Bill Easterly’s cheap, ignorant Afghanistan snark

On his blog, Aid Watch, Bill Easterly spends an inordinate amount of time lambasting others for how they portray Africa. The targets of his ire include fellow bloggers and academics, writers and journalists, huge multilateral organizations, aid agencies, the US military, and even teenage celebrities on Twitter.  (I’m not kidding on that last one. He really wants Selena Gomez to know what an awful person she is.) He rails against those who write about specific African countries with what he views as shallow knowledge of those countries. He shrieks at writers who oversimplify complicated issues, or reinforce stereotypes.

Some of Easterly’s critiques are justified and well-reasoned, but most are cheap shots. Nevertheless, when it comes to Africa and macro-economics, it’s hard to disagree that Easterly knows his stuff.

However, Easterly has recently taken to writing about Afghanistan –a country he very obviously knows close to nothing about.

The good professor apparently believes it’s an offense worthy of relentless e-shaming for someone who isn’t an Africa expert (or, more precisely, an Africa expert who shares his economic views) to write about Africa, yet can’t understand why anyone would criticize him for posting his own deeply ignorant opinions about Afghanistan’s conflict and humanitarian response.

His most recent Afghanistan post is a good example of this hypocrisy in action. It  consists of the sarcastic title “What’s So Hard About Nation-Building?” and a New York Times graphic Josh Foust of Registan described as “so wrong it’s almost mendaciously misleading.”

The Times graphic purports to show “The Five Rungs of Afghanistan’s Traditional Tribal System,” and Easterly’s title is clearly intended to imply that “nation-building” in such a confusing tribal society is pointless and idiotic.

(Geewillakers that frame seems familiar!)

The problem is, as Josh pointed out in a post he linked to in Aid Watch’s comments, the graphic is flat-out wrong. Josh’s post de-bunking it is worth reading in its entirety, but here’s just a taste of what Easterly was too lazy and smug to spend 15 minutes researching.

It’s difficult to know where to begin, so we’ll start at the top. The first point the NYT makes—that Pashtuns make up only 38% or so of the population—is correct, but this graphic misses that the other 62% of the population is non tribal. So when they discuss “traditional Afghan tribes,” they are really discussing Pashtun tribes. The distinction matters, since in that same point they correctly point out that ethnic distinctions carry weight—if only about a third of the population is tribal, and the ethnicity of those tribal people is at the “top” of the rung, then you’re not really discussing Afghanistan, you’re discussing those tribal people. So from the start, the Times is misleading its readership in labeling this a discussion of “Afghanistan’s traditional tribal structure.”

Then there’s the problem of calling Pashtuns tribal. No one—not one anthropologist who’s studied Afghanistan (yes, there are many, and their work goes back decades) has described the “Traditional Afghan tribal system” of having five rungs. It’s more detail than we need here, but discussing a Pashtun’s salient identity requires moving beyond “levels” of identity—discussed in detail here, as well as in a detailed paper by the researchers at the Human Terrain System.

In fact, those researchers say it explicitly:

Pashtuns’ motivations for choosing how to identify and organize politically—including whether or not to support the Afghan government or the insurgency—are flexible and pragmatic. “Tribe” is only one potential choice among many, and not necessarily the one that guides people’s decision-making.

The report goes on at length—dozens of pages—about how viewing things only as “tribe” even amongst supposedly “tribal” Pashtuns is a misleading way to view their social structures.

Did you finish reading? Congratulations, you’re now better informed than Bill Easterly!

12 thoughts on “Bill Easterly’s cheap, ignorant Afghanistan snark

  1. Pingback: Easterly’s pointless echo chamber « Transitionland

  2. Whether or not the graphic is right or wrong has little relevance to Easterly’s point, which was simply that Afghanistan has an incredibly complex society and you can’t just swoop down and engage in nation building. I know you and Josh both agree that it’s complex, so is the issue here simply about your belief that foreigners can “build” Afghanistan? Then flat out say so, otherwise this post just comes across as petty and illogical.

