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Think tanks tank

At a friend’s suggestion I watched a bit of the Lehrer News Hour last night. He had a couple of think-tank types on, a guy from the Rand Corporation and a lady from somewhere or other, who were saying we had to show everyone we had a commitment to stay in Afghanistan for the long haul, until a strong central government could become established.

My friend had called because I spent a couple of years in that country long ago, before all the unpleasantness, and he wanted to know what I thought. My response was, in the words of the Persian proverb, aql-e-madrassa chiz-e-digar ast—“the wisdom of the schools is something else.” They’ve never had much of a central government in Afghanistan. If one grows up in the future then that’ll happen, but what reason is there to think that a bunch of outsiders who are constitutionally incapable of understanding the local situation are going to force or manipulate one into existence?

Foreign development aid is normally unsuccessful. Nation-building backed by force didn’t work in Vietnam or the Balkans, and it’s not going well in Iraq. Don’t people ever learn anything? I don’t doubt the pair has lots of academic intelligence and expertise. The problem is that the function of academic intelligence and expertise is to create a second reality in which those things rule and insist we all live in that reality.

Who can argue against it? After all, if you’ve got a universally-applicable scheme that tells you how to know all things knowable, there’s no point thinking about the limits of the scheme. If there were limits and they were knowable you’d know about them, and they’d be part of the scheme. So the best thing to do is forge boldly forward with our best knowledge, which is that of the best academic experts. Anything else would be irrational, and indeed incomprehensible. After all, where are the studies to support it?




During my second year in law school I had a short-term job doing research to try to figure out why, as you say and as my professor-employer recognized, foreign development aid is normally unsuccessful. That was 1972-73. Unsuccessful before then, unsuccessful since.

Have you read The Places In Between, by Rory Stewart? In narrative form, the most effective argument imaginable that a bunch of outsiders won’t create an effective central government in Afghanistan. Stewart also argues the point directly.


I looked it up on Amazon, though, and it sounds like he got an up-close veiw ot the place.

Rem tene, verba sequentur.