Thirteen years since the overthrow of the Taliban, Afghanistan remains in a desperate state. In spite of being at war with the world’s sole superpower and allied NATO forces for over a decade, the Taliban are in relatively rude health. The current scale of violence in Afghanistan is difficult to determine precisely, given how politically contentious figures on violence are, but the insurgency is unquestionably on the rise. A good indication of how serious the situation is is that the Afghan ministry of defence has now stopped disclosing how many casualties the Afghan army (ANSF) is sustaining. However, more than 4,000 Afghan soldiers and police are believed to have died in fighting so far this year. And last month British and U.S. combat troops were withdrawn without prior announcement, to avoid the embarrassment of exiting under Taliban fire.
Britain’s General Wall, commenting on the withdrawal of British troops from Camp Bastion in Helmand province, remarked that: ‘The lasting impact we will have had is… to be a witness to and stimulus for very significant social change, with an improving economy, with jobs, with much developed farming opportunities in contrast to narcotics.’ Presumably Wall had not been apprised of the recent report of the UN office on Drugs and Crime, according to which poppy cultivation has reached ‘unprecedented’ levels. The report revealed that more than 200,000 hectares of land were under production last year, and the value of the drug economy has risen by a full third from $2bn in 2012 to $3bn last year. Provinces once declared ‘poppy-fee’, such as Nangarhar in the North East of the country, are now considerable contributors to the drugs trade. In its pollyannaish response to the UN report the US State Department declared, “We are making good progress in building the capacity of our Afghan partners to design, lead, manage, and sustain over the long term strategic and tactical counternarcotics efforts addressing all stages of the drug trade…”
Of course, the corollary of drugs is corruption, which is endemic to all the major institutions of the Afghan state. The country is ranked 175th on Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index – equal last place with Somalia and North Korea. The economy is in a desperately fragile state with around 60 percent of the government’s budget coming from the international community. The withdrawal of foreign troops (whose presence has acted as a partial stimulus to the economy) the lack of foreign investment coupled with capital flight due to the continuing insurgency, means there is little reason to be optimistic about Afghanistan’s economic prospects. Exploitation of Afghanistan’s abundant mineral resources might offer a way out of the economic morass, but the continued insurgency is likely to stymie such prospects. A multi-billion-dollar deal between Afghanistan and China’s largest mining company to establish a copper mine has been on hold since 2008 due to security fears.
The Road to Nowhere
Following the attacks of September 11th, 2001 the United States utilised special forces, air power and the arming of the Northern Alliance to expedite the end of Taliban rule. Whilst that strategy proved effective in driving the Taliban from power, it had consequences that enabled the revival of the Taliban and guaranteed continued insecurity for the Afghan population. Because the Americans had very few troops on the ground, the Taliban leadership and much of the lower ranks were able to escape intact to the Afghan-Pakistan border region. From there they were able to reconstitute their forces for the coming insurgency. By arming the Northern Alliance, the United States essentially took one side in a bitter civil war characterised by horrendous human rights abuses on both sides. The Americans were funnelling military equipment and funds to the very forces that had devastated Afghanistan following the withdrawal of the Soviets and the demise of their client regime. In 1996, the situation in the country was so awful that the Taliban were welcomed by much of the Afghan population because they were able to offer at least a semblance of order. Following the Taliban’s defeat, the CIA (who probably deserve to win the hotly contested prize of ‘most malign outside actor in Afghanistan 2001 – present’) enlisted the warlords to aid them in their pursuit of Al Qaeda. In September of this year one of the more notorious warlords, Abdul Rashid Dostum, became vice-president of the country. Amongst his other exploits, Dostum bears responsibility for the 2001 Dasht-i-Leili massacre, in which thousands of Taliban prisoners were murdered by US-allied forces loyal to him.