    • All societies are complex. Let’s not exoticize Afghanistan.

      Anyway, the point I was trying to make was that Easterly would have known the graphic was factually incorrect if he took time to do exactly the same kind of basic research he bangs on about everyone else failing to do before writing about Africa.

      Do I think foreigners can “build Afghanistan”? No. Can they help Afghans rebuild it? Yes, and that is what Afghans say they want every time they are asked.

      • As you know, Easterly isn’t an expert on Afghanistan, nor does he ever pretend to be. He posted the Times graphic in an attempt to poke fun at naive beliefs regarding nation building.

        Now, should he have tried to find a more accurate representation of Aghanistan? Sure, if for no other reason then to educate his readers and prevent misinformation. But at the same time, he doesn’t *need* to understand the complexity of Afghan society in order to critique our simplistic approach to the country. He simply can acknowledge that it’s multifaceted, demand that we recognize that, and move on.

        I have to say, this is coming across more and more as a “gotcha” game and not as intellectual discourse.

      • “Our simplistic approach to the country.” Whose approach? Foreign involvement in Afghanistan is many things, comes from many sources, and answers to many different authorities.

        I have to say, this is coming across more and more as a “gotcha” game and not as intellectual discourse.


  3. Wow. I’ve never seen a single blog so misinterpret another’s positions as consistently as this one does. Isn’t it obvious that Easterly was poking fun at that graphic?

    This post is positively dripping with malice, and comes across more like a high school argument than a serious retort to Easterly’s views. Can you say “straw man”?

  4. This isn’t my field, so I hope everyone will excuse my ignorance.

    I think I agree with you on some of Bill Easterly’s general rhetoric, but I’ve decided that much of what I read as a lay person in this fields is more the dominance of what I’d call patriarchal logic, the dominant logic of the culture and its expression.

    Quite honestly, until I stumbled on Bill Easterly via Kristof on Twitter, I never knew people could argue so vehemently over do-gooding ….

    an entire academic/professional discipline devoted to arguing about “models” and such, with the most specialized and inaccessible vernacular imaginable, all presumably taken quite seriously in the quest to make the world a better place.


    The logic reminds me of football, the academy’s version of who has the ball at any given time deciding the winning team, without a wit as to what might be going on in real people’s lives. This isn’t to say that these individuals don’t good, but they really seem clueless as to how an outsider (like myself) might perceive the discussions.

    I write only as a women with a long standing issues in language, rhetoric, gender, class issues, and even race, and I see many of these large cultural issues permeating these discussions, though it may be my lens, it seems unavoidable to note that gender, race, and class (via the education system) fashion the logic driving the “discussions.”

    I find many of the “oversights” you mention have more to do with the aforementioned logic, and its correlative shortcomings; moreover, I find it interesting that many of the commentators on his blog frequently ignore many important (female textile workers, the best exmaple) posts to jump on the snark train (Bono entry).

    Yes, that is telling.

    But not certain that pointing that out makes too much difference, because I understand the logic, and it’s a wholly inadequate one, and one whose privilege too frequently makes it unintentionally deaf.

    The road to hell is paved with good intentions.

    And I’m certain that few reading this would understand why a general woman’s studies course would deeply benefit their area of speciality.

    I appreciate your work, follow your tweets, and deeply respect the personal investment you’ve made.

    Apologies for editorial oversights, etc. and the obvious ignorance of my comments.

    All best,


  5. “Do I think foreigners can “build Afghanistan”? No. Can they help Afghans rebuild it? Yes, and that is what Afghans say they want every time they are asked”

    A more pressing issue is whether foreigners are even capable of allowing Afghans to rebuild their society. I would argue, that as long as Afghanistan is framed as a battleground for the War on Drugs and War on Terror, US interests and Afghan civilian interests will always collide.

    ““Our simplistic approach to the country.” Whose approach? Foreign involvement in Afghanistan is many things, comes from many sources, and answers to many different authorities.”

