems in a way that is much better for the U.S. as well as the natives of Afghanistan?
To buy Afghanistan may sound as a joke, an unrealistic idea, or an inhuman proposal resembling the era of feudalism if not slavery. But let me tell you something. The constant devastation and chaos in the country is probably worse than most of the things people would experience in the feudal or slavery's peaceful times. And when we talk about the feudal purchase of countries, it doesn't mean that everything bad would have to be repeated.
Could have the money been spent in a better way? I surely think so.
Just try to think about the "purchase of Afghanistan" seriously. What does it mean? How can you get close to it? The country is "owned" by various Afghani people. An average person earns something of order $1,000 a year. If the U.S. has paid them $30,000 per capita, almost all the Afghani folks would agree to surrender some direct political rights, the land, and to be hired as U.S. government employees – so that I can avoid the word "slave". I hope that the IRS would give them a break.
That doesn't mean that their status would be worse than it is now. If the U.S. likes to social-engineer random countries in Asia or Africa, it could do it in a far more efficient way. These new 30 million (including seniors and children) U.S. government employees could be expected to work for 6 hours a day, or something like that, according to some plans of American managers – so that I avoid the terms "slaveowners" as well as "protectors". Such a setup could lead to dramatic improvements in the country. Some of them would be farmers, others would be cops.
I guess that many of you will say Why not? But everyone realizes that any similar "bold" considerations contradict all the fashionable ideas. The goal was to "export democracy" into Afghanistan and some people still believe in this goal – in the case of Afghanistan and in many others, too. This idea combines the imperial mode of thinking with some idealist utopias and with the political correctness demanding that "everyone is equal".
You know, they are not equal in the sense that they will have the U.S. early 21st-century-style democracy. Whether the differences are biological or "just" cultural doesn't really affect the realistic planning. What is important is that if dramatic changes in their way of thinking and living materialize at all, the typical timescale of such a change is comparable to many centuries or longer.
While many of us – but far from all of us or even most of us! – in the Western countries highly value freedom and perhaps even democracy, this is simply not necessarily the case of all human beings in the world. One only starts to say that freedom is priceless if the things that are needed for decent enough survival have prices that the speaker may already afford. Freedom is needed – but the freedom to live is primary and more vital than more luxurious forms of freedom (such as the freedom of press) that we usually discuss in the West.
My point is that the purchase of Afghanistan that I proposed above would look "unacceptable" to many people in the West – or at least, many people would claim that it is unacceptable – but it could be pretty acceptable in Afghanistan. The money could be spent much more effectively and peacefully than it was spent between 2001 and 2014 in the war games that pretended that Afghanistan was both an enemy and an ally, in the intellectual atmosphere claiming that Afghanistan should be fully sovereign and decide about its own fate while all the money is basically spent for the influence over what is happening in the country.
A more transparent, pragmatic setup would simply be more effective. If the U.S. wants to change certain things in Afghanistan – to turn it into a safer (and perhaps more prosperous) country for their own citizens as well as for the U.S. and others – why doesn't the most important economy in the world exploit its economic advantages and why doesn't it exert the influence in a much more direct and readable way?
The policies since 2001 were based on the silly assumption that if Afghanistan is allowed to vote democratically, the outcomes of this process have to be similar to the outcomes in the U.S. Many people at the top of the U.S. politics probably believe this assumption. But only complete imbeciles may believe such a thing. (The previous two sentences do not contradict one another at all, unfortunately.)
I have picked Afghanistan as an example. Of course that I would find transparency in similar pressures over other countries refreshing in many other cases, too. The world could be a much better place if people weren't afraid of voluntarily entering various asymmetric relationships of this form.
What do you think?