Clark Johnson on Afghanistan

A few years ago Lars Christensen hosted a multipart post Keynes, written by Clark Johnson.  I’ve known Clark for years, as we shared an interest in gold hoarding by central banks during the Great Depression.  Clark’s book on French gold hoarding also influenced Doug Irwin’s recent work in this area.  He reminds me a bit of David Glasner (who also wrote on gold hoarding during the 1930s, way back in the late 1980s.)  Both are independent thinkers who don’t follow a predictably liberal or conservative line.

What people may not know about Clark is that he is also an expert on foreign policy. His PhD was actually in history.  Over the years we had lots of fruitful discussions on both economics and foreign policy.  As you might expect from the arrogant tone of my blog, I always feel I can hold my own in economics debates. But I gradually noticed that when we argued about foreign policy, later events showed that Clark was right and I was wrong.  And it didn’t seem to matter whether I took the more hawkish or dovish line.  There’s a reason I don’t blog on foreign policy, my brain is not wired in such a way as to make me good at the nuances of that subject, which seems more an art than a science.

I’d like to highly recommend a recent Clark Johnson article on Afghanistan, which seems much more intelligent than anything I’ve read in the media.  I wish he was in a position with more influence over US foreign policy.  BTW, Clark has spent a substantial amount of time living in various hotspots.  I have memories of getting emails from Clark in places like Kabul or Baghdad, saying his hotel had been hit by mortar fire that morning.

Here’s the abstract, but the issues are so complex you really need to read the whole thing to do justice to his arguments:

US efforts in Afghanistan since 2001, and especially since the surge of 2010-2011, have emphasized military and to a lesser extend donor aid operations, while side-stepping political and cultural complexities.  The policy has failed, as evidenced by both persistence of the insurgency and by acknowledgement of Coalition leaders that they do not know how to reinforce credibility of GIRoA (Government of Islamic Republic of Afghanistan).  Going back to 1989, and certainly since 2001, the US has failed to construct a coalition of moderates that might be able to enhance legitimacy and increase stability, and hence to begin to defuse military tensions.  Indeed, the US has often supported factions that tended to undermine stability and energize insurgent activity.  An improved political strategy going forward would look for ways to collaborate with and strengthen moderate tribal and religious leaders, and to support GIRoA structures already in-place for neutralizing extremists and warlords.  In line with Afghan historical precedent, the US and Coalition should also seek to decentralize government finance and appointments, in order that some insurgents might choose to compete politically (non-militarily) in provinces and districts.  This can be accomplished over time even without negotiations between GIRoA and Taliban leaders, and with a minimum of Coalition military support.

In macro, Clark’s strength is the interrelationship between exchange rate policy and macro outcomes, as you might expect from someone who studied under Mundell.  He’s also a fan of Keynes’s Treatise, a book I need to reread.



10 Responses to “Clark Johnson on Afghanistan”

  1. Gravatar of Ray Lopez Ray Lopez
    28. January 2015 at 11:49

    @Sumner — you are brave, I’ll give you that much, as you admit your ignorance of Keynes (despite claiming to know what Keynesians were saying about 2013 sequestering in the USA).

    You also don’t seem able to connect the dots: “gold hoarding by central banks during the Great Depression”, and (in another post) sterilization of gold outflows by central banks during the Gold Standard era (up to WWI). Both are examples of unwarranted central bank actions, yet you seem to feel the Gold Standard does not work–amazing! You don’t seem to see it was the central banks that destroyed the gold standard, not gold. I suggest you read R. H. Timberlake’s tome “Monetary Policy in the United States” about the history of central banking in the USA, and how it’s intertwined with politics (Second Bank anybody?). Pay attention to Chap. 14, “Central Banking Role of Clearinghouse Associations” showing you don’t need a central bank–the US got along just fine prior to 1913. Another good new book for you to read (listen to me, the student teaching the master! Shameful I admit, but somebody has to do it) “Fragile by Design” by Calomiris, who also shows banks are creatures of politics and custom. As MF would say, why does this give you confidence that central bankers will get it right, framework or no? Money is too important to be left in the hands of bankers.

  2. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    28. January 2015 at 12:37

    Ray, You said:

    “Money is too important to be left in the hands of bankers.”

    Finally we agree on something!!

    You said:

    @Sumner “” you are brave, I’ll give you that much, as you admit your ignorance of Keynes (despite claiming to know what Keynesians were saying about 2013 sequestering in the USA).”

    Wow, I don’t know what’s funnier. That Ray thinks me saying I need to REREAD the Treatise shows I’m ignorant of Keynesian economics, or that he doesn’t seem to understand that the term “Keynesian economics” has nothing to do with the Treatise, it refers to the GT.

