Afghanistan: A Deadly Folly

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A new report from Human Rights Watch highlights increased indiscriminate killing of civilians in Afghanistan by the Taliban and other groups since 2016, despite their claims that they do not target civilians. The report comes on the heels of suicide bombings in Kabul last week that killed 29 people, including 10 journalists. Despite the non-stop violence, U.S. personnel recently expressed “cautious optimism” to oversight representatives about the U.S.’s mission there, and our conditions-based strategy, as well as reform initiatives by the Afghan government.

Documenting their findings in a Special Report released at the end of March, the Inspectors General (IG) of the Department of Defense, State, and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) conducted a trip to Iraq, Afghanistan, and Qatar as part of their mission to provide oversight on ongoing military, diplomatic, and reconstructions efforts taking in place in countries around the world. Countering this optimism, though, the IGs recognized that “the terror threat in Afghanistan remains high and deadly, and it is uncertain whether these new initiatives will make a lasting difference.”

As the violence highlighted above shows, things have not been going very well in Afghanistan. Reconstruction projects produce bad to lukewarm results, wasting millions of dollars in the process. The amount of land held by the Afghan government has been consistently declining over the last several years. A key issue at the heart of  U.S. underperformance in Afghanistan is corruption. As the IGs make clear, substantive progress cannot be made without significant reductions in corruption. “Corruption is pervasive and deep-rooted throughout Afghanistan, and it is hard to see how other objectives can be met if the Afghans are unable to effectively address this issue,” they write.  Given the history of this conflict, that should sow doubt in all of our minds about the indefinite nature of the U.S.’s presence. 

Corruption has plagued the U.S.’s efforts from the very beginning. As the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) wrote in September 2016, “there was not sufficient appreciation for the threat corruption posed to the long-term U.S. goal of a peaceful, stable Afghanistan” in the immediate aftermath of the 2001 invasion. By 2005, U.S. officials realized that corruption was a significant obstacle to rebuilding efforts, but there was “no cohesive, consistent response...anticorruption efforts lacked sustained political commitment, strategies, expertise, and resources.”

One reason efforts lagged is that fighting corruption required relying on the very people that benefited from it. It “required the cooperation of Afghan elites whose power relied on the very structures that anticorruption efforts sought to dismantle.” This included warlords and other powerbrokers whom the U.S. supported to achieve security and stability goals.

The Taliban were able to gain control of Afghanistan in the 1990s by promising to end the predatory ruling of warlords that dominated the country after the retreat of the Soviet Union. This became their slogan again after the emergence of the Karzai administration, as many regional warlords were appointed to senior government positions, all the while continuing to subject the Afghan population to terror and corrupt governance.

Reconstruction efforts also run the inherent risk of creating new sources of corruption as well, as new power players emerge. “Reconstruction and state-building efforts often do not work as intended because those who become or remain empowered during reconstruction frequently use new institutions and resources to ensure their political survival, pursue personal agendas and maximize the economic and political goals of the groups they represent,” says Megan Stewart, an assistant professor at American University’s School of International Service.

This exact thing happened in Afghanistan, as previously non-influential individuals gained power through their connection to the U.S. and the international community. As SIGAR John Sopko has written, “[t]hey mobilized their own militias and commanded strong loyalty from the army or police, while benefiting from access to foreign militaries and aid agencies...these strongmen strengthened their links to the drug trade, smuggling, and criminal networks.”

Tribal politics are also at play — something else the U.S. didn’t understand very well — as many senior government positions under Karzai were filled by non-Pashtuns. Pashtuns have dominated Afghanistan for much of its modern history and saw the U.S. turning over its country to corrupt members of its ethnic archrival, the Tajiks. This further strengthened the position of the Taliban.

The Afghan government under President Ashraf Ghani has committed to a broad package of reforms. There has been some optimism surrounding the passing of the Inherent Law, which reduces the mandatory retirement age for military leaders from 72 to 60, forcing out those who rose through the ranks based on patronage.

But the Defense, State, and USAID IGs ultimately express skepticism that these reforms will see any significant change. They write that “it remains to be seen whether the Afghan government will sustain its commitment to...underlying reforms. During the last 17 years of United States involvement in Afghanistan, such commitment has been inconsistent.” Many of the milestones already achieved represent “low hanging fruit.”

It’s clear that the U.S. sees corruption as a major issue in Afghanistan, and yet oversight officials remain skeptical of the long-term viability of reform. This is the folly of a “conditions-based approach” to our presence there. We’ve committed indefinitely to a battle that we aren’t sure we can win, and even if we can win, it’s not clear it will be worth the cost.

Jerrod A. Laber is a writer and journalist living in northern Virginia. He was a Writing Fellow with Amerca’s Future Foundation and a Free Society Fellow with Young Voices. Follow him on Twitter @JerrodALaber.

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