Depending on who you’re taking to, the war in Afghanistan has cost America a little more or a bit less than $1 trillion. It has lasted more than 17 years, and no clear end is in sight for it.
What transpires today is not the original military campaign. The initial armed confrontation was anticlimactic and of short duration. This subsequent campaign is the second stage of the primary war.
After the Taliban was defeated, its warriors turned into insurgents. The original war morphed into an insurgency, forcing the U.S. and its allies to fight a guerrilla war for which the U.S. was unprepared and still finds it difficult to handle.
The seemingly unending insurgency is the aftereffect of the political mistakes that were made during and after the 2001 Bonn Conference. These errors delivered the future of Afghanistan into the hands of warlords, drug kingpins, and other men of no integrity. Thus, the seeds for a predatory government were planted right in what was created at Bonn. The Afghan people’s future was henceforward predestined to be again a life of poverty, exploitation, and domination — this time with the blessing and financial backing of America.
At the Bonn Conference, the Americans, UN representatives, and Europeans found soon that the unruly gathering was beyond their ability to control. They gladly left the task of forming the panned government to Zalmay Khalilzad who eagerly took on the task. Together with Qayoum Karzai, another Afghan-American, with whom he had been working to choose the “right” people for the Bonn Conference, he eagerly went to work.
Once, Mr. Khalilzad and Qayoum Karzai began running the show, they simply took the easy way out. Hamid Karzai, Qayoum’s younger brother, was chosen to lead Afghanistan. Since both Hamid Karzai and Zalmay Khalilzad had close relations with most people from the war of resistance in the 1980s, they handed over the country to that violent-prone and corrupt men who bore responsibility for years of savagery, theft, and murder during the civil war of the early to the mid-1990s.
In December 2012, Oxford University published “Crime and War in Afghanistan.” The study concludes, “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.”
The people who were so empowered did what they knew best: They stole what came across their desks and what they could squeeze out of foreign and local contractors, enriching themselves beyond their, or anyone else’s, expectation.
When poverty, as a result of predatory governance, spread and the Taliban made inroads in rural areas, the country’s leaders got their ill-gotten wealth out of the country. Billions of dollars were taken out of the country in suitcases through the Kabul International Airport. No one dared to stop the strongmen who, surrounded by their gun-toting guards, drove straight to the plane, and no one who wished to stay alive dared to inquire what they had packed in all the big suitcases.
It took Washington some time to understand the problem that had been created at Bonn. It would be interesting to find out what Mr. Khalilzad, who, for the first several years of the Karzai regime spent almost daily time with the Afghan president, may have reported to his superiors in Washington.
In his book “The Envoy,” he writes, “I saw Karzai almost every day and then often circled back to the palace once more for discussion over dinner. It was often very late by the time I returned to the embassy and assembled my staff to draft one or more cables reporting the day’s events to Washington.”
It is difficult to accept he didn’t know of the strongmen’s lawlessness, the theft of land, police brutalities, and the government’s all-encompassing corruption. It might have been his guilty subconscious that he felt the need to add in his aforementioned book, “Since I left Afghanistan as ambassador, I have reflected a great deal on why the situation deteriorated so dramatically in the years that followed.”
By 2009, Washington insiders had reached a clear understanding that the U.S.’s partnership with thugs had worked against America’s interests. And that year offered U.S. policymakers an opportunity to introduce changes in the Afghan political leadership.
First, the Obama administration had had nothing to do with the choice of Afghanistan’s leaders. Second, President Karzai’s mandate was coming to an end and new presidential election was being planned for that year.
A few lonely voices advised Washington policymakers to cancel or delay the election as they feared it would be another botched election that would leave Karzai and his corrupt relatives and supporters in power.
The same warning came from the British government. In his book “Directorate S,” Steve Coll writes, “David Miliband, the British foreign minister … tried to convince Holbrooke [U.S. special ambassador for Afghanistan/Pakistan] early in 2009 that the presidential election should be postponed indefinitely and perhaps scrapped altogether…”
Even within the Obama administration, it was clear that continuing the partnership with the leadership in place in Afghanistan would lead nowhere. In his book “Obama’s Wars,” Bob Woodward, describes a scene at a White House strategy session on Afghanistan, where National Security Adviser James Jones says, “The plan is not executable without changes in governance — fundamental changes.”
But concerned that such a move could set off a civil war, Washington relented and agreed to let Karzai have his election which cost the U.S. about $300 million and brought Afghanistan to the brink of another civil war. Peter Galbraith, deputy UN representative in Afghanistan, probably appalled by the politics of foreboding and denial, made the election’s massive vote rigging public. For that act of bravura, he lost his job.
