After 12 years, £390bn, and countless dead, we leave poverty, fraud – and the Taliban in Afghanistan

World View: The country is in such a bad way as western troops depart that leaders can only spin, almost to the point of lying

Share

A few years ago in Kabul, I was listening to a spokesman for an Afghan government organisation who was giving me a long, upbeat and not very convincing account of the achievements of the institution for which he worked. To relieve the tedium, and without much expectation of getting an interesting reply, I asked him – with a guarantee of non-attribution – what benefits the Afghan government had brought to its people. Without hesitation the spokesman replied that these benefits were likely to be very limited "so long as our country is run by gangsters and warlords".

It was at about this time that I decided that the main problem in Afghanistan was not the strength of the Taliban but the weakness of the government. It does not matter how many Nato troops are in the country because they are there in support of a government detested by much of the population. Everywhere I went in the capital there were signs of this, even among prosperous people who might be expected to be natural supporters of the status quo. I interviewed an estate agent who should not have had much to complain about since, in the 10 years after the fall of the Taliban in 2001, Kabul was the world's fastest growing city. He pointed to some workmen outside his office window saying they earned between $5 and $6 a day in a city where to rent a decent house for their families would cost $1,000 a month. He said: "It is impossible for this situation to continue without a revolution."

The year 2014 has long been billed as a decisive year for Afghanistan because most of the remaining foreign troops, 38,000 US and 5,200 British, will pull out before the end of it. Predictions of an exact date for a historic turning point usually turn out to be mistaken, but in this case conventional wisdom may well be correct. Already there are signs of drastic political change, such as the Afghan government's announcement last week of its intention to release 72 hard-core Taliban prisoners, provoking furious protests from Washington. Probably President Hamid Karzai's motive is to conciliate local leaders who want their relatives out of jail and whose support Karzai needs in the presidential election in April, in which he cannot run, having served two terms, although he wants to determine his successor.

A soldier stands guard in Afghanistan after US forces accidentally shot a four-year-old boy dead in bad weather A soldier stands guard in Afghanistan after US forces accidentally shot a four-year-old boy dead in bad weather

An important feature of this withdrawal of US and British troops is how little interest it is sparking in their home countries, although 2,806 US and 447 British soldiers have been killed since 2001. The total cost to the US of war, reconstruction and aid over the same period is $641.7bn (£390bn) according to the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. Of course, money spent on Afghanistan does not mean money spent in Afghanistan, but even taking this into account it is extraordinary that, despite gargantuan sums spent, Afghan government figures reveal that 60 per cent of children are malnourished and only 27 per cent of Afghans have access to safe drinking water. Many survive only through remittances from relatives working abroad or through the drug business, which is worth some 15 per cent of the Afghan gross national product.

The figures above come from a damning study of the outcome of 12 years of international intervention in Afghanistan by Thomas Ruttig of the Afghanistan Analysts Network in Kabul. His succinct, authoritative account of where Afghanistan stands today underscores the fact that US and British military intervention has ended in near total failure. The Taliban has not been crushed, operates in all parts of the country and, in provinces like Helmand, is poised to take over as US and British troops depart. Even with the backing of foreign troops, Afghan government control often ends a couple of kilometres outside the district capital. The extra 30,000 US troops sent as part of the surge in US troop numbers in 2010-11, which brought their total to 101,000 at peak deployment, have had little long-term impact.

The whole Afghan fiasco is too often debated in terms of military tactics, while the most important reasons for US and British failure are political and go back to the immediate aftermath of the overthrow of the Taliban in 2001. Four points need to be made about that seminal era: the Taliban were not popular among any but a small minority of Afghans at that time, but their military defeat was less decisive than it appeared in western media because they had largely withdrawn or dispersed. I followed them on the main road from Kabul to Ghazni and finally to Kandahar and there was little fighting. Under the right political circumstances, they could always re-emerge. Equally important, the 1,500-mile Afghan-Pakistan border remained open so the Taliban had safe havens in which to rest, train and resupply.

An Afghan child holds his boots in a camp for the internally displaced on the outskirts of Mazar-e Sharif, north of Kabul An Afghan child holds his boots in a camp for the internally displaced on the outskirts of Mazar-e Sharif, north of Kabul That they did re-emerge so swiftly and powerfully after 2006 was the result of a fourth factor, namely the toxic nature of the new regime that emerged in Kabul. It was made up of the same jihadi warlords and commanders whose corruption and violence had provoked the Taliban takeover, backed by Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, in 1996. They dominated parliament, the judiciary and the security services.

"Those who received financial means from the US in 2001 to fight the Taliban often invested in the drugs trade," writes Thomas Ruttig, "and starting from there, gradually took over licit sectors of the economy, such as the import-export business, construction, and the real estate, banking and mining sectors." They gorged themselves on foreign aid, so by 2013 Afghanistan ranked bottom of the 177 countries (equal with Somalia and North Korea) in Transparency International's league table of perception of corruption by businessmen.