    I think it’s pretty clear that the US government has laid out a specific policy with regards to Afghanistan, so when I say “our” I mean “our government”. Are you really denying that the US has laid out an approach to Afghanistan or were you just once again playing the pedant?

    “me: I have to say, this is coming across more and more as a “gotcha” game and not as intellectual discourse.”

    you on twitter: “LOVE the one who accuses me of playing gotcha at the expense of intellectual discourse”

    You really do come across as petulant and immature when it comes to Easterly. The way you framed this post, hell the way you continuously built this issue up on twitter, was spiteful and insincere. Bill doesn’t need to understand the ins and outs of Afghanistan’s society in order to critique “our” (and just so we’re really clear, when I say “our” I mean the US gov’t) our approach is flawed and naive.

    In fact, if anything, the fact that that graphic isn’t representative of the way Afghanistan really works, just makes Bill’s point that much more salient. If the most prestigious newspaper in the US doesn’t get the country, who’s to say our policymakers can?

    Hell, I’m Pathan/Pushton, and I don’t understand much of it. Fortunately, I don’t pretend to know what’s best for the country or the people there, I just know what doesn’t work and what hasn’t been working.

    And that lack of knowledge and that confusion is precisely Bill’s point.

    Which you would’ve seen if you weren’t so rabidly against him.

    • – The US has laid out an approach to Afghanistan. It doesn’t apply to everyone. Try telling a Swedish WATSAN engineer she answers to Stanley McChrystal. Your comment, moreover, is exactly the muddying kind of rhetoric Alanna was referring to in her post about “What We Talk About When We Talk About Aid”

      Specificity matters. It’s difficult, but it matters.

      – I’m not pretending to “know what’s best” for Afghanistan. I’m going by what Afghans say they want and need. I’m here to build the capacity of a small organization in one specific area and move on as soon as an Afghan can take my place.

      – US interests and Afghan civilian interests do not always collide, but often they do. In those cases, I come down on the side of the civilians.

      – Our high-level policymakers do not understand Afghan society. you’ll read no disagreements from me on that. However, that doesn’t mean policy-makers shouldn’t try or that no one understands. To me, our ignorance is a reason to ask more questions, and make more attempts to understand.

      • First, I’m sorry about your illness, I didn’t know that was what was going on here. Sorry.

        But back to this issue, I am not at all saying that your personal approach to Afghanistan is problematic; and while I can’t speak for Easterly, I’m pretty sure he wasn’t attacking your sort of aid work at all. The problem is that we, as in the US gov’t, are sending an enormous of amount of money and troops to Afghanistan for the nebulous, ill-defined purpose of “nation-building”. We do not understand who to trust, we do not understand the dynamics at work, we do not even know what sort of nation we want over there.

        Judging by what I’ve read from you on this blog and @ I think you’d mostly agree with that. I think you took Easterly’s posts as a swipe against your sort of aid work and the Afghan people. Once again, I can’t speak for Easterly but I have read enough of his articles, books, and blog to realize that that is not what he was trying to do here.

        Frankly, that was my major point of contention here. This blog post seemed like a cheap attempt to score “gotcha” points against Easterly. You seemed to be assuming that he didn’t know much about Afghanistan, that he didn’t research Afghanistan, and that his lack of knowledge about Afghanistan’s ethnic/tribal/polical system made his point about nation building somehow invalid.

        I found all three of those aspects to be highly problematic and counterproductive.

        But get well.

  6. We do not understand who to trust, we do not understand the dynamics at work, we do not even know what sort of nation we want over there.

    I think this is precisely one of the issues that Transitionland has repeatedly tried to point out: Americans shouldn’t be asking themselves what nation they want in Afghanistan or Iraq. That is a question for Iraqis and Afghans who, as this blog repeatedly reports, have strong — and sometimes diverging — opinions about what nations they want.

    We can be critical of nation-building in principle, which I think is Easterly’s view, or we can agree to it in principle, but want it to be carried out in the proper way (i.e., having local stakeholders decide their own destiny, with international support), which (I’m guessing) is closer to Transitionland’s position.

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