To countless people, Afghanistan appears to be a mystery. A faraway, dry piece of land, perched between forbidding mountains, in the heart of Asia’s colossal landmass, sparsely populated by a resilient people. That some historians have labeled it “the graveyard of empires” adds to its enigma.
Compared with many other countries, Afghanistan is, in some ways, without equal. Within the span of about two decades, this incredibly backward and poverty-stricken land was invaded by both the Soviet Union and the United States — the two post-World War II superpowers. The Soviet Union left Afghanistan in February 1988, economically broken and militarily in disgrace. The United States, the sole remaining superpower, finds itself mired in a war that after 17 years it seems to be unable to win and reluctant to quit.
And Afghanistan, this riddle of a country, is still at it, now fighting an internal war for about 40 years and, yes, with no end in sight.
In October of 2001, when American military forces — and later NATO soldiers — were dispatched to Afghanistan to kill Osama ben Laden and finish off the scourge of the Taliban, the blaze of the battle has swallowed thousands of their lives and sent other thousands of them back to their countries, marred physically and mentally, to begin lives of pain and need. Many more thousands of Afghan civilians and soldiers lost their lives in this internal strife the fire of which doesn’t seem to exhaust itself.
What’s to be done? That’s the question, a question that the US has been posing itself many times and has failed to find a workable answer for.
Should the US and its allies continue this endless battle or should they take their forces out of that difficult place and leave it to its people to resolve themselves what they seem to have the need to put right?
There seems to be no doubt that America has badly blundered in Afghanistan. The present rapidly deteriorating condition in that country calls for urgent action —that is if America wishes to avoid the former Soviet Union’s fate.
Let’s continue with another question: What should the US administration do that it has failed to do over the past 17 years?
The short reply is: Do things as you would do them at home. That means, act lawfully, submit acts of illegality to the relative authorities for prosecution, don’t tolerate corruption, and work toward the rights and interests of the people.
These simple ethical norms are imprinted in the minds of the vast majority of Americans. Their actions and decisions reflect that understanding.
Strangely, Washington — in its dealings with some countries, mainly Third World nations — is willing to forget these values which, as already mentioned, the vast majority of Americans hold dear and abide by. It’s exactly this inexplicable weakness and acquiescence toward Third-World officialdom which are at the core of American failure in its dealings with Third-World countries. Afghanistan is a prime example.
I am sitting in an office in Kabul, Afghanistan’s capital city. For a week, I travelled here and there, spoke with men and women of all walks of life and tried to understand their fear and hopelessness. I also visited with men of power.
I was saddened to discover that the source of power, despite the lives extinguished and hundreds of billions of dollars expended to reform and rebuild this war-torn country, has not changed hands. The source of power remains firmly in the hands of violent-prone warlords and mostly rapacious government officials, rendering the regime a nonfunctioning, corruption-ridden creation.
Virtually, no one in those excessively guarded compounds housing a variety of government departments — here called ministries — give a damn for the wellbeing of the people and the progress of the nation. The holders of power have over the past 17 years acquired great wealth and are firmly allied with one another, jealously protecting each other’s interests.
During my research and many trips to this unfortunate land, I have reluctantly and disappointedly realized that the most powerful and effective protector of these dishonorable men is the United States of America. Its military forces are, willingly or unwillingly, the bulwark securing the country from collapse and civil war. America’s monetary resources constitute the never-desiccating well that keeps Afghanistan’s corruption-ridden regime afloat. Washington’s embrace of the Afghan government provides this brutish, rapacious regime a veneer of legitimacy that allows the pilfering to exist and to continue.
Washington is well aware of these conditions and realizes that the situation has poisoned all American efforts to establish the rule of law. It also knows that its silence and acquiescence gave the Karzai regime and continues to provide the Ghani government a large measure of legitimacy. Karzai, despite his immense failings, remained unassailable.
President Ghani, who was America’s hope for establishing a measure of civility and lawfulness within the mayhem that Afghanistan had become, has disappointed all expectations. Corruption flourishes. Some believe it has become worse than it has ever been. Nothing worth of mentioning has happened in the economy. Poverty’s spread has widened. According to the U.N., 13 million Afghans suffer from food insecurity. SIGAR reports that according to U.N estimates more than two million people will be in desperate need of humanitarian assistance. In its fortieth Quarterly Report to Congress, SIGAR informs that “DOJ views the situation in Afghanistan as ‘consistent with a largely lawless, weak, and dysfunctional government.’”
