Afghanistan: A Dark and Fragile Future

Afghanistan.Cpl. John Carino, of 3rd Battalion, 1st Armored Division, rests his head before a departing from Forward Operating Base Pasab on a convoy to the Strong Point Haji Rahmuddin II outpost in the Kandahar province of Afghanistan, February 11, 2013. (Photo: Bryan Denton / The New York TimesWhat will happen after next year’s drawdown of US and allied forces and investment in Afghanistan? In interviews with Truthout, US experts and former governmental officials are skeptical the war’s purported objectives in the corruption-ridden country will have been achieved.

On the eve of the huge drawdown of US forces scheduled for next year, Afghanistan’s police, military, judicial and financial institutions are inadequate and dysfunctional. President Obama’s unspoken strategy is retreat from an unwinnable war, the perpetuation of which has actively damaged US interests and prestige in the region.

“We will declare victory and get out, just as we always do,” said Graham Fuller, former vice chair of the National Intelligence Council at the CIA, noting that a pervasive exhaustion permeates US thinking about the war. In other words, the United States is leaving with its “mission” not accomplished. Such purported objectives as nation-building, counterinsurgency and government reform, once deemed “must-dos,” have either been downgraded, disregarded or abandoned, even as tours of duty end and time and resources to achieve them run out.

Afghanistan next year is facing what Vanda Felb-Brown, a senior Afghan analyst at Brookings Institution, called “a triple earthquake” that includes Afghan elections, the US withdrawal of its forces and the dramatic shrinkage of US financial resources for “the Afghan Project.” Between now and the end of 2014, the United States is, in theory, supposed to complete the training of 352,000 Afghan security forces, help Afghans hold reasonably fair elections to choose Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s successor and work out terms for any post-2014 US presence. These goals have been talked about and some have been attempted, but US analysts do not foresee their successful achievement.

“We cannot be perceived as having lost,” said Vince Cannistraro, former CIA chief of counterrrorism.

In his view, the situation evokes Henry Kissinger’s statement about Vietnam, “America . . . simply because it was weary, walked away from a small ally, the commitments of a decade, 45,000 casualties, and the anguish of families whose sacrifices would retroactively be rendered meaningless.”

Not all US experts are pessimistic about Afghanistan’s future. In a February 8 opinion piece written for The Washington Post, respected military analyst Mike O’Hanlon of the Brookings Institution wrote that General John Allen “deserves praise for a remarkable 19-month tenure that brought stability and steady progress to the mission in Afghanistan. Even more important, a fair reckoning of Allen’s tenure should give hope to those depressed about the war effort, as well as pause to those who would reduce our current forces too quickly out of frustration or fatalism.” O’Hanlon’s insights were derived from a December 2012 Department of Defense report.

He then said that “Afghan security forces are reaching their intended size. The path to achieving the targets was established under previous commanders, Gens. Stanley McChrystal and David Petraeus, as well as the three-star heads of the NATO training command in Kabul, William Caldwell and Daniel Bolger, but Allen has seen it through.”

At present, Afghan forces lead 85 percent of most operations, and insider attacks, while still a huge worry, appear to be lessening. O’Hanlon also noted that because of all this, and Afghanistan’s “generally stable, if not peaceful, security environment, fears of an incipient civil war have not greatly intensified in the past two years.” That could, of course, still change. The military progress “is not a certain recipe for success,” he said, but he opined that the military progress has helped open up space for political progress.

Rand Corp.’s Afghan analyst Seth Jones replied to this, referring to a December DOD report quoted by O’Hanlon, saying that, “I would simply say that reports such as this are very one-sided.” Another Afghan expert, Andrew Wilder of the US Institute for Peace, deems, “The US military have the habit of judging security in the countryside by quantitative methods that are misleading,” but acknowledges, “a lot has been achieved in quantitative terms, and is impressive, but major problems remain.”

O’Hanlon agrees with these other experts who said that Afghan security rests primarily on two pillars: the US-trained Afghan Army and the Afghan police. The US military has long touted the Afghan National and Local Police (ANP and ALP) projects instituted over Afghan President Karzai’s objections as the centerpiece of America’s counterinsurgency campaign. “The ALP is an important mechanism for holding the ground in Afghanistan,” Gen. Allen told the news media last year in a news report. Robert Gates, then the secretary of defense, called the ALP “a game changer.”

Jones, who has deep knowledge of and experience in the country, noted that the Afghan national police had been “OK” in urban areas, “decent in Kandahar, Kabul and a few of the major cities.” However, he qualified, “The results are deeply mixed. They are not real competent, but not terribly incompetent either.” He added “There are about 149,000 National Police, and they are not bad for what they are.” The record of the local police is troubling, he said.

