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OP-ED: What becomes of Afghanistan now?

  • Published at 07:31 pm April 26th, 2021
afghanistan soldier
An Afghan National Army soldier stands guard at a checkpoint REUTERS

Now that the US is withdrawing its troops, has the Taliban won?

President Biden has announced that he is ending overt involvement of the United States military in Afghanistan. These operations began at the end of 2001 following Al-Qaeda’s attack on the Twin Towers in New York. For 20 years, the United States and its NATO allies have tried to bring stability and peace. This effort failed and now all of these troops will go home. 

The main opposition was from the Taliban, a largely Pashtun group, organized originally by the Pakistan intelligence service to gain control of Afghanistan following the expulsion of the Russian army. Eventually the Taliban gained control over 75% of the country and established the government in Kabul. 

For 20 years, the Taliban has fought back against the Afghan government, the United States, and its NATO allies. The Taliban has won with the United States and NATO withdrawing. 

What continued involvement might the United States and the NATO countries have? There will be continued financial support for the Afghan government. There may be contractors to conduct training of the Afghan armed forces. Intelligence information from satellites or communication intercepts will continue to be provided. 

It is not certain that the use of drones for surveillance or rocket attacks can continue and the drone bases would have to be moved far afield. Similarly, air support would be difficult from bases in the Middle East or aircraft carriers due to the distances involved, complex air refuelling actions, and overflight permission. The conclusion is that with the withdrawal of the soldiers, support for the Afghan government will decline rapidly. 

NATO’s folly

While the strategic objectives of NATO were never sharply defined, the vague purpose was to help Afghans to establish a democratic state that would provide economic progress and promote human rights for both men and women. It was a naive, noble purpose and was tackled with lots of money and gusto but without any understanding of how to achieve such an outcome. 

It is not my intention to discuss the folly of NATO. But I will begin by noting that the first thing necessary for any state is to have a means of making a living. Afghanistan had two major paths to building an economy: Agriculture and natural resources. 

A great deal of successful effort went into trying to improve Afghan agricultural output, but the results for a 20-year period are disappointing. Further, the cultivation of poppy remains a distorting factor. Little progress was made towards developing Afghanistan’s mineral resources. Poppy cultivation has certainly increased under the encouragement of the Taliban which taxed these flows. 

As a result, the Afghan government was operating a level of expenditure that could not be sustained if foreign assistance was withdrawn. The failure to achieve a reasonable balance between revenues and expenditures was a serious flaw. 

Equally, the balance of payments was at a level that was unsustainable due to limited exports. The Afghan economy will face a serious set-back with the withdrawal of NATO. There are many good economists working on Afghanistan but the outcome after 20 years is an economy that remains highly dependent on the flow of resources from abroad; such resources will certainly begin to decline.

A spineless American government

The Afghan elites were unable to control their greed, so massive corruption took control of a significant part of the resources. A spineless American government found this a necessary condition to have the cooperation of the rulers of Afghanistan. 

While howling about corruption, the United States fed this greed and managed to look the other way. When looking back at the history of these years in Afghanistan, the induced corruption and the belief by senior state department officers that this was a necessary condition for success will be viewed with bewilderment.

Before any consideration of politics, violent Islamic groups, and women’s rights, we have the two simple failures: The willingness to substitute the flow of money from the United States in place of the Afghan people working for a living, enabling them to spend time killing each other. 

Then condoning or promoting the corruption of the Afghan leaders through this flow of “foreign aid.” I estimate this aid amounted to $2,000 per Afghan adult male per year over 20 years. This includes the money used for development projects; the money spent by NATO in local procurement, and the local expenditures of the army of highly paid expatriates roaming around Afghanistan. 

The US government spent $143 billion in development assistance; the military $825bn. Other NATO countries, and countries such as Japan, probably spent $50m. Altogether, more than one trillion dollars has been spent to rescue Afghanistan from the Taliban.

The economy will spiral down as the expenditures of the coalition taper down to zero. Hopefully, there is plenty of food but there is no surplus that can be taxed and religious views will effectively reduce the drug trade. But having waxed fat and happy for 20 years, Afghanistan is going to plunge into poverty.

Troops and military equipment

At present, there are 7,500 NATO troops in Afghanistan; 2,500 are from the US and the remainder are contributed by many NATO countries. There are several thousand foreign contractors working on military and development matters. The combat operations are largely carried out by US troops and aircraft. 

The NATO withdrawal is to be completed in less than five months. The five months are sufficient to withdraw 7,500 members of the NATO military establishment. 15 flights a month for the military and for the expatriates, that will require another 15-20 flights a month. The equipment is another matter. 

NATO has to decide what to take and what to leave. That will be determined by what can be removed in the short period available. Afghanistan is landlocked so everything has to be hauled by truck through Pakistan. Other border countries such as Iran, Russia, and China are unlikely to be very cooperative. Uzbekistan will support the NATO equipment removal at a price. But a lot of heavy military gear will be left behind.

