Our folly and failure in Afghanistan

Published by The i paper (16th August, 2021)

The humiliating retreat from Afghanistan has turned into a horror show, the fear and panic in Kabul stirring up dark memories of the end of the Vietnam War. Diplomats are shredding documents, foreign troops have returned to evacuate their nationals, bodies litter streets of captured towns, tales of beheadings and forced marriage abound while terrified women are in tears at the return of fundamentalist bigots. As the President flees the country, these scenes are pitiful and distressing to watch.

The Taliban resurgence, two decades after it was driven from power following an obscene act of terrorism, is the latest dismal chapter in the woeful recent history of Western intervention. The United States foolishly set a date for departure. The withdrawal, begun by a Republican president and speeded up by his Democratic successor, is driven by domestic concerns rather than the slightest consideration for people they are leaving to suffer. It is a betrayal of Afghanistan’s people, of our wider strategic interests and all those troops killed or maimed fighting for its future.

Yet the harsh truth is this mission has been muddled from its earliest days after the elimination of the regime harbouring al-Qa’ida’s leadership shifted into the flawed concept of nation-building, made worse by constantly changing strategies while derailed by that disastrous switch of focus to Iraq. Many questions are raised by this ignominious moment: over the untrustworthy nature of US leadership, the weakness of post-Brexit Britain, the point of our foreign policy, the pernicious influence of supposed allies that fostered the Taliban resurgence.

But do not ignore a key question that hovers over this latest debacle of intervention: why has the Western-backed regime collapsed so fast after such intensive Western support for almost two decades? Pictures show helicopters hovering over the US embassy. Yet such was the myopic complacency that only last month President Joe Biden said the situation was not “remotely comparable” to Vietnam: “The Taliban is not the North Vietnamese army. There’s going to be no circumstance where you see people being lifted off the roof of the embassy.”

Bear in mind only 2,500 Nato troops were needed to keep these insurgents at bay while building on advances made in education, health services and the economy. Yet an army they supported that claimed to have 300,000 troops, trained by Western forces and bristling with the latest military technology, is being routed by a ragtag bunch of rebels estimated to number at best one-third of its size. So why is it disintegrating so rapidly, just as seen in Iraq when Islamic State drove into Mosul, with expensive weapons and vehicles ending up again in the hands of Islamists?

The answer is sad but simple: the West shored up a facade of democracy but has shown once again that foreign arms and buckets of aid cannot build a shiny new state on stony ground. The US spent almost $1,000bn since 2001 in Afghanistan, with another $30bn from Britain and $19bn from Germany. These are huge sums for a nation of 38 million people. But an Afghan officer on the Khandahar frontline told a journalist earlier this month his unit was at half-strength, his machine gun broken and they had few bullets. “We are drowning in corruption,” he said bitterly.

Yes, it was great to see advances in female education and empowerment. But almost £50bn was spent providing aid, with £3.3bn from the UK, and Afghanistan remained one of the least developed, worst governed and most corrupt countries on earth. The West naively kept the taps turned on regardless of all the blatant theft by a kleptocratic and often thuggish elite. One of those cities that fell last week was Sheberghan, being defended by an infamous, double-dealing warlord called Abdul Rashid Dostum who has faced accusations of rape, torture and killing his first wife.

This country is reliant on foreign donations for 80 per cent of its budget. Yet this torrent of foreign cash has failed to deliver deep-rooted and sustainable societal change – although massively benefiting the Dubai property market. Scores of well-informed voices, ceaseless reports and endless stories warned that Western taxpayers were pouring cash into pockets of the self-serving rich. So is it any wonder an edifice collapses quickly when it is so rotten behind the surface?

One vice-president, a close ally of the US, was discovered in 2009 arriving in Dubai with $52m in cash. Diplomatic cables warned “vast amounts of cash” were leaving the country and officials were systematically milking the flow of funds. Almost $1bn was extracted in what US officials called “the biggest per capita fraud in history” involving Kabul Bank, only for the key perpetrator to be freed from jail to sign a big property deal with the government. An Afghan intelligence official said half the US cash spent on security had been “looted and embezzled”. A Swedish peace body warned aid had become a crutch sustaining crooks and stifling entrepreneurs.

These events are an undoubted tragedy for both the people of Afghanistan and the influence of the West. But we need to get real about the limitations of what we can achieve. Donors spent £1bn supporting elections, yet analysts described electoral reforms as simply a “tug-of-war” to control the electoral bodies and thus the results, while the last presidential election was seen as the country’s most corrupt in history.

It takes more than cash, guns and glib talk to build a better world. Afghanistan is another example of the aid illusion: how countries most in need of support from foreign benefactors are often those with the least ability to handle big donations. As the former aid minister Rory Stewart said: “The liberal imperialist idea – the fashion of creating governance and stability in a post-conflict zone through the application of development aid – is mistaken.” Yet again, we see the truth of those words.

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