Several of these experts interviewed agreed that the ALP units could collapse without serious financial backing from the Afghan state. The former senior US intelligence official described the Afghan police project as a “multi-billion-dollar exercise in disaster.” Congressional hearings and audits by the office of the Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction (or SIGAR) last year detailed how US taxpayers have spent $9 billion on a program that exhibits poor results.

The deficiencies of the program are glaring. Many Afghan police take bribes and many desert. They are poorly paid – in some places their salaries are just $16 a month while private security companies pay their police instructors six-figure salaries – much higher than US military mentors. Many Afghan police are drug abusers and vulnerable to corruption and bribes. Many are underequipped and lack things like grenade launchers that would give them an equal capability with the Taliban. Many cannot fire their used AK-47s and M-16s accurately because renegade US private security firms sell them out-of-date Russian or Chinese ammunition that misfires. Literacy rates for the police are pegged at 5 percent – which, Jones said, means that their recordkeeping is “pitiable.”

A Defense Department report last December listed the lack of technical capacity of the Afghan Army and police to solicit and manage logistics contracts, noting that “the Afghans do not have internal accountability systems in place yet.”

“There are some parts of Afghanistan where the last thing people want to see is the police showing up,” Brigadier General Gary O’Brien, former deputy commander of the Combined Security Transition Command-Afghanistan, told the Canadian Press news agency in March of 2007, and since then, little has changed. Felb-Brown last month called the ALP “predators – thieves in uniform” responsible for local crime waves. In addition, the Afghan local police are guilty of human rights abuses and have been beset by tribal tensions and internal strife.

Felb-Brown pointed out that, while the Taliban use terror to keep order, they do not prey on the population like the police. In fact, the Taliban provide a measure of public order and safety “that the Karzai government seems unable to.”

Fiscal Sustainability

The shrinkage of resources, the problem of sustaining development projects, has become another urgent worry to analysts. “Our military strategy has proved incapable of producing victory, and with our Afghan aid diminishing, how can we do more with less?” asked Jones of Rand. Yet he and other US Afghan experts agreed in interviews that US withdrawal from the country must be seen as an expression of President Obama’s policy, not a collapse of it. While they have destroyed most of the Al Qaeda forces in Afghanistan, the US and its allies still haven’t won their war against the Taliban insurgency, and, with the huge diminishment of resources, the war is approaching a decisive turn.

Wilder’s observation encapsulates this thinking, “How do we pay for these programs when American fiscal resources are going to shrink after the US withdrawal in 2014?”

Felb-Brown, Jones, Fuller and Wilder were unanimous in asserting that financial sustainability is the true dilemma facing Afghanistan’s future. Fuller said, “This has been a history of ever-shrinking strategic goals, now reduced from permanent geo-strategical dominance to the fig leaf of saving the superpower’s face.”

The December DOD report said the most disturbing element is the coming shrinkage of US funds supporting all these programs. The report said, “Widespread corruption and insufficient transparency are the main challenges with respect to the self-sustaining role of the rule of law in Afghanistan.”

There is a timeless quality to this American effort. It cannot be described as “static,” but instead has constantly moved over the same old ground. Paraphrasing Francis Fitzgerald on Vietnam, it is fair to say that “Each year the new young men so-full of vague notions of ‘development,’ so certain of their ability to solve problems, so intent on communicating with the (Afghan) people, eagerly took their places in this old, lost war.” And today the problems of that war persist unchanged.

Decaying Projects

US aid to Kabul is flooding the country and is one of the main agents in corrupting the central government, which has little else to show for it. Several US analysts told Truthout that Afghanistan is littered with unfinished projects in areas that have switched from “secure” to “insecure.” US aid to dubious US civilian contractors has resulted in unfinished and abandoned schools, clinics, roads, first-aid stations and even street lights. A US contract to build one power plant, estimated at $100 million, finally came in at $300 million, a typical instance of ballooning cost overrun, according to SIGAR. As congressional and DOD studies show, there is no mechanism to render an accurate accounting of what is spent. In a hearing last year, Congress disclosed that $22.4 billion in US taxpayer’s money had disappeared on Afghan projects and was still unaccounted for.

According to Wilder, the problem is that the central government doesn’t have the resources to sustain its development. “It’s great to build the roads, and we’ve built a lot of roads there, but where is the money needed to sustain them? We built the roads under difficult circumstances, with little oversight, and the result is that we have pretty shoddy roads and no budget to maintain them, and that applies to a lot of projects we’ve built.” Jones agreed, remarking, “We set the bar too high for this stuff. We always do.”

