Written by: Hrishik Roy
After spending 20 long years and more than 2 Trillion US dollars, the United States has finally pulled out of Afghanistan which led to the swift rise of the Taliban who now controls almost the entirety of the country. On July 8, the US President Joe Biden stressed that a Taliban takeover was “highly unlikely”. However, within five weeks the Taliban captured Afghanistan’s capital Kabul which begs us to ask the question: how did the West fail an entire nation?
Firstly, to put things into perspective: the US had spent about $83 billion to train about 300,000 Afghan forces who outnumbered the Taliban forces of 75,000 combatants by 4 times. However, upon closer inspection, the reasons for such a resounding defeat become crystal clear. An analysis of the Afghan security forces revealed that only around 254,000 of the 300,000 Afghan forces were actively serving troops and the rest were “ghost soldiers” whose names existed only on paper so that local commanders and leaders could bag their salaries. Such rampant corruption combined with a shortage of food,resources and a lack of ideological motivation meant that the Afghan forces were no match for the highly motivated Taliban. Therefore, the White House had massively overestimated the result of its efforts of building a strong Afghan army.
Based on these overestimations, the US government signed the Doha agreement with the Taliban – the terms of which were relatively simple. The US agreed to complete the full withdrawal of NATO troops by May 2021. On the other hand, the Taliban agreed to restrict the use of Afghanistan by any terrorist groups – notably Al-Qaeda – to threaten US security. However, this deal which was termed to be “historic” turned out to be more than malicious for Afghan people as the country was left in shambles after the US forces started withdrawing. Despite the Taliban’s promises to keep Al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups at bay, according to an UN report,The Taliban and Al-Qaeda remain closely aligned and show no indication of breaking ties. Member States report no material change to this relationship, which has grown deeper as a consequence of personal bonds of marriage and shared partnership in struggle, now cemented through second generational ties.
The deal was followed with a swift and sneaky evacuation such as the one in Bagram Air Base, where US soldiers left without informing their Afghan allies. Such a stealthy evacuation caused demoralization of the Afghan forces and thus, resulted in them surrendering without a fight in most cases in hopes of being granted amnesty by the Taliban. This exposes the low morale of the Afghan troops and the strategic failures of the Afghan government, under the leadership of Ashraf Ghani, to unify all the different ethnic and tribal groups under the banner of Afghan nationalism.
Much of the Afghan military was untrained primarily due to the massive amounts of corruption present in the military – something the foreign troops were very well aware of. The primary resistance to the Taliban was the Afghan National Army Commando Corps which did 70% to 80% of the fighting against Taliban insurgents and “never lost a battle.” However, it made up only about 7% of the total Afghan security forces.
The nation-building process which America tried to shove down Afghanistan was also indeed a complete failure. The idea of having a Constitutional Republic led by a President similar to the US government was not the smartest move as it failed to take into account the vast cultural and societal difference between the two countries. Thus, the United States inadvertently built a corrupt, dysfunctional Afghan government that remained dependent on U.S. military power for its survival – a result of haphazard planning, misguided policies and bureaucratic feuding.
According to Stephen Hadley, the former National Security of the Bush administration, “We just don’t have a post-conflict stabilization model that works.” While certain factors such as infant mortality rate and number of children in schools did show signs of growth, the economic growth was not significant as the US and European bureaucrats stressed that the government adopt free-trade like Western nations despite having nothing of value to export. The very rigid system which the US was trying to implement was antithesis to the decentralized power and regional control.
While the failures of the US and its NATO allies are evident, they are not recent and rather can be traced back to the structure of the invasion of Afghanistan. Using national security as a justification, the Bush administration sent in private military contractors by channeling the taxpayer’s money into these contractors which later filled their own pockets. These very same military contractors also performed grotesque human rights violations and war-crimes such as killing innocent Afghan civilians for the sake of “sport” without any accountability.
In retrospective, the West can claim that the military presence had significantly improved the lives of the Afghan people while others might repudiate its claims based on its failures in the region. However, one thing we can be certain of is that at the end of the day, power hungry political fractions and bad-faith policy decisions are what ruined one of the most culturally rich nations in the heart of Asia.
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Featured Image Courtesy: International Rescue Committee