Witnessing young and middle-aged Afghans running toward a fleeing United States Air Force plane conjures up the notion that supposedly the Afghans don’t want to bid farewell to their U.S. “friend.” The perception this gives to many Americans watching this on television is one of pity and derision, a narrative repeated by policymakers and media personalities alike: We spent billions and lost thousands of servicepeople for a country that just “can’t get it together.” For Afghans, this should be an awakening from the notion that their “friend” the United States — or the so-called “international community” — who came to rescue the country from the Taliban, build the country, and bring democracy, is leaving all too hastily and leaving Pakistan to export the Taliban back into the country.
Both perceptions could not be farther away from the actual truth. This can be easily debunked in three obvious ways. Taking into account the U.S.’s specific military, economic and political actions in Afghanistan, we must recognize that the invasion and occupation were never intended as a route to democracy or progress.
Military Deception: Systemic Underfunding and Harm
The Afghan National Army was systematically underfunded from the very beginning. Afghan soldiers and police were getting paid less than what the Taliban were able to pay their foot soldiers and recruits. Even the meager salaries they did receive were not reliably paid on time. Soldiers and police went months without pay before the Taliban takeover while the Taliban had a functional office in Qatar and reliably paid its recruits.
Furthermore, according to two very revealing books, Douglas Wissing’s 2012 Funding the Enemy: How the US Taxpayers Bankroll The Taliban and Anand Gopal’s 2014 No Good Men Among the Living: America, The Taliban, and the War Through Afghan Eyes, after the 2001 U.S. invasion, most Taliban rank and file members were ready to assimilate back into Afghan society. Yet the U.S. and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) continued to harass, imprison, and kill Taliban leaders and soldiers to the point of forcing them to take up arms again to defend themselves. By 2005, according to Gopal and Wissing, the U.S. had effectively revived the Taliban.
Simultaneously, the way the U.S. and NATO structured the country’s development aid system seems to have nurtured the immense corruption of warlords and strengthened the Taliban by indirectly funding them through transportation and building contracts. Furthermore, the U.S. and Britain’s “war on drugs” also fueled this corruption: The country has produced around 90 percent of the worlds’ opium supply since the beginning of the U.S. occupation, from which the Taliban received around 50-60 percent of their funding.
Added to this was U.S.’s brutal counterinsurgency policies of bombing villages and its night raids in rural areas with nonexistent infrastructure, which further alienated a rural Afghan population already experiencing high unemployment and underdevelopment due to decades of war.
Economic Deception: U.S./NATO Economic Investments Neglected the Most Important Sectors of “Nation-Building”
How is it that 40 of the world’s most developed countries involved in the U.S./NATO operation supposedly spent more in Afghanistan than they did in implementing the Marshall Plan in Western Europe, and yet, somehow still systematically disregarded where that investment needed to go? If sincerely invested, this money would have gone toward building the central state’s administrative capacity for social services and law and order as well as the agricultural sector, since the vast majority of Afghanistan’s population has lived in rural areas for the past 20 years, which is also incidentally the region from which the Taliban got most of their recruits. The World Bank estimates that 74 percent of Afghans live in rural areas, but that number is almost certainly an undercount due to the way in which its figures categorize rural residents who have only temporarily moved to cities.
Instead, the agricultural sector was willfully neglected, which contributed to the high national unemployment rate of at least 40 percent in a country where about 70 percent of the population is under 25 years old. This is rather ironic when the U.S. and the European Union (EU) subsidize their own agricultural sectors, which make up not more than 5 percent of their national labor forces respectively — about $49 billion and $101 billion just in 2019. Meanwhile in Afghanistan, a country with a total GDP of about $20 billion that they occupied for 20 years, they could not subsidize Afghan farmers enough in order to make the country food self-sufficient while creating jobs in the rural areas.
The policies of the U.S. and NATO, because of its lukewarm commitment to “nation-building,” systematically undermined building Afghanistan’s central state capacity (as it also did in Iraq during de-Baathification, destroying its central state capacity), by avoiding giving the majority of the reconstruction aid to the relevant government ministries with the excuse that there wasn’t sufficient capacity in the Afghan government to absorb the aid or that there was corruption.
However, the corruption was nurtured precisely because the majority of the reconstruction funds went to U.S. private contractors, which then subcontracted the projects without proper accountability measures, with the end result being that 90 percent of the reconstruction aid took a “round trip” finding its way back to U.S. private security firms, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) contracts granted to U.S. corporations. Only 2 percent or less of U.S. spending actually reached “the Afghan people in the form of basic infrastructure or poverty-reducing services.” The showcasing of the so-called reconstruction investments with high visibility was a way to foster global perceptions about the generosity of US/NATO development projects, which in reality they were building schools without students and teachers, power plants that were not usable, etc.
