How the War on Terror brought more war and terror to Afghanistan
The US invasion of Afghanistan is destined to go down in history as one of the former’s major failures. The failure will continue to be a topic for students of various disciplines for decades to come. The invasion has further complicated the equations of war and peace in Afghanistan. As an Afghan, who lived in Afghanistan for most of the US occupation and witnessed first-hand many of the events, I would like to share some of my humble observations.
Today, it’s common knowledge that the so-called War on Terror (WoT) has brought Afghanistan (and the wider region) more war and more terror. On the eve of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan (according to the Taliban-US Deal, the Americans are scheduled to leave by June 2021) about 20 terror groups, including al-Qaeda, are still active in Afghanistan. So what was the point of occupying Afghanistan for 20 years, and spending a trillion dollars?
Indeed, the WoT could have been avoided altogether, or brought to an early conclusion, had the USA understood history and followed logic. The Taliban in late 2001 and early 2002 wanted to lay down their weapons in exchange for assurance that they would not be persecuted. The USA turned down the Taliban proposal.
Ironically for the USA, its WoT has ended up benefitting the Taliban, who have used the war to advance claims of legitimacy. In 2001, the Taliban were a pariah regime, recognized only by Pakistan. Today, however, the Taliban have a political office in Qatar, and maintain contact with all major powers. More importantly, the USA itself has signed a face-saving withdrawal agreement with them— following in the footsteps of Imperial Britain and Soviet Russia.
Throughout the WoT, the USA and its allies have been time and again accused of committing war crimes (especially in rural areas, where there’s little media presence) against Afghans. There’s a reason why the USA doesn’t want the International Criminal Court to look into war crimes allegations by its troops. The Australians, British, and Germans haven’t fared better either.
To avoid American casualties, the USA ‘Afghanized’ early on much of the violence by raising an ‘army’ and a ‘police force’ (the latter with Germany’s assistance). The Afghan forces’ annual budget is around $5 billion— a burden Afghanistan’s crippled economy cannot carry. Despite US cash dole outs and calls for reforms, Afghan forces are a breeding ground for corruption. Many unfortunate Afghans only join these forces out of desperation to feed their families.
Another stain on the US reputation in Afghanistan is the setting up of several death squads such as the Khost Protection Force. These death squads consist of Afghans trained, paid, and controlled by the USA. The squads are only answerable to the CIA, which has very relaxed rules of engagement. These CIA men can murder, kidnap, and beat anyone. The Afghan government is as helpless and clueless about these death squads as the rest of the Afghans.
While the USA can spend $5 billion a year on Afghan forces, it has shown no interest in investing in any major infrastructure project in Afghanistan, neither through the Afghan government, nor independently or through a third party. The net result of this negligent approach is that, despite Afghanistan being an upstream country, today no major Afghan city has access to electricity more than a few hours a day.
Frankly, the entire US assistance program to Afghanistan is corrupt. First, the US is interested in short-term projects, which can be delivered in a few weeks or months, such as overbuilding schools and clinics. Such projects make for excellent photo ops and media headlines, but make little long-term difference. The quality of such projects is low, and within a few months the newly-completed projects need renovation —bringing new opportunities for the aid mafia.
Second, starting from the US Agency for International Development (USAID) down to the actual builder/implementer, projects are contracted and subcontracted multiple times, promoting corruption and affecting the work’s quality and quantity. For instance, a project announced for $20 million by USAID could actually be delivered for $1 million. The remaining $19 million (nominally spent for Afghans’ welfare) would then go to the middlemen’s pockets.
A considerable portion of the aid money that the Afghans are supposed to benefit from is being funneled back to the USA and other donor countries through fat salaries (and corrupt practices mentioned above). At one point, around 2000 NGOs were busy employing foreign “experts.” These “experts,” who probably would have had difficulty finding a cashier’s job at McDonald’s, were housed in over-furnished offices, bagging salaries as high as $50,000 monthly
The US military also jumped on the corruption bandwagon in a bizarre fashion. As the war spiraled out of its control, the US military became dependent on private security companies to escort its personnel, equipment, and supplies across Afghanistan. To avoid being attacked, private security companies started paying the Taliban. The US military was fully aware of this. In other words, the USA had come to fight the Taliban, who got bribed by private security companies not to attack them while escorting US military convoys.
For the tiny amount of US assistance that did trickle down to ordinary Afghans, the USA has done them no favour. In the 1980s, the USA put its gun over the Afghans’ shoulder to shoot at the USSR. Books were snatched from Afghan school children and guns were given to them to fight the Soviets. When the USSR fled across the Amu Darya, the USA turned its back on the Afghans, abandoning in an unchivalrous manner the very people who had assisted it in bringing down the common enemy.
The argument that Afghan girls are back in school due to the US invasion is hollow and misleading. Afghan girls had been going to school for decades long before the USA embraced the policy of promoting religious extremism amongst Afghans. The US policy to promote extremism actually led to Afghan girls’ being banned from school by the very Afghan extremists whom the USA had empowered.
The Afghan government is also responsible for the failures of the last 20 years. There were two main impediments that doomed the Afghan government from the outset. First, it was (and still is) under foreign occupation, with meagre foreign assistance being its sole lifeline. Second, financial and moral corruption permeates the Afghan government, including President Ghani’s Office, which further limits its freedom of action.
The recent Geneva Conference on Afghanistan, where Afghans once again extended their collective begging bowl before the international community, is yet another indication that neither the USA, nor its hand-picked Afghan government, has done its homework. Like previous aid packages, there is no guarantee that the Geneva aid package would make any difference in ordinary Afghans’ lives. According to the Afghan government, 90 percent of Afghans are still below the poverty line.
Naturally Afghanistan is not a poor country. A partial aerial survey of the country has revealed minerals worth $3 trillion. Yet, due to lack of interest from “donors” and the Afghan government, no tanible efforts have been undertaken to bring these minerals out and make Afghanistan stand on its own feet. An Afghan civil servant once rightly remarked, “We are beggars sleeping on gold.”