In 2001, Afghanistan was, as one commentator described it, ‘the most failed state in the world’. However, the Bush administration was initially hostile to the entire concept of nation building, lacked the institutional instruments to carry it out, and saw all aid and reconstruction efforts through the prism of their war on Al Qaeda. However, the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) was established in December 2001 and the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) in 2002. These moves seemed to show that the international community was belatedly placing high priority on the rebuilding of the Afghan state. The number of outside actors in Afghanistan did not, however, correspond to the necessary degree of commitment. The amount of foreign aid pledged for reconstruction efforts was significantly smaller than amounts pledged to prior state building efforts elsewhere. The RAND corporation estimated that a minimum of $100 per capita was required to stabilise a country coming out of conflict. In Bosnia, the amount provided was $679, in Kosovo $526, and East Timor $233. In the first two years following the fall of the Taliban Afghanistan received just $57 per head of capita.
Reconstruction was fatally undermined by the failure to build the capacity of the Afghan government. Rather than reconstruction funds being directly channelled through the Afghan government much of the aid was instead used to hire outside contractors. That strategy threatened the development of state capacity whilst failing to reduce unemployment as a government controlled reconstruction programme might have done. Furthermore, the ‘NGO-isation’ of the rebuilding meant that the Afghan population had very little input and oversight regarding the pet projects of the NGO community. The latter further weakened the nascent state by cherry picking many of the most educated and capable of Afghan state employees who could command far higher salaries working for NGOs than in the employ of the government.
Although opinion polls found that the Afghan population considered security their primary concern ISAF was initially confined to Kabul, not to be deployed to the rest of the country until 2005. Through a combination of negligence, incompetence and corruption efforts to build an effective police force and judiciary failed. The result was rampant insecurity and the creation of a monumentally corrupt police force deeply implicated in the heroin trade. Subjected to the depredations of the CIA-allied warlords and at the mercy of inter-tribal rivalry many Afghans increasingly came to sympathise with the ‘Taliban'. Eventual deployment of ISAF to the south in 2005 made a bad situation worse. The relatively small number of ground troops deployed led to an increasing reliance on air power and attendant ‘collateral damage’ which became one of the key drivers of support for the insurgency.
Efforts to develop the Afghan economy seemed to be more successful – the economy grew fairly rapidly following the Taliban’s fall from power. However, the data was misleading – due to Afghanistan’s extreme poverty even very meagre economic activity translated into seemingly impressive statistics. The numbers masked the failure to rebuild Afghanistan’s infrastructure – especially the road network and energy generation. Incredibly it took a full year, and constant pleading from president Karzai, before the Bush administration built its first road in Afghanistan. Perhaps the most calamitous failure was the neglect of the agricultural sector. In failing to revive the rural economy, the international community laid the basis for the rapid expansion of the drug economy and all the violence and corruption that went with it. Initially the United States largely ignored opium production, and refused even to allow its forces to interdict traffickers, but once poppy cultivation was acknowledged as a serious problem the international forces undertook a disastrous poppy eradication strategy. Enraged by the destruction of their livelihoods, and seeing little of the pledged compensation funds, Afghan farmers were predictably driven into supporting the Taliban and other insurgent groups.
The resurgence of the Taliban was further enabled by Pakistan. It had long been Pakistani military doctrine that, due to the vulnerability of Pakistan from attack by India, Pakistan must acquire ‘strategic depth’ by maintaining a friendly government in Kabul. Pakistan’s ISI (Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence) took the view that the Americans would not be in Afghanistan for the long haul. They believed it was, therefore, prudent to maintain the Taliban as a tool for ensuring future influence in the country. Pakistan ensured the survival of the Taliban, whilst maintaining its alliance with the United States, by aiding the hunt for Al Qaeda elements yet simultaneously shielding the Taliban from the Americans.
