Today we learned that the U.S. armed forces in Afghanistan are now spearheading a major effort at (drum roll) ... prison reform. We've figured out that the brutal treatment that even petty criminals face while in jail is facilitating Taliban recruitment in the prisons, and so the United States is going to build some new facilities and try to get the Afghan government to change its incarceration practices. Your tax dollars at work.
Given that we are trying to defeat an insurgency, I don't have a big problem with any initiative that might weaken Taliban recruitment. But am I the only one who sees the irony in this situation? Prison reform is badly needed back here in the United States -- where the incarceration rate is the highest in the world (Russia and Belarus -- well-known bastions of freedom -- are #2 and #3). In fact, the incarceration rate in the United States is nearly four times the world average, and nearly seven times higher than in the EU. Recidivism rates in the United States are also high (about 60 percent), which suggests that prison life isn't doing a very good job of rehabilitating convicts. As sociologist Bruce Western has shown, this situation has far-reaching negative consequences. Although Senator Jim Webb (D-VA) has been trying to spearhead a reform effort, this hasn't generated a lot of momentum so far. So the Afghans may get significant prison reform before Americans do.
Let's not forget how we got here: about eight years ago a small group of anti-American criminals hijacked four airplanes and flew three of them into buildings in the United States. The ringleaders of the plot were in Afghanistan, and the Afghan government (at that time under Taliban control) refused to give them up. So the United States invaded to overthrow the Taliban and capture the al Qaeda leadership. Unfortunately, we failed to get the latter, and we bungled the subsequent reconstruction effort by going into Iraq, thereby enabling the Taliban to make a comeback. So now we're escalating there once more, in a potentially open-ended effort to build a functioning and legitimate Afghan state. And now that means fixing their prison system too. How does one say "mission creep" in Pashto?
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Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.