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After the fall of Kabul, there is a strong temptation to see the failure of 20 years of Western intervention in Afghanistan as planned. “There is no military solution” to the country’s challenges, according to one version of this analysis. That’s right: you won’t definitely win a war where you can’t win the peace.
But there is a similar fatalism about the possibility that peace could ever have been won in Afghanistan. It is too tribal and traditional a society to become a functioning democracy, some say. Foreigners’ “nation-building” is always doomed to fail, others say.
Building a nation is undoubtedly the work of those who are part of it. Building a functioning state and economy, however, is something the West not only could have done, but had a duty to do after it overthrew the Taliban in 2001. The sad truth is that we haven’t never really tried.
While Afghanistan’s per capita income is higher today than in the 1990s, it has stagnated around $ 600 over the past decade, according to the World Bank. As economist Jeffrey Sachs points out, US spending on the country’s economic development has been eclipsed by military spending – and even what was theoretically spent on reconstruction was mostly spent on security.
Of course, resilient state structures and economic activity require a stable and secure environment. But addiction goes both ways. A state and economy that served the Afghan people well would have made any military spending more effective, giving the Afghan forces something worth fighting for and the Taliban less fertile ground for recruiting.
More importantly, it’s not just “how much money you spend, but how the money is spent,” says Sarah Chayes, who spent a decade in Afghanistan as an advisor to US military leaders and wrote a book on corruption there. This corruption, undermining loyalty and fueling economic failure, ultimately caused military failure as well.
“People have always told me that the Taliban regime was authoritarian in a way they hated, but that it was not corrupt,” Chayes says. Other research supports it. According to an Integrity Watch Afghanistan survey conducted last winter, “more than half of citizens believe levels of corruption are lower in areas controlled by the Taliban than in areas controlled by the government.”
The same report estimates the total amount of bribes paid by Afghans to state officials at $ 2.25 billion. This is nothing new. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime reported in 2010 that bribes paid by Afghans amounted to $ 2.5 billion in one year, or nearly a quarter of the domestic product. official gross of the country. “Those responsible for upholding the law are considered the most guilty of breaking it,” the report said.
These bribes were the basis of what Chayes describes as “a vertically integrated system, like a mafia”.
To say that exposing corruption is to blame the Afghans is wrong. The corruption of the Afghan state is to be blamed on its financial and security guarantors: the coalition led by the United States.
“We had all the power,” says Chayes, “and we almost stubbornly enforced and allowed this corruption.” This was done by channeling funds through privileged intermediaries, interacting only with people in positions of authority and thus intimidating ordinary Afghans into speaking out against the abuses, and failing to put in place real checks and balances such as the training of independent police officers in investigative skills.
In blunt terms, the corrupt state was a creation of American power. The US Congressional Special Inspector General for the Reconstruction of Afghanistan says it: a lack of patience has led the US government to make “choices”. [that] increased corruption and reduced effectiveness of programs. . . When US officials finally recognized this dynamic, they simply found new ways to ignore the conditions on the ground. “
To say now that the effort to build a functioning Afghan state has always been doomed to failure is a perverse diminishment of responsibility. The United States and its allies could have acted differently. They could have distributed the money in the form of individual cash payments rather than installing local custodians of the resources. They could have introduced strong transparency, monitoring and oversight mechanisms. They could have quickly imposed sanctions on corrupt officials at all levels.
Last week’s drama highlighted the end of what some like to call an impossible war, highlighting the inglorious history of Afghanistan’s foreign interventions. The real ignominy is the West’s neglect for 20 years of a winnable peace.