Quote note (#127)
No idea how I missed this extraordinary gem the first time around:
Last fall I met up with an old friend in the security consulting business. We met for breakfast at an upscale hotel in the DC area. As he was having a second cup of coffee he leaned forward and said, “I’m going to say something crazy, but I can be frank with you.” He paused and added, “what we need is a new East India company.”
“Go on,” I said, mildly surprised. And he continued in a lowered tone, but not without looking first to the left and right.
He went on to say that one of the problems in the US response to terror has been in the conduct of stabilization operations — the critical task of building up a country after the kinetic battles have been largely won. These operations have been costly, prolonged and have largely failed. Billions of dollars spent on traditional aid approaches in Iraq and Afghanistan; and in countries changed by the ‘Arab Spring’ have yielded but little result. Often they have ended in abject disaster.
Part of the reason for the failure, he explained, was that ‘nation building’ is not a good approach in countries which are not nations, but tribes. The nation state is a modern, largely Western concept, the ideal to which many post-colonial countries are supposed to conform. But in reality the world is still very much a collection of tribes. We can’t admit this, however, and continue to act as if Afghanistan were a Pashtun equivalent of Belgium and laws meant the same thing there as in Brussels.
Yet in some cases the tribal structure has been transformed by the imposition of a “Pax” — a peace imposed by an imperium, the best known of which were the Pax Romana, Pax Britannica and the Pax Americana. Our methods for imposing the Pax were to use either of two idiotic methods. Either by using US Armed Forces for nation-building or employing United Nations and similar agencies for a similar purpose. Nobody in his right mind would do this, but since those were the only two choices on the menu, they were givens.
However things were not always thus. A few hundred years ago the British Empire recognized that the best way to deal with tribal societies was not by imposing the nation-state structure on them but to take them as they were and to impose the Pax via the far more flexible structure of enterprise. This was possible through structures such as the British East India Company — a private company whose freedom of action far surpassed that of any modern bureaucrat. The officers of the Company actually became part of the social fabric of places India and acted to improve certain outcomes without direct reference to a ‘nation-state’ as such, limited only by British foreign policy and their ability to convince the inhabitants with whom they worked.
So what we needed was a new version of the old Company because that had a far bigger chance of working at stabilization than the methods to which we were currently wedded. I realized why he had looked both ways. His idea was so likely to work, so politically incorrect, so outre that one feared that the people in the neighboring tables might at any time spring up and denounce us for a thought crime.
The key, he went on to say in sotto voce, was to allow such a Company to profit from stabilization. To align the incentives of the stabilization agent with the success of the country. The only people who could make Iraq or Syria or Afghanistan a success were those who were willing to make those countries rich. The incentives of aid agencies, he said, were exactly the opposite; to keep the country poor so that the parade of victims would remain unabated and hence the fund-raising from the West would continue.
Now he’s really done it, I thought to myself. He wants to make the world better by using private enterprise. Even I looked from side to side.
“It all makes perfect sense,” I told him. “But you realize,” I added, “that this idea is so politically incorrect that we would do well to avoid being burned at the stake.” He snorted and asked for the bill. And so it lay. That conversation lay dormant in my mind for months until I came across an article today in Time Magazine. “A General Writes the First After-Action Report on the Wars in Afghanistan and Iraq: Why We Lost”. …
Located via an internal citation, within a post of comparable brilliance.