Thursday May 23, 2024

Afghanistan and foreign aid: Part - I

By Dr Murad Ali
February 21, 2020

“War is the greatest plague that can afflict humanity; it destroys religion, it destroys states, it destroys families. Any scourge is preferable to it.” – Martin Luther (1566).

This aptly applies to any war-ravaged country – from Afghanistan to Syria to Yemen. And this applies to our own sweet motherland as well. To witness the horrors of war and conflict, one must firmly believe in a very pertinent German proverb that ‘A great war leaves the country with three armies – an army of cripples, an army of mourners, and an army of thieves’.

The ongoing conflict in Afghanistan, the longest war the US has ever fought in its history, has cost American taxpayers about $2 trillion. Besides the economic cost, as per the US Department of Defense’s statistics, the US has lost a total of over 2,400 soldiers in Afghanistan since the advent of the ‘war on terror’. What have been the tangible gains for the US? Of course Al-Qaeda has been significantly enfeebled and most of its top leadership has been eliminated. Now the organization no longer poses any grave threat to US interests in this region or elsewhere.

But in the case of the Taliban, they have gained considerable control in larger parts of the country, are capable of carrying out spectacular attacks and that is why their unwavering war capabilities have pushed the US administration to the negotiating table. For example, as per a recent report of the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), since 2009, the unabated armed conflict in Afghanistan has claimed the lives of 28,291 civilians and injured 52,366 others. According to estimates of the Brown University’s Costs of War Project, a total of over 43,000 people have been killed in the continuing fighting in Afghanistan since the US invaded the country in the aftermath of the horrible 9/11 events.

A report of a credible media house also claimed that the Taliban have either control over or are active in about 70 percent of the country. Prepared after months of research and field visits across the country, the report asserts that the Taliban now control or threaten much more territory than when foreign combat troops left in 2014. It also states that around 15 million people or half the country’s population is living in spaces that are either controlled by the Taliban or where the Taliban are openly present and regularly mount attacks against their opponents.

Given this situation, it should not be unexpected that after spending trillions of dollars and losing thousands of troops by both parties, the only solution to the Afghan quagmire is in a durable truce the terms and conditions of which are acceptable to all key stakeholders, particularly to the ill-fated Afghan people who have experienced untold miseries. After agreeing to a much awaited and complex peace deal with the US, hopefully Afghans can heave a sigh of relief in the coming times – provided there is a viable power-sharing mechanism acceptable to different warring parties.

Coming back to the proverb cited above, while it is evident that common people including the most vulnerable segments of the population comprising children, women, elderly people and the poor suffer more in wars as they have little wherewithal to flee conflict zones, some could gain considerably from the ‘war industry’. These are people and groups involved in the business of wars: owners and traders of military-industrial complex, militaries and private militias.

Disaggregating the data from Brown University’s ‘Costs of War Project’, it becomes more evident how the US spent over $2 trillion in the Afghan theater and what it has achieved at the end of nearly two decades is actually worth the cost. Of the $2 trillion, over one and a half trillion has been consumed in countless military operations following the military invasion of Afghanistan in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the US. How the US has gained militarily and what it has achieved is clear from the fact of who is calling the shots in Afghanistan today. Huge chunks of this money, approximately 60 percent, has been spent on training, fuel, armored vehicles and establishing new military facilities. The rest of the amount has been spent on transportation, logistics and counter-narcotic operations.

According to Dr David Mansfield of the London School of Economics, who has studied the Afghan opium industry for more than two decades, the US has spent $1.5 million per day since 2001 fighting the opium war in Afghanistan. However, with all the excellent intelligence networks and most sophisticated technology and incredibly trained military at its disposal, the US has utterly failed on this front as well. As per the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), poppy cultivation has risen significantly and consistently in this war-ravaged country. The UN agency has pointed out that when the American and British forces invaded Afghanistan in October 2001, poppy was grown on around 74,000 hectares. Now the latest figures suggest that production has augmented more than four-fold: today opium is being grown on 328,000 hectares.

Today, Afghanistan supplies 80 percent of the world’s heroin, thanks to the US and its Nato allies for their wonderful counter-narcotic crusades. While the Taliban were no angels when it comes to their horrifying regime and I am not going to glorify their war against poppy, there is a broader consensus that when the Taliban were in power “Afghanistan had almost completely eradicated opium”, according to UN data from 1996 to 2001. Today, poppy cultivation and opium production is a major source of revenue and employment, as well as a key source of income for Taliban insurgents.

Of the total $2 trillion, the US has poured in this war, $87 billion has gone to train the Afghan military and police forces. While the US has allocated incredible financing to raise an efficient and well-equipped army, Afghanistan finds it a Herculean task to support and sustain its military on its own. The US funds have sponsored the Afghan Army and police forces through equipment, training and cash grants. Here too, the results are not what the US and Afghanistan leadership would have anticipated.

A New York Times report has argued validly that “nobody in Afghanistan – not the American military, and not President Ashraf Ghani’s top advisers – thinks Afghan military forces could support themselves”. There are numerous tales and reports of widespread desertions and of changing allegiance when the situations demand so. The struggle for existence is applicable everywhere (which is why Darwin should be taught, whether we agree or disagree with him). But here the US deserves appreciation for building an army from scratch; and no doubt Afghan soldiers have sacrificed thousands of its troops against the ruthless Taliban assault.

Over the course of this protracted war, the US alone has disbursed more than $100 billion in the country for economic development and reconstruction programmes. After toppling the Taliban regime, President Bush delineated in 2002 that “by helping to build an Afghanistan that is free from this evil and is a better place in which to live, we are working in the best traditions of George Marshall”. Marshall was US Secretary of State and the architect of the plan that abetted in rebuilding the war-battered European economies following World War II.

To be continued

The writer holds a PhD from Massey University, New Zealand. He teaches at the University of Malakand.