According to SIGAR audits last year, billions of dollars have gone to hospitals and schools that were paid for, but never built, chiefly because the area was considered too vulnerable to Taliban guerrilla attacks, “Look, it’s about people being well-intentioned, people who are deployed for a tour of duty of nine months,” said Jones of Rand. “They were commanded to spend their budgets, and when they got out, the question remains, is what they did well done, and will it be able to survive our withdrawal?”

Fuller observed, “My gut feeling is that the structures that we have built there, the different forces are going to crumble pretty quickly once we leave.” He added, “Too much aid defers finding solutions, and it’s distorting to local economies as well.”

It has happened before. During the 1950s and ’60s, the United States spent vast sums of money trying to build local Afghan agriculture, including building eight dams on the Helmand River, according to Pat Lang, former Defense Intelligence Agency chief of Middle East operations. The historian Arnold Toynbee described the project as “a piece of America inserted into the Afghan landscape.” The United States spent $80 million assisting with 25 projects, according to Wikipedia. When US funding diminished, the projects collapsed, Lang said.

Jones of Rand sounded almost irked. “The idea that you build clinics, schools and barracks and then allow them to crumble into uselessness is repellent, and yet this is happening. We have contractors build Afghan infrastructure. US builders get their Washington contracts; they build things, but then they go away when their funds are exhausted, and it’s up to someone else to look after them.”

These experts agreed that there is nothing anyone can do about this.

Former US intelligence officials have clear memories of the 2003 Kandahar-Kabul highway project, which ended up costing $1 million per mile. US Afghan experts interviewed by Truthout said the Afghans will have to prioritize their needs, but they don’t have the technical expertise to do this on their own.

“It’s not a competent way to proceed. We throw money at the problem – that itself causes corruption – and the argument that we should stay on until the corruption lessens is an oxymoron,” said Fuller.

The lack of knowledge of Afghan culture and politics is also hampering attempts at responsible management of US aid there. In 2012 congressional hearings, it was revealed that SIGAR’s 150-strong organization has only 32 employees stationed in Afghanistan, most of whom don’t speak any local language.

Largely prohibited from venturing outside their armed compounds, many American officials exhibit little knowledge of events beyond the barricades. They often appear to occupy themselves with irrelevant activities such as filling out paperwork and writing cables to their superiors in the United States. In the early years of the war, diplomats were encouraged to leave their compounds and meet ordinary Afghans. In recent years, personal safety has come to overshadow all other concerns.

Implementation of US-funded projects and programs that can be overseen by US personnel is shrinking constantly, according to Wilder of the US Institute for Peace.

As US personnel shrinks, so does security. One of SIGAR’s inspection teams was told that a location in northern Afghanistan was beyond the security “bubble” and “therefore deemed too unsafe to visit,” according to news accounts. Lack of safety resulted in not being able to inspect 38 facilities worth approximately $72 million, according to a recent SIGAR report.

John Sopko, who now heads SIGAR, said in a November interview at the Stimson Center in Washington, DC, that even in Kabul, “We’re finding that we cannot always get the protection we need to conduct our work” even though Kabul is within the security bubble.

Last November, Sopko touted his agency’s “innovative ways of conducting oversight,” claiming that SIGAR has made “aggressive recommendations for suspension and debarment” of 206 contractors accused of fraud, with 43 of them involving companies that actively supported the insurgency. Many of those referrals, however, were not acted on, which is why Sopko is currently seeking his own authority to suspend and debar contractors.

Whatever the result of the coming reforms, the message is still startlingly clear: when the United States draws down its forces next year, the Afghan security forces will not be ready to create a stable Afghan state on their own.


“Afghan government officials have made billions of dollars and it lies in the hands of a very small number of people,” Felb-Brown said. She fears that the officials of the Karzai government will simply consolidate their positions and make the necessary arrangements – personal, financial and logistical – necessary to support a new and more stable system of corruption after the US leaves.

“The amount the US is putting into the country is exacerbating the corruption problem,” said Jones of Rand. “You fix problems [in Afghanistan] by finding the right people in the province – the government officials will take bribes – they do that historically.” He added, “It doesn’t make for good government.”

There is a fear of capital flight from the country as the Americans leave, he said, and if that is discouraging, estimates of cash taken out of Afghanistan in a given year by corrupt officials who fly to Dubai to stash their loot are as high as $4.5 billion,” according to SIGAR.

“Everybody is casting their eyes on the endgame and plotting to get out with their life and money,” said Fuller.

The Bad Puppet

O’Hanlon said that a “legitimate democratic leadership change is crucial for Afghanistan’s future,” but he strongly cautioned that it probably won’t happen because of traditional corruption of the country. He warned that “the next couple of years could be testing and trying.”

