The Artistic Sphere


Losing, Fast and Slow - by Sam Burt

Why have vast investments by foreign powers failed to secure the peaceful, democratic Afghanistan that seemed, briefly, within reach seventeen years ago? This review article aims to answer this question by exploring the successes and failures of post-2001 nation-building, as outlined in Noah Coburn's Losing Afghanistan: An Obituary for the Intervention (2016) and Theo Farrell's Unwinnable: Britain's War in Afghanistan, 2001-2014. Coburn's anthropological account of the 'development community' in Afghanistan reveals how rational decision-making was consistently hindered by short-term mission objectives and fragmented authority. Farrell's book complements this 'bottom-up' approach by tracking the ever-changing objectives of relevant military and political leaders. 

Three paradoxes of the intervention are explored: the Obama administration's 'surge' strategy, which injected funds and personnel at the same time as setting a deadline for withdrawal; the revival of counterinsurgency strategy, which emphasised the 'human' dimension of war at the expense of political analysis; and the proliferation of new mechanisms for measuring and quantifying progress being made. 

Exploring these themes also helps us to answer some persistent questions about the intervention. Was it doomed to failure from the start? How can we weigh the gains achieved against the costs incurred? Perhaps most important of all: did the international community learn from its mistakes during the intervention, and can it avoid repeating them in future? 

After reading PPE at Oxford University, Sam became an English teacher through Teach First. He subsequently studied for an MA in Educational Leadership, and now works as a freelance writer and tutor. Sam has written for publications including the Guardian, Huffington Post, and the Contemporary Educational Leadership and blogs on culture and politics at He has a particular interest in international relations during and after the Cold War and has spent several years researching a novel about Afghanistan's democratic experience.