Nation-Building in Afghanistan, RIP
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Two weeks after 9/11, I published a lengthy movie review of John Huston’s 1975 adaptation of Kipling’s extraordinary short story The Man Who Would Be King, which starred Sean Connery and Michael Caine as adventurers who cross the Hindu Kush into remotest Afghanistan with plans to become Kings of Kafiristan. Using the movie as a lens, I tried to answer two relevant questions:

Did the U.S. have the military strength to topple the Taliban government in punishment for sheltering Osama bin Laden? (Yes.)

Should the US then then stick around to nation-build? (No.)

Here’s the end of my essay from 20 years ago:

Yet, if a war in Afghanistan does prove winnable, which it should, ought the U.S. to then undertake a long-term benevolent occupation to attempt to turn that desolate land into a peaceful “normal country?” Huston’s movie offers a skeptical perspective.

Initially, the two pirates’ plan succeeds wildly. The pagans believe Daniel is a god, the son of Alexander. The high priests crown him King of Kafiristan and offer him a treasure room full of rubies and gold. All Daniel and Peachey need to do to become the two richest men on Earth is to fill their packs, wait four months for the snows in the Hindu Kush to melt, and then walk out.

While awaiting Spring, Daniel amuses himself by playing at being king. To the applause of his new subjects, he enforces peace, dispenses justice at traditional durbars, sets up granaries to ensure against famine, and builds bridges to tie the country together.

When the passes finally open, Peachey learns to his horror that Daniel now feels too responsible for his people to grab the loot and run. “A nation I shall make of it, with an anthem and a flag,” King Daniel thunders.

Worse, Daniel has decided to take a Queen. He has picked out a local beauty called Roxanne — the same name as Alexander’s wife. The priests demur. Billy Fish tries to explain to the king why his marriage would be an affront to Kafir beliefs. Daniel, blinded by his victories — “Have I not put the shadow of my hand over this country?” — fails to grasp that what seems a quibble to him is of dread import to the Kafirs.

Catastrophe ensues.

Science fiction novelist Orson Scott Card (“Ender’s Game”) summed up “The Man Who Would Be King”: “This is the classic tragedy that Aristotle spoke of — so powerful that some of us can only stand to see the ending once.”

Those who advocate that we stay in Afghanistan long after Osama bin Laden and the Taliban are dealt with should ponder Kipling and Huston’s parable.

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