Certain particularities of the Pashtun border region made Western intervention especially unwise. The region has never been successfully pacified by any outside power and is, in effect, governed not by laws made in Islamabad or Kabul but by the Pashtunwali code. The code places enormous importance on providing hospitality ‘melmastia’ and asylum ‘nanawatai’ to those who seek it (even in the case of outlaws). Consequently, the insurgents were able to rely on much of the local population for sanctuary. The Pashtunwali also places great importance on seeking revenge for slights – meaning that there is no tolerance whatsoever for insults and violence amongst the Pashtun population. Therefore, the notion of ‘winning hearts and minds’ whilst carrying out a violent counterinsurgency campaign in the region was especially chimerical. The Pashtunwali is considered by the local population to be superior to externally imposed laws; therefore, the area is inherently hostile to the extension of government control, whether from Kabul or Islamabad. The effort made to extend Kabul’s rule to the south was almost guaranteed to alienate the Pashtuns of the border region.
Back to the Future
In spite of their resilience, it is unlikely that the Taliban will be able to achieve a quick victory following the final withdrawal of Western forces in 2016. The continuation of military aid to the Afghan government and the lack of sympathy for the Taliban outside of its southern heartland ought to delay such an outcome, at least for a time. More likely than a comprehensive Taliban victory is a stand-off akin to the period following the withdrawal of the Russians when the Najibullah government made a fortress of Kabul, but abandoned rural Afghanistan to the mujahideen.
If there is anything to be optimistic about it is that both the Taliban and the Afghan government are increasingly open to the prospect of negotiations. Ashraf Ghani, the newly elected president, has offered to open talks with both the Taliban and the second-largest insurgent group – Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s Hizb-e Islami. The Taliban for its part has significantly moderated its propaganda in recent years – talking, somewhat vaguely, of a more inclusive post-war order. The retirement of the Taliban’s hawkish chief military commander Mullah Abdul Qayyum Zaker in April of this year may indicate that the pro-negotiation faction of the Taliban is gaining the upper hand. Furthermore, the withdrawal of Western troops could encourage the Taliban to negotiate since the absence of foreign troops will undercut one of their principle propaganda themes (kicking out the foreign infidels). As Ahmed Rashid has noted, the aborted negotiations of 2010 might have been successful had the Americans not insisted on the talks occurring under their aegis rather than through a neutral third party. In June of last year General Nick Carter, deputy commander of the Nato-led coalition, informed the Guardian that the West should have negotiated with the Taliban a decade ago. It seems that after more than a decade of war reality is finally intruding into the minds of Western policy makers and military leaders.
Typically the principled sectors of the European and American left oppose Western military interventions primarily because they recognise that such acts are not undertaken for the good of the populations of targeted countries. However, contemplating the alarming level of incompetence, hubris and cultural ignorance exhibited by the West in Afghanistan ought to remind us of what disastrous failures such interventions are, even in their own terms. For all their indifference to the suffering of the Afghan population it is, for example, difficult to believe that Western governments intended to enable the massive expansion of the drug economy. Last month Britain’s Lord Richards, commander of ISAF forces from 2006-2007, commented: “I didn’t have the resources I needed… I didn’t have a reserve, I didn’t even have an aircraft to fly around my own patch. I mean we just weren’t in the real world.” That last sentence would seem to be as good an epitaph as any for the West’s war in Afghanistan.
Alex Doherty is a co-founder of New Left Project and a graduate student in the War Studies department of King’s College London. He has written for Z Magazine and Open Democracy amongst other publications. You can follow him on twitter @alexdoherty7
 In a recent article on the BBC’s coverage of the conflict Ian Sinclair quotes British member of parliament Adam Holloway: “‘What we call the Taliban are, in fact, hundreds of groups, most of whom are no more than traditional Afghan Muslims, the sons of local farmers… they are united not by Islam but by the presence of foreign troops on their soil, and a hatred of external governments… Approximately 80 per cent of those we call the enemy die within 20 miles of where they live: does that tell you something about who we are really fighting?’” https://www.opendemocracy.net/ourkingdom/ian-sinclair/bbc-whitewashing-our-failures-in-afghanistan
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