  3. Gravatar of E. Harding E. Harding
    28. January 2015 at 12:43

    There’s a reason I don’t blog on foreign policy, my brain is not wired in such a way as to make me good at the nuances of that subject, which seems more an art than a science.

    -I already knew that by the fact you were satisfied with Obama’s foreign policy, rather than understanding it to be a prime example of why some call America the Great Satan.

  4. Gravatar of benjamin cole benjamin cole
    28. January 2015 at 15:55

    Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq: it makes you wonder.

  5. Gravatar of E. Harding E. Harding
    28. January 2015 at 17:10

    Vietnam had three million Communist soldiers. No comparison to the Islamic State whatsoever. Afghanistan has been a perpetual mess since the fall of the monarchy, and, later, the fall of the First Republic. Reading Johnson’s article, I’m even more depressed about Afghanistan’s future. If decentralization is being even considered as an option by people said to be competent, the chance of Afghanistan returning to stability anytime soon is less than one in a hundred. I think that it is best for the U.S. to set up a permanent base in Kyrgyzstan that should remain in use for something like a century or more. Afghanistan’s situation has been severely deteriorating since 2009, when it was at a twenty-nine year peak. It’s not going to get better anytime soon.

    Just as the EZ NGDP stagnation is a creation of the ECB, so the Islamic State is a creation of Turkey and the West. It is utterly dependent on the actions and inaction of both. The airstrike campaign is totally fake and has no military purpose or significance. Just as all able-bodied Germans of voting age were responsible for the continuation of the Nazi regime, so are all able-bodied Turkish voters responsible for the perpetuation of the Islamic State. The only difference is that the crimes of the Islamic State are all out in the open, while Hitler never made any comment on the Holocaust.

  6. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    29. January 2015 at 06:41

    E. Harding, I probably should have said I thought Obama’s policy was reasonable compared to other presidents. That’s a low bar. I didn’t mean to suggest I approve of everything, just that I don’t see lots of huge errors. Obviously I’m not comfortable with things like NSA policy.

    Regarding the West being complicit in ISIS, I think you have a good point. They are partially funded by European governments. But unless I’m mistaken Obama has not sent money to ISIS. Is that wrong?

  7. Gravatar of E. Harding E. Harding
    29. January 2015 at 12:21

    I don’t know if there’s any evidence of direct U.S. aid to the Islamic State. I do know the U.S. did send food aid to Nusra in 2013:
    after it had already designated it as a terrorist group and sanctioned it.
    Also, weapons smuggled with the help of the CIA to the Syrian rebels are known to have ended up in Islamic State hands.

    The position of the Islamic State is ironic: it makes enemies with every group it meets, yet, every important side in the conflict (with the possible exception of the Iraqi government, which may well just be failing at gaining back territory for real) has either cooperated with it or has tacitly allowed it to expand.

  8. Gravatar of Nick Nick
    29. January 2015 at 13:50

    Thanks for the interesting link. Not sure if this is available outside the UK but Adam Curtis’s ‘Bitter Lake’ is the most thought-provoking & deeply profound take on Afghanistan I’ve seen & seems to support (or perhaps is supported by) Clark’s excellent article:
    2 hours 16 mins of evocative cerebral gems.

  9. Gravatar of Lorenzo from Oz Lorenzo from Oz
    29. January 2015 at 19:12

    The US interventions in the Middle East seem to show the same ignorance of history as has been a hardy perennial in (failed) US policies.

    As Somaliland shows (the successful bit of the former Somalia), a House of Elders (in other words, a House of Lords) would have been sensible policy in both Iraq and Afghanistan, as it would have connected government into traditional social structures. But, hereditary and religious legislators, can’t have that! Because we’re Americans and we don’t think like that!

    And holding a vote on whether to restore the king would also have been sensible policy. But we’re Americans and we don’t think like that!

    Yes, but those folk you’re trying to help: they’re not Americans and they don’t think like you.

    Also, Iraq should have been divided into three. But the US is a little too much of a status quo power (and a little too ignorant of Middle Eastern history) to think like that either.

    Being at the same time a status quo and a revolutionary power (the only state seriously trying to export its revolution in the world today, apart from the Islamic Republic of Iran) is a difficult double.

  10. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    29. January 2015 at 20:47

    E. Harding, You said:

    “Also, weapons smuggled with the help of the CIA to the Syrian rebels are known to have ended up in Islamic State hands.”

    That’s very different from directly giving them 10s of millions of dollars, as European governments do.

    Thanks Nick.

    Lorenzo, Yes, the US is not very good at this sort of thing.

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