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The west has paid the price for neglecting the Afghan economy

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After the fall of Kabul, there is a strong temptation to see the failure of the west’s 20-year intervention in Afghanistan as preordained. “There is no military solution” to the country’s challenges, goes one version of this analysis. True enough: you will not definitively win a war where you are unable to 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 ever to become a functioning democracy, say some. “Nation-building” by outsiders is always doomed to failure, say others.

Building a nation is no doubt the work of those who belong to it. Building a functioning state and economy, however, is something the west not only could have done but had a duty to do after ousting the Taliban in 2001. The sad truth is that we never really tried.

While Afghanistan’s per capita income is higher today than in the 1990s, it flatlined around $600 in the last decade, according to the World Bank. As the economist Jeffrey Sachs points out, US spending on economic development in the country has been dwarfed by military spending — and even what was notionally devoted to reconstruction mostly went on security.

Of course resilient state structures and economic activity require a stable and secure environment. But the dependence runs both ways. A state and economy that served the Afghan people well would have made any amount of military spending more effective, by giving Afghan forces something worth fighting for and the Taliban less fertile ground for recruitment.

Most importantly, it’s not just “how much money you spend, it’s how the money is spent”, says Sarah Chayes, who spent a decade in Afghanistan as an adviser to the US military leadership and wrote a book about corruption there. That corruption, sapping loyalty and fuelling economic failure, ultimately also caused military failure.

“People consistently told me the Taliban regime was authoritarian in ways that they detested — but it wasn’t corrupt,” says Chayes. Other research backs her up. According to a survey by Integrity Watch Afghanistan carried out last winter, “more than half of citizens believe that corruption levels are lower in Taliban-controlled areas than in government-controlled areas”.

The same report estimates the total amount of bribes paid by Afghans to state officials at $2.25bn. This is nothing new. The UN’s Office on Drugs and Crime reported in 2010 that bribes paid by Afghans amounted to $2.5bn in a year, nearly a quarter of the country’s formal gross domestic product. “Those entrusted with upholding the law are seen as most guilty of violating it,” stated the report.

Those bribes were at the bottom of what Chayes describes as “a vertically integrated system, like a mafia”.

To say that highlighting corruption amounts to blaming the Afghans misses the point. The corruption of the Afghan state is to be blamed on its financial and security guarantors: the US-led coalition.

“We had all the power”, Chayes says, “and almost obdurately enforced and enabled that corruption”. This was done by channelling funds through favoured intermediaries, by interacting only with people in authority and thereby intimidating ordinary Afghans from calling out abuse, and by failing to set up true checks and balances such as training independent police in investigative skills.

Brutally put, the corrupt state was a creation of US power. The US Congress’s own special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction says as much: a lack of patience led the US government to make “choices [that] increased corruption and reduced the effectiveness of programs . . . When US officials eventually recognised this dynamic, they simply found new ways to ignore conditions on the ground.”

To say now that the effort to build a functioning Afghan state was always doomed is a perverse diminution of responsibility. The US and its allies could have acted differently. They could have distributed money as individual cash payments rather than installing local gatekeepers to the resources. They could have introduced strong transparency, monitoring and supervision mechanisms. They could have swiftly imposed sanctioned on corrupt officials at all levels.

The drama of the last week has highlighted the end of what some like to call an unwinnable war, pointing to Afghanistan’s inglorious history of foreign interventions. The real ignominy is the west’s 20-year-long neglect of a winnable peace.


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