The new post-Taliban Afghan elite was characterised by a lethal blend of warlordism and jihadi Islam. A journalist called Mir Hossein Musawi coined the term "holy fascism" to describe the mixture of the two in a newspaper article in Kabul in 2003. He was promptly forced to flee the country accused of insulting Islam.

Elections are now so fraudulent as to rob the winners of legitimacy. The April 2014 election is likely to be worse than anything seen before, with 20.7 million voter cards distributed in a country where half the population of 27 million are under the voting age of 18. Independent election monitoring institutions have been taken over by and are now under the thumb of the government.

Afghan children wait for relief supplies from the Muslim Hands United For The Needy during an aid distribution at a refugee camp on the outskirts of Kabul Afghan children wait for relief supplies from the Muslim Hands United For The Needy during an aid distribution at a refugee camp on the outskirts of Kabul Faced with these multiple disasters western leaders simply ignore Afghan reality and take refuge in spin that is not far from deliberate lying. During a visit to Helmand province last December David Cameron claimed that a basic level of security had been established, so British troops could justly claim that their mission had been accomplished.

Nobody in Afghanistan believes this. But the departure of foreign troops does not necessarily mean the triumph of the Taliban who are a Pashtun movement and will have great difficulty establishing themselves in areas dominated by other ethnicities such as the Tajiks, Hazara and Uzbeks. Many Afghans fear a worse fate, and believe that 2014 will see the start of a return to the era of savage and anarchic cruelty in the 1990s, when jihadi war-bands ruled Afghanistan.

 

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Games Developer - HTML5

£28000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: With extensive experience and a...

Recruitment Genius: Personal Tax Senior

£26000 - £34000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join ...

Recruitment Genius: Assistant Product Manager

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: Due to on-going expansion, this leading provid...

Recruitment Genius: Shift Leaders - Front of House Staff - Full Time and Part Time

£6 - £8 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join a family ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Jeremy Corbyn could be about to pull off a shock victory over the mainstream candidates Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper and Liz Kendall   

Every club should be like Labour – you can’t join as a new member unless you’re already a member

Mark Steel
The biggest task facing Labour is to re-think the party's economic argument, and then engage in battle with George Osborne and his policies  

There's a mainstream alternative to George Osborne's economics

John Healey
A Very British Coup, part two: New novel in pipeline as Jeremy Corbyn's rise inspires sequel

A Very British Coup, part two

New novel in pipeline as Jeremy Corbyn's rise inspires sequel
Philae lander data show comets could have brought 'building blocks of life' to Earth

Philae lander data show comets could have brought 'building blocks of life' to Earth

Icy dust layer holds organic compounds similar to those found in living organisms
What turns someone into a conspiracy theorist? Study to look at why some are more 'receptive' to such theories

What turns someone into a conspiracy theorist?

Study to look at why some are more 'receptive' to such theories
Chinese web dissenters using coded language to dodge censorship filters and vent frustration at government

Are you a 50-center?

Decoding the Chinese web dissenters
The Beatles film Help, released 50 years ago, signalled the birth of the 'metrosexual' man

Help signalled birth of 'metrosexual' man

The Beatles' moptop haircuts and dandified fashion introduced a new style for the modern Englishman, says Martin King
Hollywood's new diet: Has LA stolen New York's crown as the ultimate foodie trend-setter?

Hollywood's new diet trends

Has LA stolen New York's crown as the ultimate foodie trend-setter?
6 best recipe files

6 best recipe files

Get organised like a Bake Off champion and put all your show-stopping recipes in one place
Ashes 2015: Steven Finn goes from being unselectable to simply unplayable

Finn goes from being unselectable to simply unplayable

Middlesex bowler claims Ashes hat-trick of Clarke, Voges and Marsh
Mullah Omar, creator of the Taliban, is dead... for the fourth time

Mullah Omar, creator of the Taliban, is dead... again

I was once told that intelligence services declare their enemies dead to provoke them into popping up their heads and revealing their location, says Robert Fisk
Margaret Attwood on climate change: 'Time is running out for our fragile, Goldilocks planet'

Margaret Atwood on climate change

The author looks back on what she wrote about oil in 2009, and reflects on how the conversation has changed in a mere six years
New Dr Seuss manuscript discovered: What Pet Should I Get? goes on sale this week

New Dr Seuss manuscript discovered

What Pet Should I Get? goes on sale this week
Oculus Rift and the lonely cartoon hedgehog who could become the first ever virtual reality movie star

The cartoon hedgehog leading the way into a whole new reality

Virtual reality is the 'next chapter' of entertainment. Tim Walker gives it a try
Ants have unique ability to switch between individual and collective action, says study

Secrets of ants' teamwork revealed

The insects have an almost unique ability to switch between individual and collective action
Donovan interview: The singer is releasing a greatest hits album to mark his 50th year in folk

Donovan marks his 50th year in folk

The singer tells Nick Duerden about receiving death threats, why the world is 'mentally ill', and how he can write a song about anything, from ecology to crumpets
Let's Race simulator: Ultra-realistic technology recreates thrill of the Formula One circuit

Simulator recreates thrill of F1 circuit

Rory Buckeridge gets behind the wheel and explains how it works