One of the most persistent American delusions has been the program to develop the Kabul government into the organ of an effective, centralized, modern, liberal and democratic state. The experts and officials pointed out that such an ambition could be realized only after generations of effort, not a handful of years. This goal was effectively rendered impossible after the almost complete collapse of Afghan state institutions in 2001, when the Bush Administration – which fielded only modest forces – gave billions in funds to local warlords who restarted the heroin trade and increased the domestic instability that the US and its allies are still purportedly trying to pacify.

American efforts to reform the Kabul government have a flat fizzle. Critics of the war have said constantly that the Afghans in government and the Americans are making conflicting demands that neither side can satisfy and that both have an entirely different idea of their relationship. US interests in Afghanistan rest on achieving “stability,” yet the DOD report of last December makes the startling statement that the Afghan government “remains unable to deliver sufficient basic services to all areas and to sufficiently stimulate economic growth” chiefly because of “widespread corruption that denies the government legitimacy in the eyes of its subjects.”

The problem is that the Afghan government is a monopoly with a profit motive. In a functioning state, governments levy taxes to provide public services, but the Karzai government doesn’t do this. The Afghan central government is unable to collect enough tax revenue to fund its own operations. Due largely to the lack of tax revenue, public services are not free, and corruption is so common in Afghanistan that every public service has its own price tag.

Some argue Karzai needs more time to consolidate his political forces, but Fuller pointed out that another $100 billion or $200 billion by the end of 2014 won’t change the fundamentals of the Karzai government’s conduct of operations. Studies, news reports and interviews make clear that Karzai long ago gave up his independence and that his power relies on his manipulating the Americans. He has often worked to sabotage US interests, “trying to prove he isn’t a US lackey,” said Cannistraro. Many Afghan experts, like Jones and Wilder and Felb-Brown, warn that the Karzai government will stand on its own feet only so long as we are there, and they already see signs that Karazi is walking away from US ties. Three times last year Karzai asked for US troops to withdraw from Afghan villages, telling Kabul-based reporters, “When foreigners leave, Afghanistan will never become unsafe; it will become safer.”

In a very carefully staged insult on March 10, Karzai, cancelled a meeting with new US Secretary of Defense Charles Hagel, alleging that the Obama administration was colluding with the Taliban by threatening fresh violence if US forces left the country, an assertion designed to realign Karzai’s allegiances with internal forces and groups. Karzai is hastily retreating from the superficial westernization pressed on him in the past by the United States. As it stands, the ability of the Karzai government to provide investment capital is very limited. According to the December DOD report, the Afghan banking system is corrupt. The Ministry of Interior is corrupt to the core. Afghanistan’s judicial system, including the attorney general office, is infested with extortion, blackmail, cronyism, crooked justices and criminal operations.

Unfortunately, the Afghans have come to accept the current scheme of corruption as an economic and political reality. Many US analysts are convinced that Karzai has proven that he is not the man to bring equilibrium in a country full of ethnic tensions. Kunduz, for example, is a powder keg of internal conflict, and there are growing fears that the US-trained Afghan army is likely to splinter along ethnic or tribal lines.

Cannistraro said, “We repeat the same mistake over and over, constantly.”

Wilder said, “We have never been terribly good at political solutions, and we have yet to ask what the political solution in Afghanistan is. The answer is murky and incomplete.”

And there may not be one.

It is almost overwhelming to list the forces, allies and groups that would need to be taken into account, to even begin determining such a “solution.” Thomas Ruttig, author of a new book on the Taliban, gave a short but by no means exhaustive list of some of them. Looking at the anti-Taliban groups, there are the US government and US military (which have different approaches and different claims,) the Karzai presidency and its allies, the 100 tribes, the non-Pashtun warlords and other leaders opposed to the Taliban; Westernized Afghan officials; and NGO figures in Kabul.

Among the armed opposition, Ruttig named the Taliban under Mullah Omar (which also has potentially serious internal divisions); the Haqqani network; the Hizb-e-Islami of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar; the remnants of al-Qaeda in the region; the Pakistani Taliban; and anti-Indian terrorist groups based in Pakistan, as well as nations like India, Iran, China and Russia.

In addition, what the United States faces now is a huge abyss of hostility or indifference from most Afghans, who simply do not want any foreigners, however lofty their motives, to remain in their country. As Fuller observed, “The real endgame is how all parties will jockey to fill the vacuum of the US and NATO departure, and the endgame dynamic will have little to do with structures thrown up during the US occupation. The real settling of regional ethnic and ideological scores will begin.”