Afghanistan, the Latest Heap in the Junkyard the Americans Left Behind

Billions have been wasted trying to rebuild Afghanistan, a failure akin to the Iraqi army’s 2014 defeat to ISIS. With countries from Turkey to China talking with the Taliban, it will be very hard for Biden’s sanctions to work

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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A Taliban fighter standing guard outside a currency exchange office last month.
A Taliban fighter standing guard outside a currency exchange office last month.Credit: Mohd Rasfan / AFP
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

On Tuesday, U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin will come to a well-secured room in the Senate to answer questions from the Foreign Relations Committee on the withdrawal from Afghanistan. Since this will be a closed hearing, we’ll have to rely on leaks to assess the magnitude of the failures, the lack of intelligence and the lack of preparedness that marred the hasty departure of U.S. forces from the country they had occupied for 20 years.

But a hint of what Austin is likely to say can be found in his testimony to the Armed Services Committee in September, a month after the withdrawal.

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“We need to consider some uncomfortable truths: that we did not fully comprehend the depth of corruption and poor leadership in their senior ranks, that we did not grasp the damaging effect of frequent and unexplained rotations by President Ghani of his commanders, that we did not anticipate the snowball effect caused by the deals that Taliban commanders struck with local leaders,” Austin said.

The obvious question is what exactly the administration did know about what was happening in Afghanistan under its nose, paid for with its money.

Since 2001, when it invaded Afghanistan after the 9/11 terror attacks, the United States has invested – or more accurately, wasted – some $2.3 trillion there. Around a third of this sum is thought to have gone to the contractors hired by the U.S. government to provide services to the Afghan government. Around 80 percent of the latter’s revenue came from foreign aid, grants and loans.

Washington can’t argue that it was unaware of the extent of the corruption. Reports by the U.S. inspector general on the rebuilding of Afghanistan examined the use of some $145 billion allocated to reconstruction, including $89 billion for training and equipping the Afghan security forces. The picture painted is jaw-dropping.

U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin at the Pentagon in November.Credit: Alex Brandon / AP

According to the latest report, released in October, this investment went down the drain. The Afghan army no longer exists, foreign aid has ceased and the country is on the way to the junkyard.

That report, which summarizes two decades of reconstruction efforts, notes that as far back as 2013, the inspector general identified five fundamental problems with U.S. operations in Afghanistan – faulty planning, poor quality, terrible security, dubious sustainability and massive corruption. The report discusses each of these in detail, including chilling examples of appalling waste and the U.S. government’s hapless managing of the reconstruction process.

One inspector general’s report noted that Washington spent $6 million in 2013 to start a cashmere production industry. Nine Tuscan sheep were flown in from Italy so they could be bred with local sheep. But most of the Italian sheep died and their shepherds abandoned the business. The initiative was well intentioned, but the good intentions weren’t accompanied by any planning or professional expertise.

The latest report, whose data was gathered before the American withdrawal, covers the negotiating period that preceded the signing of a peace deal between the U.S. government and the Taliban. These talks were launched by then-President Donald Trump without consulting the Afghan government.

According to the report, the USAID agency didn’t plan for how reconstruction projects would be carried out after the agreement was signed, how aid money would be transferred or for what purposes. And while the U.S. government had plans for how to protect women’s rights, implementation and the extent of the rights women would receive were left up to the Afghan government.

After the withdrawal, of course, there was no longer any need for such plans. The Taliban has a famous strategy for rights, especially women’s rights.

Women demonstrating in Kabul for their rights under Taliban rule, September.Credit: Wali Sabawoon / AP

Two wars, two failures

The Afghan military isn’t the only army that has stunned Washington with its utter uselessness after being granted American trust and training. The Iraqi army’s humiliating defeat by the Islamic State in 2014 remains notorious.

Most soldiers and officers on the northern front deserted immediately or switched sides and fought alongside the Islamic State. The latter conquered the country in trucks fitted with machine guns.

Back then, too, the Americans were surprised by the Iraqi army’s utter haplessness, and U.S. generals again had to explain how their plan to train hundreds of thousands of soldiers and police had failed.

But Iraq shouldn’t have come as any surprise, either. U.S. reports warned about the Iraqi army’s weakness long before the Islamic State arrived. Both the media and official documents were full of reports about ghost soldiers who were on the troop roster but didn’t actually exist, and about the salaries earmarked for these soldiers that were actually pocketed by their officers. Only after a second round of training did the Iraqi army finally recover and fight back against the Islamic State.

Saudi Arabia is another country that bought sophisticated American  arms for decades, with training included in the deal. But U.S. equipment and training didn’t help the kingdom win its war in Yemen against the Houthis, whose gear and training are incomparably inferior in terms of both quantity and quality.

