During my recent visit to Kabul, many Afghans asked me: “What does America want from us?”
Initially, I didn’t know what exactly the inquiry was about and responded with a question of my own: “Isn’t America here helping the Afghans free themselves from the Taliban?”
My counter question always triggered a raucous laughter and the charge that I didn’t want to tell the truth.
I gradually realized that many Afghans, among them high-level government officials and well-educated young people, believe that the United States is instigating terror in Islamic countries to keep them mired in constant internal wars, rendering them weak and marginalized.
While we can write off that reading as conspiracy theory—a common predilection among regional populations—the question does make sense: What, indeed, are we doing in Afghanistan? After the loss of almost 2,300 American lives, the cost of about one trillion dollars—over one hundred billions of which was spent on the country’s reconstruction—and 14 years of war, we are still bogged down there.
The goodwill a majority of Afghans had felt for the American presence in their country 14 years ago, has evaporated and is replaced by feelings of puzzlement and even hostility.
Let’s take stock of what the situation in Afghanistan is today:
The Taliban has withstood President W. Bush’s invasion and survived President Obama’s surge.
According to NATO, the Taliban today controls about 40 percent of the country. Not only is it entrenched in the country’s south. It has also deeply penetrated the north, which for many years was a relatively safe area. Fighting is in progress in at least ten provinces, among them the northern provinces of Kunduz and Baghlan.
When the U.S. decided to terminate its combat mission at the end of 2014, Washington repeatedly declared that the Afghan security forces would by then be ready to successfully deal with the insurgency. We now know that the Afghan national army has steadily lost ground to the Taliban in 2015 and will likely lose more territory in 2016.
The office of the U.S. Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) reports that the illiteracy rate of government uniformed forces is 89 percent. Desertions average 5,000 a month.
Suicide bombings and kidnappings are almost daily occurrences. As recently as April 19, a suicide bomber killed 64 and wounded 347 people.
According to Nicholas Haysom, UN Secretary General’s Special Representative for Afghanistan, poverty has increased from 46 to 49 percent of the population. The value of the Afghan currency, the afghani, has fallen from 50 to 68 relative to the dollar. As Afghanistan lacks production facilities and imports most everything from abroad, this steep fall in the local currency’s value affects every Afghan’s pocketbook.
The UN further reports that civilian casualties have gone up by 200 percent during the first quarter of 2016 compared with the same period in 2015.
In 2015 alone, Over 250 000 Afghans, mainly young educated people, have given up on the future of their country and taken the enormous risk of illegally immigrating to Europe.
The United States invaded Afghanistan with the aim to free that country from the Taliban, to destroy Al Qaeda, reconstruct the Afghan infrastructure, and revitalize the country’s economy so that the Afghan people could live a free and dignified life.
Yet, after the longest war in the history of the United States, we find ourselves confronted with a failed state that is unable to pay its bills, defend its borders, and survive without foreign military, financial, and advisory assistance from the international community—principally the United States.
So what went wrong?
Things went wrong right from the beginning. In November 2001, a number of international officials and a collection of Afghans got together in Bonn, Germany to form a government to be installed in Kabul when the Taliban had been evicted from the capital.
At the Bonn conference, Afghan-born American Zalmay Khalilzad, a member of the U.S. delegation and the one most familiar with the Afghan society, played the most important role. He surrounded himself with a number of his Afghan-American friends, among them Qayoum Karzai, whose younger brother, Hamid Karzai, was chosen to lead Afghanistan.
Mr. Khalilzad and Qayoum Karzai had handpicked most of the Afghan attendees in Bonn, mainly men they knew and were confident they could control. It was clear from the outset that Hamid Karzai would come out on top.
In a study entitled “Crime and War in Afghanistan,” published by Oxford Press in December 2012, the Centre for Crime and Justice of the Australian National University concluded: “The Bonn Agreement in 2001 did not usher in an effective ‘constitutional moment’ because it enabled a personalized division of spoils rather than an institutionalized division of power.”
And that’s exactly what went wrong.
Zalmay Khalilzad and the Karzai brothers saw to it that, with few exceptions, the worst elements in Afghan society gained power, found legitimacy, and profited hugely from the massive inflow of donor money. And the world came to know Afghanistan as the largest producer of opium and one of the most corrupt countries on the planet.
What is to be done?
The U.S.-led international coalition, which has been governing Afghanistan since December 2001, has two choices:
- Give up, leave Afghanistan alone and let the chips fall where they may. In this case. the country would most likely implode and return to being a black hole where international terrorists, drug kingpins, and other criminal elements would find a large free space to operate from with considerable impunity.
- Stay on, accept responsibility for what happens in Afghanistan and implement the right policies that would lead to peace, to the revitalization of the Afghan economy, and a democratic government with pluralistic institutions and a free and functioning judiciary.
Anything less will not do.
For many years, I have been advocating option B and always felt that with the present political setup and some of today’s political actors, it would be impossible to rebuild the country, democratize the governing system, and regenerate the economy. Without these steps, I was and am now convinced that Afghanistan would remain a failed state.
The reaction to my recommendation has been that Afghanistan was a sovereign state and handling of its affairs by other nations was unacceptable. I have differed from this view in the case of Afghanistan. In my view, a country that has no control over its borders, lacks financial self-sufficiency, and is unable to care for its people is not sovereign but a ward of the international community.
Francis Fukuyama agrees with my take of sovereignty. In his book, "State Building: Governance and World Order in the 21st Century,"
he writes, “In … Afghanistan, the ‘international community’ ceased to be an abstraction and took on a palpable presence as the effective government of the country in question.”
I believe the U.S.-led nations engaged in Afghanistan are responsible for bringing the Afghan war to an end and to enable the Afghan people to run their affairs in freedom and security.
This step must be initiated immediately as there are two events ahead this year. In July, during a NATO conference in Warsaw, member states will discuss and most probably approve to extend for another year the payment of $ 4.1 billion for the maintenance of the Afghan security forces. And in October, donor nations will meet in Brussels and will most likely agree to carry on paying the $4 billion in support of the Afghan government’s nonmilitary expenses for the next year.
In the past, during these meetings, the representatives of the donor community would, in its habitual manner, state its profound concern over the devastating effect Afghanistan’s rampant corruption had on the country’s progress. In turn, the Afghan government would, as it has become a routine, express its sincere determination to fight corruption.
This scene has repeated itself so often that the donor representatives have come to know that the Afghans will do nothing to end the horrendous bribery and their patronage governance. However, they also recognize their own unwillingness to confront the Afghan government.
It is high time to use these occasions to break that pattern by attach stringent and verifiable conditions, forcing the Afghan government to comply with the donors’ demands. It would be even better if the donors’ took direct responsibility and controlled the disbursement of the funds.
For the sake of his own legacy and to avoid passing on to his successor a potentially intractable situation, President Obama should now initiate a hands on management of Afghanistan’s government.
has maintained homes, business interests and dual citizenship in both the United States and Afghanistan for the past three decades.
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