Helicopters in Afghanistan Square

Why the West failed in Afghanistan

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THE DECISION by the Biden Administration to abandon Afghanistan is obviously foolish.  The reputation of the West as trustworthy and competent will be undermined. International terrorists focused on Jihad towards North America and Europe will once again use it as a base.  Afghan citizens will experience untold misery as the country moves back into the middle ages.

Leaving the relatively small number of US and NATO troops in country would not have been particularly costly and would have prevented the collapse of the Afghan state. It is now timely to examine what mistakes were made so there is at least some small chance of avoiding them in the future.

After the removal of the Taliban in late 2001 and contrary to received wisdom relatively little was done by the West in the way of ‘nation-building.’ US attention quickly turned to planning the invasion of Iraq, and after that had happened, to trying to deal with the mess they had created there. Although President Bush committed to rebuilding Afghanistan, in practice little was done from 2001 to 2006.

In Afghanistan the US concentrated almost exclusively in the early years on counter-terrorism efforts and tried to outsource nation-building efforts to European allies such as Britain and the UN. These efforts were slow and insufficient.  For example the UK, Germans and UN had responsibility for training the new army and police, but in the words of a US Diplomat, “wasted five years doing essentially nothing.” The US took over in 2010 and managed to put together an army of sorts, which has gradually improved and successfully held off the Taliban for the last ten years with US support, particularly air support.

Low US spending in the early years was matched by low UK spending that was inadequate to the task at hand. In 2002/3 total British bilateral spending on Afghanistan was only £76m, rising slowly to £98m by 2004/5. In each of those years this was less than what was spent on Tanzania. There was a jump to £146m in 2007/8 and then to £200m by 2009/10, at which level spending was roughly maintained.

After 2007 the US did start spending significant resources, but by that time much of the damage had been done. Afghans had broadly welcomed the foreign intervention in 2001 but by 2006 that welcome had worn thin given the lack of improvements in the country.  With the Afghan army still largely non-existent, the Taliban was able to get enough support to restart military operations.

The US has spent about $132 billion on Afghanistan, largely since 2007, but this should be contrasted with the similar amount spent on Kosovo, a much smaller country. Moreover, most of the Kosovo funds were spent immediately.  So one key lesson is that that the West committed too few resources too late, with Afghanistan being badly neglected during the crucial first four or five years.

Another error was to seek to remake Afghanistan in the image of a modern centralised European state. All power was concentrated in the hand of the President. It would have been preferable if authority could have been devolved to a provincial level, with different and competing political interests in charge in different locations.  This would have reduced unrest and avoided the ‘winner takes all’ concentration on control at the centre. The two Presidents have been less than ideal.  While the first, Hamid Karzai, lacked administrative competence, the second, Ashraf Ghani, has turned out to be far worse.

A former World Bank bureaucrat, Ghani is noted for his arrogance and deep conviction that he is right about everything, whether or not he understands the topic. Given that he is a micromanager this has had fatal consequences, particularly in respect of his unsuccessful attempt to micromanage the war against the Taliban.

A lack of clarity on objectives also frustrated western efforts. As opposed to simple objectives of building an Afghan state capable of maintaining security and delivering some basic services, the mission morphed into a much broader one involving stopping the production of opium and introducing western-style democracy and human rights.

Essentially Afghanistan was lost in the first five years after the 2001 intervention. Western governments were slow, complacent and completely misjudged the scale of the task.  One could barely call Afghanistan a failed state because it was so dysfunctional already. Nothing worked, there were no institutions. To turn that around required a major investment, made quickly.  It would still have cost less than the complacent approach adopted in which most resources have had to be devoted to fighting the Taliban.

The US administration is much to blame for the failed approach, but that does not mean other countries were bound to follow it. The Blair Government could have made much more of an effort, as could have other countries. But they didn’t and we are now left with total failure, the waste of all resources committed to date, the sense that those who gave their lives to defeat the Taliban did so in vain, and the tragic consequences that are likely to follow in Afghanistan and beyond.

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Photo of US helicopters in Afghanistan by vadimmmus from Shutterstock

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