A Baghdad street. The United States finished withdrawing its combat forces from Iraq this month.Credit: Thaier Al-Sudani / Reuters

In any case, there doesn’t seem to be any point in asking how the Americans can improve their strategy for training local armies to serve as proxy soldiers. It will be a long time before Washington forgets its bitter lessons about training foreign armies.

The United States, which also finished withdrawing its combat forces from Iraq this month, is only now starting to consider the lessons of its wars over the last two decades. U.S. President Joe Biden, like Trump, concluded long ago that these were failed wars born of the sins of arrogance and vengeance while exacting enormous costs from the people of the countries on the ground.

But Iraq is at least governed by some kind of constitution and law. It holds elections, produces oil, conducts a foreign policy and is managing to survive economically.

Afghanistan is a tragedy. It’s being crushed under a Taliban government for the second time. Its first Taliban government also emerged after Afghanistan’s American ally abandoned the country, back in 1989.

The interim government the Taliban formed in September isn’t recognized by most of the world. It includes people released from Guantanamo Bay, commanders in the Haqqani terrorist network and close associates of Mullah Omar, Osama bin Laden’s ally.

No one from the previous government was invited to serve in the new one – not even people who had good ties with the Taliban like former Afghani President Hamid Karzai or his liberal vice president, Abdullah Abdullah.

A Taliban fighter in Kabul this week. Credit: Ali Khara / Reuters

The sanctions that Washington quickly imposed on the Taliban government left the country with no foreign aid. They also forced around 160 humanitarian aid organizations to suspend operations, slashed the education and health budgets, which were already chronically underfunded, and froze some $10 billion deposited in American and European banks.

Two weeks ago, Washington increased the amount of humanitarian aid it will allow into Afghanistan. But as China’s ambassador to the United Nations said, this decision “can only fix the faucet. To keep the water running, responsibility on the part of the international community is still needed.”

No such international mobilization, however, is possible now because the administration has deemed the Taliban and its partner in government, the Haqqani network, terrorist organizations and offered a $10 million reward for information leading to the capture of Afghanistan’s new interior minister, Sirajuddin Haqqani. The absurd part is that these terrorist designations didn’t stop Trump from negotiating a reconciliation agreement between the Taliban and Afghanistan’s then-government and a safe withdrawal for American troops.

Even now, though Washington does not recognize the Afghan government, it has hinted that it would be willing to soften its position if a broad-based government including representatives of every segment of Afghan society were formed. That wouldn’t be anything new; the United States provides aid to the Lebanese government even though it includes Hezbollah.

Joe Biden speaking in the White House this week. Credit: Mandel Ngan / AFP

Feeble sanctions

Above all, sanctions are collective punishment against Afghanistan’s 38 million people. According to a UN estimate, around 80 percent of Afghans suffer from hunger or are on the brink of hunger. Hundreds of thousands of refugees have already fled to Iran, and every day thousands more throng the border crossings in hopes of entering the Islamic Republic.

Plus it’s not entirely clear what Washington hopes to achieve through its sanctions policy. If the goal is to make the Taliban cede power, it’s very far from being achieved. And if Washington thinks that pressure on the Taliban from ordinary Afghans will persuade the new government to suddenly embrace human rights and improve the status of women, or that such pressure will undermine the government, the Americans' long experience with Iran and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq shows that broad sanctions without a specific target have no hope of effecting regime change.

In Lebanon, too, Washington ultimately had to give in and let natural gas and electricity be sent from Jordan and Egypt via Syria, despite the harsh sanctions it imposed on Syria’s Assad regime.

To extricate Afghanistan from this economic siege, the Taliban has started negotiating with Russia and China for investments and loans. Ever since the Taliban took power, Chinese companies and diplomatic delegations have been in regular contact with it. China was the first country to send humanitarian aid, and it has set its sights on mining the lithium and copper hidden beneath Afghanistan’s soil.

Pakistan, which has been the Taliban’s ally since the 1980s, may also be of help, while Turkey and Qatar have been negotiating with the Taliban to operate five airports for it. Turkey has already said the world must work with the Taliban to help Afghanistan extricate itself from the crisis. And if all these negotiations ripen into deeper ties, it will be very hard for Biden’s sanctions policy to achieve its goals.

Still, the Taliban still hasn’t given up on ties with Washington. The Afghan foreign minister, Amir Khan Muttaqi, said his government has no problem with any country, including the United States.

It’s also worth recalling that in the 1990s the Taliban negotiated with American companies – with the blessing of President George H.W. Bush – over the provision of security for an oil pipeline slated to run from Turkmenistan to Pakistan via Afghanistan. Only U.S. pressure killed that project.

The question now is to what extent Biden can remain on the sidelines once the international community decides it has to help the Afghans regardless of what kind of government they have.

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