A while ago, I discussed the problems of correctly implementing what should be, in theory, the world’s easiest counterinsurgency strategy for a country as rich as the United States: bribe your opponents. The U.S. has tried it in multiple ways; at best, it’s been a partial success, in the sense that things could be worse. But only partial. In October of last year, the Taliban hit the headquarters of the Panjshir provincial reconstruction team. When I was there in ‘06, Panjshir was quiet, well-protected by the local militia. That said, there were plenty of incidents like this, albeit not as deadly. Bribery is expensive, it is long-term, and it needs to be institutionalized (either formally or informally) in a way that aligns everyone’s incentives.
Are there lessons from history? Well, yes, but they’re not good. My co-blogger and I give you a report from 170 years ago:
The deceptive quietude of Afghanistan which followed the sharp lessons administered to the Dooranees and the Ghilzais was not seriously disturbed during the month of September 1841, and Macnaghten was in a full glow of cheerfulness. His services had been recognised by his appointment to the dignified and lucrative post of Governor of the Bombay Presidency, and he was looking forward to an early departure for a less harassing and tumultuous sphere of action than that in which he had been labouring for two troubled years. The belief that he would leave behind him a quiescent Afghanistan, and Shah Soojah firmly established on its throne, was the complement, to a proud and zealous man, of the satisfaction which his promotion afforded.
One distasteful task he had to perform before he should go. The Home Government had become seriously disquieted by the condition of affairs in Afghanistan. The Secret Committee of the Court of Directors, the channel through which the ministry communicated with the Governor-General, had expressed great concern at the heavy burden imposed on the Indian finances by the cost of the maintenance of the British force in Afghanistan, and by the lavish expenditure of the administration which Macnaghten directed. The Anglo-Indian Government was urgently required to review with great earnestness the question of its future policy in regard to Afghanistan, and to consider gravely whether an enterprise at once so costly and so unsatisfactory in results should not be frankly abandoned.
Lord Auckland was alive to the difficulties and embarrassments which encompassed the position beyond the Indus, but he was loth to admit that the policy of which he had been the author, and in which the Home Government had abetted him so eagerly, was an utter failure. He and his advisers finally decided in favour of the continued occupation of Afghanistan; and since the Indian treasury was empty ... Macnaghten was pressed to effect economies in the administration, and he was specially enjoined to cut down the subsidies which were paid to Afghan chiefs as bribes to keep them quiet.
Macnaghten had objected to this retrenchment, pointing out that the stipends to the chiefs were simply compensation for the abandonment by them of their immemorial practice of highway robbery, but he yielded to pressure, called to Cabul the chiefs in its vicinity, and informed them that thenceforth their subsidies would be reduced. The chiefs strongly remonstrated, but without effect, and they then formed a confederacy of rebellion.
The Ghilzai chiefs were the first to act. Quitting Cabul, they occupied the passes between the capital and Jellalabad, and entirely intercepted the communications with India by the Khyber route.
Macnaghten did not take alarm at this significant demonstration,regarding the outbreak merely as “provoking,” and writing to Rawlinson that “the rascals would be well trounced for their pains.” Yet warnings of gathering danger were rife, which but for his mood of optimism should have struck home to his apprehension. Pottinger had come down from the Kohistan, where he was acting as political officer, bent on impressing on him that a general rising of that region was certain unless strong measures of prevention were resorted to ...