In addition to the military troops, there is a small army of foreign contractors associated with the military and the foreign aid programs financed by the NATO Alliance. Most of these persons will leave as the ability of the Afghan army to protect them is uncertain.

There is another problem facing the United States. There are, over the years and including family members, perhaps 100,000 Afghans that have worked with the United States and its allies. These men, women, and children are all at risk of being killed. In Vietnam, one of the shameful actions of the Americans was to leave such persons behind. 

After the North Vietnamese victory, many faced death and prison. Most of the Afghans that have faithfully worked for the NATO effort are in similar difficulty. Will the Americans do anything about these Afghans? 

George Packer in his book Our Man, a biography of Richard Holbrook, quotes Holbrook about a conversation with then Vice President Biden: “I [Holbrook] thought that we had a certain obligation to the people who trusted us. He [Biden] said, ‘We don’t have to worry about that. We did it in Vietnam, Nixon and Kissinger got away with it.’” 

At the moment, there are several thousand visas being processed and about 10,000 available visas from the 26,500 special visas Congress has authorized. It looks like a repeat of Vietnam, leaving the people that worked for you behind. Perhaps Biden has changed his mind. Perhaps not. 

What will happen? Biden has made his decision that NATO troops will be out by September 11, 2021. The US government will have exited before that date. Coordination with NATO is not much discussed but it is unlikely that there will be any NATO troops after September 11.

There are also many persons from the United States, other NATO countries, and associated with the United Nations that have been working on development projects. Most of these persons are likely to leave in the next year. They will feel that their security is now seriously compromised. 

What about the Afghans?

This final decision will change the expectation of many Afghans. I believe that the elite members of Afghan society have no confidence in the Afghan army standing up successfully to Taliban attacks. Who knows what the Taliban will do, but the Afghan elites who threw their future in with the United States will largely believe that the game is up and they have to get out. 

Most have prepared the way. The Afghan government and the business community will start to empty out. Now it is time to get wives and children out and be prepared to follow them. The panic will build rapidly. Whatever ideas that the United States had that the modern Afghan state will continue to function will be found wrong; fear and panic will lead Afghanistan to an effective early collapse.

What will happen? It is hard to tell what the strategy of the Taliban will be. First, of course they will proclaim their defeat of the United States, attributing this to the powers of Allah. This message will be broadcast far and wide in Islamic communities around the world. 

Most Muslims will brush this aside but some will indeed believe it. The departure of the United States and NATO from Afghanistan will strengthen the will and confidence of Muslims who believe in violence as the proper way to advance their religion. 

The Taliban will step up the violence gradually to understand what the United States might do. Perhaps the Afghan army will fight well. Afghans are excellent soldiers. The Afghan army has excellent equipment. 

The fact that the American soldiers have left does not mean that they will not be supported with weapons and ammunition. The United States can still provide the Afghan army with excellent intelligence from satellite surveillance and electronic communication intercepts. 

They will remain operating in the country in small groups of special forces who come and go as needed. The most likely outcome however, is that the Afghan central government will slowly collapse.

In its place will be war lords leading the various ethnic groups. The Taliban are largely Pashtun and these ethnic groups do not get along. With NATO leaving, the country will revert to battles among these groups. 

Kabul has a really ethnically mixed population so one might expect the violence to be greatest there. That will hasten the departures of those that can, and the retreat to home villages of those that cannot manage to get out of the country. The modern Afghan state will vanish. Kabul will depopulate and the economy will shrink.

There will be great regret in the US. So much death, so much treasure spent, so much posturing, resulting in complete failure. Four American presidents failed (Bush, Obama, Trump, and even Biden).

Over 800,000 American soldiers served in Afghanistan; they will each have their own remorse. There are 100,000 Afghans and their families who worked for NATO and the United States, most of whom will be abandoned. About 50% of the population of Afghanistan was born after 2001, 19 million, whose lives are now to shift from hope to despair. In the course of this war over 20 years, about 150,000 persons have been killed.

The future is bleak for Afghan women

There are about 9.4 million girls in that total whose future has just shifted from the potential of education, and an interesting life, to emptiness. 

When the US and its NATO allies took over, the total fertility rate of Afghan women was 7.2 [total childbirths in life excluding miscarriages; a total of 10 pregnancies]. It declined to about 3.5 [a total of 4 pregnancies]. 

One can be confident that the fate of these women is to return to a life of 10 pregnancies, reduced life expectancy [now about 63, up from 50 in 2000]. Early child marriage [ages less than 15] was very prevalent in 2000, one estimate is that in 75% of marriages, the woman was 16 or younger. That declined to about 35%. It will certainly rise again.

The future is also difficult to see. There are many players. The Afghan government, which we argue will collapse not from fighting but from expectations of the coming disasters. The four major ethnic groups, we can expect to fight each other. These four all have external partners. Finally, the Islamic State is present in small numbers but anxious to make trouble, based along the eastern border, half in Pakistan and half in Afghanistan.

The Afghans thus face continued fighting, a falling economy, and repression of women.

Forrest Cookson is an economist who has served as the first president of AmCham and has been a consultant for the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics.

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