The flight of hundreds of thousands from the country is a clear sign of people’s despair. There are no numbers about people fleeing to Iran, Pakistan, India, and Russia. Just during Mr. Ghani’s presidency 409,415 Afghans have fled their country and asked for asylum in the EU. This huge number should give Mr. Ghani thought as to why his compatriots forsake their homes, their country and families for the unknown in distant lands.
The administration knows about the existence of corruption at the highest levels of the Afghan government. In his book “Directorate S,” Steve Coll writes “… several American task forces investigating corruption … found crimes everywhere they looked. A police chief in eastern Afghanistan ran a kidnapping operation out of his Kabul office. Afghan soldiers died of starvation at the National Military Hospital because pervasive bribery left the facility stripped of supplies.” Steve Coll further observes that “A former Afghan Watermelon salesman ran a trucking firm, Host Nation, with contracts worth about $360 million from the Pentagon, in concert with Ahmad Wali Karzai’s racketeering operations in Kandahar.”
The astounding part of Afghanistan‘s tragedy has been that US government officials often sided with the Afghan government in its corrupt handling of things. An unambiguous instance of such an example of blatant official American patronage was Mr. Thier’s announcement in 2012 at an Afghanistan-related conference in Bonn, Germany. Mr. Thier was then assistant to the USAID director for Afghanistan when he said the bidding for the rights of the Hajigak iron ore mine, one of the largest and richest iron ore mines in the world, had been transparent and fair. The fact was that the way the Afghan government handled this international tender was anything but proper and transparent. The government’s choice of an Indian state-owned consortium did in no way reflect the bid conditions. Fortunately for the Afghan people, the international media picked up the matter and the tender collapsed. Apparently, having lost personal interest in the matter, Afghan government officials have after 7 years still not taken up the matter again.
During the tender preparation and bidding process for Hajigak, Wahidullah Shahrani headed the ministry of mines and petroleum. He had received over US$100 million from the World Bank to build his ministry’s capacity. In 2014, when Ghani became president, his first minister of mines and petroleum, Dawood Saba, informed the Afghan parliament that his ministry lacked any capacity to handle major bids and refused to put out major mines for bidding. Yet, Mr. Shahrani is still considered one of the leaders of the country. No one dares to ask him what he did during his years as minister of mines and petroleum.
There’ve been countless other examples of corruption in the handling of major and minor projects funded by the US.
And it hasn’t been just US departments which have kept silent in such cases. The World Bank has done the same, at least in one case that I am familiar with.
Due to lack of space, it isn’t possible to add more examples of corruption and mishandling of economic developmental efforts. The purpose of citing here the few events was to establish what has been going on in this country and how the US chose to react to them.
It’s now time to return to our original questions: What’s to be done and what should the US administration do that it has failed to do over the past 17 years?
We gave a short answer to it and then followed with examples of failures in management and choosing the easy way out by simply letting things proceed as they did.
Today’s tragic situation is the result of the wrong policies of the past. Washington must accept the gravity of its mistake and move its foreign policy toward the Third World generally and Afghanistan specifically onto a dramatically different path.
I repeat the suggestion I made in my last piece: Afghanistan must be declared beyond governance. An apolitical interim government must be installed in Kabul and given 3 to 4 years to clean up the mess, introduce accountability, rewrite the constitution to reflect the moral and legal norms of the 21st century, reintroduce democracy to the country, strengthen the institutions and establish the rule of law.
From my talks with American policymakers, I realize that Washington views this step as unacceptable. Often, reasons of sovereignty are used to reject such a process. Also, Washington worries about global public opinion, claiming that the US went to Afghanistan to, among other things, bring democracy there. Such a deep intrusion into the affairs of another state would, Washington worries, be viewed as an undemocratic act.
In my view, the origin of these arguments is to be found in the reluctance of doing something difficult. Afghanistan, in its present stage, cannot claim sovereignty. It’s unable to defend its borders. It’s overwhelmingly in need of foreign financial and security support. It has fallen under the rule of warlords. These attributes deny Afghanistan sovereignty and make it a ward of the international community. Thus, it befalls upon the international community to decide what’s in the best interest of the Afghan people and what serves best the peace in the region and the world. America is, at least so far, the leader of the global community and must act in this case.
Should the idea still bother American policymakers, I would like to remind them of Albert Einstein who said, “If at first, the idea is not absurd, then there is no hope for it.”
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