It is not surprising then that after the U.S. spent billions supporting the Mujahadeen during the 1980s to destroy Afghanistan’s central state, the ensuing civil war among the Mujahadeen and the Taliban from 1992-2001 reduced the standard of living in Afghanistan (as measured by poverty, life expectancy, unemployment, clean water, electricity, etc.) to one of the lowest in the world by 2001. Yet after 20 years of occupation, its poverty rate is about 55 percent, which is no lower than it was in 2001.
However, for those who have followed the U.S.’s foreign development aid record for the past 70 years, Afghanistan’s (or Haiti’s or Iraq’s) case is not a surprise at all. The U.S. foreign aid program is notorious for its poor quality and the stingy quantity it provides to the Global South. It is poor quality because most of the supposed aid money it gives a country usually does not help the receiving country build self-sufficiency in its local agricultural, manufacturing or infrastructural capacity. Instead, most of the aid is “tied aid,” where the receiving country has to spend the majority of the aid money buying from U.S. firms, even though there are less expensive options. Despite the perception of generosity the U.S. has created, its aid amount is one of the lowest among the world’s high-GDP countries: The U.S. gives less than 0.20 percent of its national income to development aid. It does not even give 0.70 percent of its national income, which it has agreed to since the 1970s.
Political Deception: The U.S. Disregarded Afghanistan’s Political Tradition of Democracy
From the very beginning, the U.S./NATO alliance ignored Afghanistan’s longstanding tradition of democracy. The political tradition of the “Loya Jirga” (Grand Assembly) is rooted for at least several centuries in the Afghan tradition of “Jirga” where a council of tribal elders or village elders get together in a gathering similar to a town hall meeting and deliberate about a land dispute or other matters that are creating tensions and conflict between villages or tribes.
In the case of the Loya Jirga, this takes place at the national level where community and religious elders across the country have an assembly to discuss and decide on important matters of the nation. In the Loya Jirga at the Bonn conference in 2001, the Afghan delegates chose Professor Abdul Sattar Sirat — who was a respected Afghan from its Uzbek community, a minister of justice in the Afghan government in the 1970s and a representative of the former Afghan king — as the proposed leader of the interim administration.
However, the U.S. imposed Hamid Karzai by methods of duplicity and intimidation against the delegates’ choice. Karzai was a former Pashtun mujahideen and Taliban representative who had little experience and administrative skill, let alone expertise in rebuilding the Afghan state after 20 years of war and no following or popularity inside Afghanistan. He was seemingly selected because he would be dependent on U.S./NATO support and therefore, submissive to U.S. directives.
Contrary to the dominant orientalist narrative about Afghanistan being a tribal society without a history of a centralized state, Afghanistan had, from the 1880s to about 1992, a modern state with a qualified and professional civil administration that could govern and develop the country professionally so that it would not remain a weak and illegitimate government.
Unfortunately, instead of appointing government officials based on merit and qualifications, the U.S. and NATO deliberately chose a cadre of neoliberal, Ivy League technocrats and warlords with their attendant foreign advisers leading the transition government that ultimately became an infestation of corruption run by NGOs and foreign consultants, with little to no state capacity being built.
As the U.S.’s own special inspector general for Afghanistan’s reconstruction, John Sopko, revealed, much of the reconstruction money in the name of Afghanistan was recklessly spent faster than it could be accounted for and properly monitored. For this reason, according to Sopko’s report, the U.S. “ultimately achieved the opposite of what it intended: it fueled corruption, delegitimized the Afghan government, and increased insecurity,” hence providing the conditions for the resurgence of the Taliban to grow.
The last couple of months of negotiations with the Taliban in Doha, Qatar, have further revealed that building a legitimate and professionally staffed Afghan central state with a productive economy for its tax base was never the true intention for Afghanistan, the Middle East or the Central Asian region.
The U.S./NATO’s rhetorical game of nation-building and democracy-building, all while funding the very forces they were officially fighting in the “war on terror,” is one of the greatest deceptions of the last 20 years. The reality is that Afghanistan has become one more bucket-list country in the Project for New American Century (PNAC), and once again, its women, children, elderly and young will pay the biggest price. Hopefully the world will awaken from the belief that the U.S. and NATO — with their shameful colonial legacy and their present neocolonial relations in Latin America, the Caribbean, the Middle East, South-East Asia, and Africa — can actually bring peace, prosperity and progress to the Global South.