Friday book #22: Missionaries of Modernity

This week by exception, the Friday book doesn’t come from my shelf but is one which arrived in today’s mail: Missionaries of Modernity by Antonio Giustozzi and Artemy Kalinovsky. Chapter 8 is written by my former research assistant Alfia Sorokina, Artemy Kalinovsky (author among other things of A Long Goodbye: the Soviet Withdrawal from Afghanistan), and me.


The book as a whole looks at the part played by foreign advisors in developing countries during and after the Cold War. Our chapter examines the role of Soviet specialists in providing economic and technical assistance to Afghanistan. We point out that ‘Soviet activities in Afghanistan were constructive as well as destructive. The Soviets provided Afghanistan with both “free aid” (free deliveries of food, seeds, fuel, etc.) and economic and technical assistance which was designed to promote long term economic development.’ Soviet specialists participated in these activities ‘by constructing modern industrial infrastructure, and by training the personnel to run it.’

We note that Soviet specialists often spent years working in Afghanistan (a striking contrast to modern Western advisors, whose stays in Afghanistan are often very short). However, when the Soviets left, the industrial enterprises they had created rapidly ceased production. All too often the Afghans they had trained fled the moment that the Soviet Army was no longer there to protect them. Thus we conclude that, ‘The Soviets’ development plans might never have achieved their aims under the best of circumstances, but when attempted under fire they were certain to fail.’

Our study reveals that Soviet advisors were often ill-equipped to deal with the peculiarities of the Afghan environment. On the one hand, they eventually came to understand that slavishly applying Soviet models to Afghanistan made no sense, and they pressed their Afghan colleagues to be less ideologically rigid. On the other hand, the problems of war meant that they were endlessly reacting to events and being forced to improvise, rather than following a coherent strategy.

The chapter following ours examines US and NATO advisory missions to Afghanistan post-2001. It concludes that these were ‘more chaotic and directionless’ than those of the Soviets, ‘with a multitude of not always compatible templates being sponsored by different agencies and countries.’ Whereas the Soviets focused (not always very successfully) on developing industrial infrastructure and training the workers required to operate it, the US/NATO approach was rather different. As the book says:

On the economic development front, the [US/NATO] mission did little more than import the Washington consensus into Afghanistan, neglecting not only efforts to equip the Afghan state with the facilities necessary to prevent the country turning into a capitalist ‘wild west’, dominated by robber barons, but even to create incentives for those very robber barons to at least invest their ill-gotten riches back into the Afghan economy.

Overall, Giustozzi and Kalinovsky conclude that advisory missions ‘have had a mixed impact on their host countries’, helping to reshape institutions, but not always for the better. Advisors almost always follow a ‘template approach’, but the templates are often not appropriate. When they fail, as they often do, advisory missions abandon their lofty dreams of national building and economic development and turn instead to patronage, trying to achieve a degree of peace by paying local warlords and others to maintain order on their behalf. In this sense, the Soviet and American missions in Afghanistan followed a similar pattern.

One thought on “Friday book #22: Missionaries of Modernity”

  1. “On the economic development front, the [US/NATO] mission did little more than import the Washington consensus into Afghanistan”

    Well, that’s the point of all their missions, isn’t it? See The Shock Doctrine, for example…


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