In October 2001, the United States and its NATO allies invaded Afghanistan, overthrew the Taliban, sent Al Qaeda in disarray and established a largely pro-Western government. There was a lot of promise at the time that Afghanistan would become a peaceful, democratic and stable nation within a couple of years.
Eight years later, with over 100,000 NATO troops and billions of dollars spent on security and reconstruction, the Taliban are resurgent, the government grossly corrupt, elections openly rigged and the narcotics trade (which the Taliban had curbed) is booming again. The failure to establish an effective state is so acute that the president of Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai, rules as nothing more than a mayor of the capital city Kabul ‘ his control of which is also tenuous.
The US mistook the tactical advantage Al Qaeda had on 9/11 (having sanctuary in Afghanistan) for a strategic advantage. It has thus spent billions of dollars in a vain effort to rebuild that country’s security services and economy. Yet Al Qaeda’s strategic advantage lay in exploiting weaknesses in US security arrangements: so terrorists were able to move money, train as pilots in US flying schools and use American planes as missiles. The planning could as well have been done in a cave. By closing these loopholes, the US rendered another 9/11 impossible, even if terrorists had a sanctuary.
According to the Congressional Research Service, the US programme of assistance to Afghanistan ‘ intended to stabilise and strengthen Afghan economic, social, political and security situation so as ‘to blunt popular support for extremist forces in the region’ has since 2001, appropriated US$ 38 billion. If we add on her NATO allies and other donors, Afghanistan has taken more than US$ 50 billion in foreign military and development aid. Yet there is little evidence of reduced poverty or increased state capacity anywhere proportional to the billions spent. Where has all this money gone?
Afghanistan is a classic example of the failures inherent in international intervention in poor countries to build states, establish security and foster development. The most sophisticated exponent of intervention is Oxford’s Prof. Paul Collier. In his view, security anywhere is an international public good: rich countries should take it upon themselves to provide it in warring poor countries. To Collier, people in the ‘bottom billion’ have no capacity for initiative or self-correction and therefore need a new form of colonialism. (The word ‘colonialism’ is mine, not his but it reflects the essence of of proposals in his two most recent books).
Like the colonialists of old (David Livingstone for example) who presented their mission as one of ending slavery and spreading Christianity and ‘civilisation’, the new colonialists present their work in humanitarian language ‘ to bring peace, development and effective states to the poor. Some, like Collier, take this too far; the aim of the new colonial project is not so much to improve the lives of the people in the bottom billion as it is to ensure that his son does not grow up seeing poverty and violence on TV. That is what we are now: a despicable sight ‘ or to use Tony Blair’s words a ‘scar on the conscience of the world.’
But fate is a great joker, my father used to tell me, it always laughs last. As US President Barack Obama won a Nobel Peace Prize, he was discussing with his advisors the possibility of sending an extra 40,000 US troops to Afghanistan. How come the most powerful military alliance in the world made up of the richest economies has failed to defeat the poorly armed, poorly trained and certainly poorly resourced Taliban?
Policy options for poor countries are constrained by the ideological hegemony of the West and its pressure groups ‘ the secular missionaries of foreign aid, self-appointed human rights defenders and apostles of humanitarianism. Often their arguments are well intentioned and sound logical and convincing. But upon rigorous scrutiny, they are misleading rhetoric detached from the reality of the complexity of the problem under discussion. Sadly, a large section of elites in the ‘bottom billion’ sing this chorus.
After eight years of failure, it should be obvious that no amount of NATO troop presence and Western financial assistance will build an effective state in Afghanistan. This is because financial and military aid per se is not the solution to weak state capacity. The development of a country cannot be engineered from outside. The solutions have to grow organically from within the society. To allow the growth of an internal Afghan solution, the US and allies need to make some difficult choices and tradeoffs.
First, they need to abandon moralising about democracy and accountable government; you cannot have that in anarchy. The most immediate challenge for Afghanistan is to build an effective state. It does not matter whether this is realised through a democratic bargain or a military victory by one group. That would be determined by the outplay of internal struggles within Afghan society. The best way to begin this process is to create space for Afghans to find a solution.
The US and her allies should begin scaling down their military and financial commitment to the Karzai government. This will allow it to either adjust its capability to meet the threat or to collapse. Whatever happens, different groups within Afghanistan will seek to wrestle for control of the state. The short term humanitarian costs will be high, but the long term results will be an effective state and a durable peace. Let the group with the organisational ability to raise resources, build an army and impose its will on others control the state.
By closely watching the contest for supremacy, the US and her allies can open covert or overt dialogue with the group that exhibits superior organisational ability ‘ a capacity to cajole, bribe or coarse other groups. They can then bribe such a group with financial and military assistance in exchange for a deal not to give Al Qaeda sanctuary. Aid would be going to an effective local warlord, not an ineffective foreign-imposed puppet. The world is better with the Taliban in control of the state and therefore subject to sanctions and bombings than to have them as fugitives hiding in caves.