As in 2009, the 2014 presidential election was thoroughly engineered. The hostility between Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah, the two leading contenders, necessitated direct American interference, leading to the formation of the so-called "Unity Government," a construct that is in contradiction with the country’s constitution. However, beside the fact that the unity government has failed, it missed to convene a constitutional assembly to amend it in order to legalize the unity government’s form, it missed to organize parliamentary elections due two years ago, it failed to prosecute major cases of corruption, such as collecting money for schools that didn’t exist, charging for nonexisting soldiers and police officers, and the infamous and long-standing Kabul Bank case. It has also failed in the war, losing much ground to the Taliban.
As a result, Afghanistan is today essentially the same failed state it was when the U.S. invaded it in October 2001.
In addition to financing the cost of Afghanistan’s military and police forces, the U.S. also pays 80 percent of that country’s civilian expenditures. Without this subsidy, the unity government would collapse almost immediately. The country has no economy to speak of. The illegal opium trade has grown from about 270 tons a year in 2001 to about 8,500 tons a year today. According to the U.N. about 13 million Afghans, or about 38 percent of the population, suffer from food insecurity. Infant mortality is one of the highest in the world. By age 5, more than 25 percent of them are dead. The average life expectancy of the Afghan people is 45 years. According to the office of the U.S. Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, the literacy rate of the Afghan military and police forces is 11 percent.
The Ghani government plans parliamentary elections in October and presidential election in 2019. It doesn’t have the money to carry them out. The U.S. and its allies would have to finance both.
Most observers have no doubt that the result would be fraudulent, as all prior elections since 2001 had been. The winners will, as in the past, be the same group of people who’ve monopolized political and economic power since the creation of the new Afghan governing system in 2001. They have grown powerful and rich in the lawlessness that has shaped Afghan life in the past 17 years and have no interest in the rule of law.
President Trump’s new strategy does not change the core of the problem. It is the acquiescence to and partnership with thieves that have mired America in this expensive and endless war. As long as the U.S. subsidizes this corrupt and unethical regime, the adding of additional troops will be useless. The insurgency will go on. The killing will continue. The destruction of homes, villages, and towns will proceed, adding hundreds of thousands of internally displaced people to the other hundreds of thousands of displaced families who already live unimaginably destitute lives.
The narrative of this tormented nation has become such overwhelming that one would be temped to say, “Let’s get out of there.”
On June 21, Stephen M. Walt, professor of international relations at Harvard University, observing on what transpires in Afghanistan, wrote, “Yet, the past year recorded the highest level of civilian casualties since the United States first invaded in 2002 [this should read 2001], and the casualty rate for 2018 is on a similar pace, opium production is at a record high as well, even though the U.S. government has spent more than $8 billion on various anti-narcotics programs. It’s funny that Trump is bothered by military exercises with South Korea that he thinks are too expensive, yet he’s willing to continue a costly forever war that is doomed to failure.”
Mr. Walt’s observation is correct if Washington continues its established policy. Then, the end result would probably be a failure, leading to the inglorious exit of the United States, an all-out civil war, and probably the breaking apart of Afghanistan into several mini-states. A condition that could destabilize not just South Asia but also involve the Central Asian Republics, Iran, and Russia.
To avoid that likely failure, the U.S. must break with the established leadership in Afghanistan. Coll, describing in his aforementioned book a meeting at the White House on Afghanistan in 2009, writes: “Holbrooke argued that the CIA’s web of strongmen in Afghanistan, including Wali Karzai in Kandahar, was part of the problem in the war. They provided a mirage of security but governed as predators, exacerbating popular grievances. But Kappes rejected Holbrooke’s argument. The United States was at war with al-Qaida, the CIA was on the front lines in Afghanistan, and its assets among the country’s power brokers were vital. The security of the United States trumped any concerns about the moral qualities of its Afghan interlocutors.”
Mr. Kappes’ argument is exactly what has been profoundly wrong in America’s approach to Afghanistan. It is also unacceptable in the context of America’s ethical codes. What America does not want for itself, it shouldn’t tolerate in other places, especially in places it’s directly involved militarily and financially. Otherwise, its human sacrifice and financial outlays will inevitably come to naught.
The answer for Afghanistan is the installation of an interim government. This apolitical administration should be given three to four years to draft a new constitution and civil laws that would reflect the moral and legal norms of the 21st century. The interim government should be supported in destroying the marauding armies of warlords and bringing the criminal elements in the government to justice.
It’s high time that accountability is introduced to Afghanistan. The interim government must be free of the grip of strong men, and institutions should be strengthened. The rule of law must be firmly established. Above all, democracy must be reintroduced. The misbehavior of the government in the past 17 years has given democracy the worst possible name. Democratization of institution must be firmly established.
Afghanistan should be made safe and desirable for foreign investment, without which the country will never be able to free itself from financial dependence for economic survival.
If things went well to the extent conditions would allow, the U.S., its allies, and the United Nations could let the Afghan people vote for a government. Then, hopefully the country could join the family of sovereign nations.
Nasir Shansab has maintained homes, business interests and dual citizenship in both the United States and Afghanistan for the past three decades.
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